Magna Carta Libertatum, Medieval Latin for “the Great Charter of the Liberties”, is one of the most important documents in history. It was first issued by King John of England in 1215. Though much of the text was deleted or rewritten in the years to follow, and virtually all of it has been repealed in modern times, the Magna Carta remains a groundbreaking document for the implications it had on who was subject to the rule of law. So, what was the Magna Carta exactly and why was it so important?
Events that Inspired the Magna Carta
In 1204, King John lost much of his ancestral lands to King Philip II of France. In an effort to regain them, John taxed the English barons to help pay for a war against France. This would ultimately result in a costly and demoralizing failure in 1214, when his men were defeated at the Battle of Bouvines in northern France. This, of course, did little to help him gain favor with the barons.
King John also struggled to get along with the Church. He was against the election of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, and he was excommunicated by Pope Innocent III in 2009.
In 1213, a group of barons met with Archbishop Langton and a representative of the Pope to protest the actions of the King. They felt King John was not abiding by the laws of past kings. In 1215, after King John refused the demands of the barons, many renounced their oaths of allegiance to him. That same year, these rebel barons would capture the city of London.
After the capture of London, King John was forced to enter into negotiations. After many discussions between the barons and clerics led by Archbishop Langton, John granted the “Charter of Liberties”, or Magna Carta. Shortly after, the rebel barons made their peace with King John.
What Was the Magna Carta?
The Magna Carta contained 63 clauses, many of which dealt with grievances relating to the rule of King John. Among them were laws regarding the ownership of land, the justice system, and taxes. But some clauses also dealt with things like the dismissal of royal servants, the removal of fish weirs from the Thames, and standards for various weights and measurements.
Many of those original 63 clauses would prove to be adaptable in future centuries, but only three exist in English law today. The first clause such clause defends the freedom and rights of the English Church. The second validates the liberties and customs of London and other towns. But the third remains the most famous. This clause gave “free men” the right to a fair and just trial. Though the majority in medieval England were not considered “free men”, the clause no doubt proved to be an important one, as it has since turned up in the the constitutions of many other countries, like in the United States Bill of Rights.
Why Is Magna Carta Important?
The Magna Carta would eventually take on an almost mythic quality. For the first time, it established the principle that everybody, king included, is subject to the rule of law. It’s reputation as a document that protected ancient personal liberties lasted well after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and into the 19th century. It is considered to be England’s first step in establishing a parliamentary democracy. And it had a huge influence on the Founding Fathers and their decision to declare independence from Britain.
The Magna Carta is considered to be among Europe’s first written constitutions. Today, only four exemplified copies of the original 1215 document exist. But the Magna Carta lives on as one of the most important documents in history.