In 1214, England’s King John was defeated in a war with France’s King Philip II. John returned home and attempted to rebuild his royal treasury by levying heavy taxes on the barons who had not supported his overseas campaign. The barons rebelled and by summer 1215 captured London.
With the fall of London, King John negotiated a settlement at Runnymede, a meadow by the River Thames. The settlement was a guarantee of basic liberties and a series of limits on the absolute power of the king, summarized in a proclamation called Magna Carta. On June 19, Magna Carta was affixed with the royal seal and ordered to be read throughout the land. It bound not only King John but his heirs, forever.
The first draft of the agreement applied to any baron, but the language was changed to any freeman in the final version. At the time freemen were a minority of the English population, but over the centuries, the term would come to include all citizens.
The first section of Magna Carta promised that the Church in England “shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.” Subsequent clauses codified the feudal relationship between the king and his nobles. There were also guarantees that no man could be imprisoned without due process, and there was a provision that no feudal taxes could be imposed without the kingdom’s “general consent.” The final clause established a council of barons and clergy that was authorized to use force against the Crown to enforce the agreement.
Magna Carta is considered the bedrock of freedom and rule of law in England and the earliest seed of constitutional monarchy. However, it was largely ignored for hundreds of years after it was issued. Pope Innocent II annulled the document that very September. It was reissued in 1217 but was considered legally irrelevant.
Magna Carta’s importance was revived by Sir Edward Coke, a parliamentary leader in the seventeenth century, who repeatedly cited its principles in his fight against the Stuart kings. And, it was later an inspiration to the American colonists in their fight for independence.
- Magna Carta means “Great Charter” in Latin.
- Four original copies of the Magna Carta survive. Two copies are stored at the British Library while the others can be seen in the cathedral archives at Lincoln and Salisbury.
- In 1957 the American Bar Association acknowledged the debt American law had to Magna Carta by erecting a monument at Runnymede.