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The Magna Carta

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The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta's full title is Magna Carta Libertatum. Signed by King John of England in 1215 under threat of civil war, the Magna Carta signified a peace agreement between John and his barons with compromises that provided them rights and protections that they never had before. Today, it is regarded as one of the most important documents that led to the Glorious Revolution in England and the American Revolution.

In Latin, Magna Carta Libertatum means "Great Charter of Freedoms."

In what Time Period was the Magna Carta Created?

The Magna Carta was created in the 13th century during Medieval time period, when kings of England ruled under the principle of vis et voluntas.

Vis et voluntas is Latin for "force and will." This philosophy meant that the king was above the law and could essentially do whatever he wanted without recourse from other officials.

Why was the Magna Carta Created?

While many kings operated under vis et voluntas principles, King John of England in particular was unpopular for a number of reasons. John, born in 1166, was the youngest of the four sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. His older brothers were Henry, Geoffrey, and Richard.

The Fight for the Throne

As the youngest of four sons, it was extremely unlikely that John would ever be ruler. However, his oldest brother Henry

A Painting of King Richard I. Source: Wikimedia Commons

the Young King died in 1183 followed by Geoffrey in 1186, which meant that when their father died in 1189, Richard (known as Richard the Lionheart) inherited the throne. When Richard died in 1199, John made a claim for the throne against his nephew Arthur (the son of his older brother Geoffrey). The ensuing conflict caused significant political upheaval as John gathered allies to support his claim to the throne. He ultimately succeeded and was crowned king in 1199.

Unpopular Ruler

King John was widely regarded as cruel and unjust, imprisoning people who disagreed with him and extorting taxes from the people. He made a deal with England's enemy, King Philip II of France, in exchange for supporting his claim to the throne against Arthur. Philip went on to conquer significant territory in Normandy that had previously been the property of the crown.

As a result of his expensive wars and failed attempts to keep King Philip at bay, King John found himself in a tremendous amount of debt and turned to taxing the barons and nobles to pay. As barons grew more resentful of his treatment towards them and paying for his wars, they renounced their oaths of loyalty to John and threatened civil war.

Threat of Civil War: The Articles of the Barons

King John held a council in the summer of 1215 to hear the complaints of the barons and avoid "King John Reluctantly Signing the Magna Carta" by Arthur C Michael, 1945. Source: Wikimedia Commonsan uprising. The barons presented their demands in a document called the "Articles of the Barons." The document developed over the course of ten days into what was later called the Magna Carta. Ultimately, they reached an agreement to avoid civil war. King John signed the Magna Carta on June 19, 1215, to give rights and protections to the barons, and the barons renewed their oaths of loyalty to him.

What did the Magna Carta Do?

One of the most important things the Magna Carta did was provide rights and protections for the barons. While these were not described as "individual rights" in the modern sense of the term since they focused on protecting barons and nobles rather than commoners, they provided an important basis for later discussions. The Magna Carta was made up of 63 provisions, including the following:

  • Protection from illegal imprisonment

  • Protection of church rights

  • Access to swift justice (that is, not waiting for years in a prison cell awaiting a trial

  • The right to a fair trial with a jury

  • Limitations on the Crown's taxation powers (this was especially important as King John had been known to extort large sums of money from barons)

  • Establishing that the king is not above the law

  • Creation of a council of 25 barons to monitor King John

The Peace of the Magna Carta Falls Apart

While it seemed that both parties had agreed to an acceptable peace, neither party upheld their end of the bargain.

One provision in particular led to the erosion of peace talks and King John's attempt to get the Pope to intervene. The Magna Carta created a Council of Barons, which would have the power to reprimand the King if he should fail to uphold his obligations to them. This was unprecedented because it provided a formally recognized, legal basis for a group of people to exert power over the King.

The barons refused to surrender to the King, and for his part, King John appealed to the Pope to intervene saying that the Magna Carta compromised the Pope's rights as head of the church. The Pope declared that the Magna Carter was null and void and that neither John nor the barons should attempt to enforce it, under threat of excommunication from the church.

Less than three months after its signing, war broke out between King John and the barons, initiating the First Baron's War. The barons reached out to King Philip II's son for help in overthrowing John, but before much fighting could take place, John got sick and died on October 18, 1216, leaving his 9-year-old son, Henry III, the throne.

Under Henry III, the Great Charters of 1216, 1217, and 1225 were issued. These provided more rights and protections to the barons. Unlike the previous charters, the Great Charter of 1225 was signed with Henry III's seal under his own free will.

The Enlightenment Period

Over the coming centuries, the requirements laid out in the Magna Carta both ebbed and flowed in their importance. Some kings adhered to them strongly while others, over time, regained some of the power and authority that the Magna Carta had taken away from the king.

The Magna Carter gained greater political importance in the 17th and 18th centuries when James I and Charles I invoked the doctrine of the "Diving Right of Kings." Activists cited the Magna Carta to challenge this expansion saying it was an ancient constitution that had the authority to exert power over the king and established a parliament. While historians' debate whether the Magna Carta was truly a constitution, it served as an important political tool to solidify the importance of parliament.

Petition of Right of 1628 and the Septennial Act of 1716

Throughout the 17th century, England continued to experience turmoil. Under Charles I, the government was once again forcing excessive taxes on people, as well as arbitrarily arresting and imprisoning people who opposed the policy.

Drawing inspiration from the Magna Carta, Parliament signed the Petition of Right of 1628 to challenge the king. Below is an overview of the Petition:

  • No new taxes could be levied without the consent of parliament
  • Subjects could not be imprisoned without just cause
  • Subjects could not be forced to house soldiers
  • The King could not impose Martial Law in times of peace

Despite parliament's demands for rights, Charles I continued to push for absolute power, leading to the English Civil War. After the parliamentary forces won in 1645, Charles refused to accept a constitutional monarchy, and was executed in 1649.

The Septennial Act of 1716 created a new constitution that rejected monarchical absolute power and instead established parliamentary supremacy.

The Magna Carta's Influence on the American Revolution

The Magna Carta was also an important document for the thirteen colonies and the formation of the United States of America. Leading up to the Revolutionary War from 1775 - 1783, colonists used the Magna Carta as a basis for arguing for their rights. After gaining independence, the Founding Fathers set about creating a new Constitution, for which they pulled inspiration from the Magna Carta.

Two phrases in the Constitution were derived directly from the Magna Carta:

The phrase in Fifth Amendment to the Constitution that states:

no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

And the provision that prevented suspension of habeaus corpus.

Habeaus corpus (in Latin, "show me the body"), is a legal term that protects people against illegal imprisonment by requiring that an accused person be seen before a judge and a court before they can be convicted or sentenced.

Importance of the Magna Carta Today

The Magna Carta continues to be an influential document for both the United States government and the modern-day British government. However, the extent of its influence has been challenged, with some scholars saying that its importance was overblown and that it did not provide the rights and legal precedence that most people say it does.

While people in the 17th century claimed that the Magna Carta was England's first constitution and thus provided legal basis for the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, historians today often push back on the idea that it was a true constitution. Regardless of how important it actually was at the time, the Magna Carta remains an important symbol of limitations on absolute power.

Magna Carta Original Text Copy

The Magna Carta - Key takeaways

  • The Magna Carta was signed in 1215 as a compromise between King John of England and the barons who were threatening civil war.
  • The Magna Carta inspired Enlightenment thinkers in the 17th century and formed the basis for the Petition of Rights.
  • It also inspired thinkers in the 18th century who pushed for the Septennial Act of 1716 to establish parliament's supremacy over the monarch.
  • Revolutionists in America used principles in the Magna Carta to fight for their freedom from British rule. After gaining independence, several passages in the Constitution were based on phrases from the Magna Carta.
  • Some of the most important provisions of the Magna Carta were:
    • The right to a fair trial
    • Protection from unlawful imprisonment
    • Protection from unjust taxation

Frequently Asked Questions about The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta is the agreement between King John I and his barons that provided them with some rights and protections in exchange for them agreeing to end their uprising. 

King John I signed the Magna Carta on June 19, 1215.


The Magna Carta provided some protections for the barons that they had never had before, including protections against excessive taxation and false imprisonment.


The Magna Carta was written by King John I's barons, initially as the Articles of the Barons and then eventually as the Magna Carta.


While the Magna Carta didn't actually bring peace to the conflict between King John I and his barons, it is important because it formed the basis for British uprisings in the 17th century against absolutist kings. It also inspired revolutionaries in America to push for independence.

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Final The Magna Carta Quiz

Question

What year was the Magna Carta signed?

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Answer

1215

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Who signed the Magna Carta?

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Answer

King John

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Why was King John unpopular?

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Answer

He lost British land to King Philip of II and taxed barons to pay for it

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What were two of the primary reasons the barons were mad at King John?

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Answer

He taxed them heavily and he unlawfully imprisoned people who didn't agree with him

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What did the barons threaten if King John did not agree to their demands?

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Civil war

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Which of the following is NOT a right provided by the Magna Carta?

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The right to own property

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What does "vis et voluntas" refer to?

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The king's power to use "force and will" against subjects to get their way

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True or False: The Magna Carta gave rights to all people, whether they were right or poor.

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False

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True or False: The Magna Carta did not help maintain peace and civil war broke out shortly after its signing

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True

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Which of the following provisions did the Petition of Right of 1628 have in common with the Magna Carta?

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Protection against unlawful imprisonment

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Which of the following did NOT lead to England having parliamentary supremacy?

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Answer

The American Revolution

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Which of the following Constitutional provisions was directly influenced by the Magna Carta?

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The right to due process of law

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What did the Magna Carta influence in the Constitution?

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Answer

The 5th Amendment to the Constitution and suspension of habeaus corpus

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