Government and Politics

The Windsors

Why is the Magna Carta important?

The Magna Carta, arguably the most famous document in British history, has had many interpreters since it was signed by King John (1167–1216), who was under pressure to do so, on June 15, 1215, “in the meadow which is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines,” in Surrey, England. Drawn up by English barons who were angered by the king’s encroachment on their rights, the charter has been credited with no less than insuring personal liberty and putting forth the rights of the individual, which include the guarantee of a trial by jury: “No freeman shall be arrested and imprisoned, or dispossessed, or outlawed, or banished, or in any way molested; nor will be set forth against him, nor send against him, unless by the lawful judgment of his peers, and by the law of the land.”

King John, who ruled from 1199 to 1216 and was also called John Lackland, had a long history of abuse of power. While his brother Richard I (or Richard the Lionhearted, 1157–1199) was still king, John tried to wrest the throne from him. Though he failed in his effort, when Richard died in 1199, John did ascend to king, inheriting four French duchies (which he soon lost). Upon his refusal to recognize the new archbishop of Canterbury, John was excommunicated. In order to regain favor with the pope, he was forced to give up his kingdom (1213) and receive it back as a papal fief. He was further required to pay an annual tribute to the pope. It was in raising funds that John ran into trouble with England’s powerful barons, who were outraged at and tired of his interference in their affairs. The barons drafted the 63 chapters of the Magna Carta, writing it in the king’s voice, and met John along the banks of the Thames River as he returned in 1215 from an unsuccessful invasion of France. The document, to which John was forced to put his seal, asserted the rights of the barons, churchmen, and townspeople, and provided for the king’s assurance that he would not encroach on their privileges. In short, the Magna Carta stipulated that the king, too, was subject to the laws of the land.

In that the Magna Carta made a provision for a Great Council, to be comprised of nobles and clergy who would approve the actions of the king vis-a-vis his subjects and ensure the tenets set forth in the charter were upheld, it is credited with laying the foundation for a parliamentary government in England.

After signing it, John immediately appealed to Pope Innocent III (1160 or 1161–1216), who issued an annulment of the charter. Nevertheless, John died before he could fight it, and the Magna Carta was later upheld as the basis of English feudal justice. It is still considered by many to be the cornerstone of constitutional government.


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