Importance and Major Facts about Magna Carta
Here is probably everything that you need to know about Magna Carta – a 13th century agreement that was first struck between King John of England and his barons.
What is Magna Carta?
First issued on June 15, 1215, Magna Carta refers to the charter that espoused the principle that the king was bound to the laws of the land, just like any other “free person” of the land. The term “free person” back then referred only to clergy and nobles. It did not encompass the rights, liberties and privileges of the peasants, who were in so many ways under the control of their landlords. By imposing limits on the power of the king, the English clergy and barons were able to guarantee their rights and liberties.
Why was it created?
The birth of Magna Carta came in response to King John I of England’s arbitrary use of power. Obviously, this created a number of enemies for the king. The English barons in particular were vexed by his draconian rule and exorbitant taxes. Therefore, the barons rebelled in 1214.
After months of internal rife, the barons were able to seize the city of London. This forced King John to come to the negotiating table. John then had to listen and comply to the demands made by the barons. It was only after John put the seal on the documents containing those demands, did the barons leave London. The sealing of Magna Carta was done on June 15, 1215. The document had 63 clauses aimed at preventing John from abusing his power again.
Importance of Magna Carta
It gave birth to the English Law and Parliament
After the death of King John in October 1216, the succeeding king, Henry III, made sure that he did not repeat the mistakes of his father. In 1217, Henry and the barons revised Magna Carta and came out with a shorter version. This particular version helped lay the foundation of English Law.
Between the 13th and 15th centuries, the charter witnessed at least 30 revisions and confirmations. The last confirmation took place in 1423 during the reign of Henry VI.
During the Tudor era (1485 – 1603), the confirmation of the charter kind of lost its significance. The reason for this was due to the flourishing of the English Parliament. The people’s assembly therefore took the place of Magna Carta. Regardless, Magna Carta still served as a symbol of liberty – a symbol the common people used whenever they came face to face with tyrannical monarchs and regimes.
Read more about the Tudors:
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Helped establish the rules of taxation
As a political agreement, the Charter helped establish the principle that taxes can only be collected when there is general consent from those that are governed. The absence of this consent was one of the major reasons why the American colonies revolted against King George III in the early 1770s.
During America’s fight for independence, the American patriots were angered because a long established principle of “no representation, no taxation” was blatantly violated by the English Parliament and George III. Thus, Magna Carta allowed for those that taxes were levied on to be represented in parliament or in some legislative assembly.
The Stamp Act of 1765 is a classic example of how Magna Carter came to influence the American colonies in the mid 1760s in rising up against the British Parliament and George III.
Reduced arbitrariness of royal authority
Magna Carta helped keep alive the principle that kings/queens were not supposed to exploit their people or rule in an arbitrary fashion. For centuries, it may have not prevented the ruling monarchs from abusing their power, but what it did was to serve as an ideal that societies across the world continuously strive for, even to this day.
Influenced constitutions all across the world
In addition to English Law, Magna Carta went on to form the foundation of numerous constitutions across the world. For example, the United States Bill of Rights, drafted by U.S. President James Madison, was enormously influenced by the basic tenets of Magna Carta. Likewise, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Right and the famous European Convention on Human Rights in 1950 relied heavily on the principles of Magna Carta.
Basically, Magna Carta was the world’s first in the sense that it declared a monarch or a political leader to be bound by the rule of law – just like any other citizen in the kingdom or country.
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Amicable settlement of grievances
In the coming centuries after it was agreed upon, Magna Carta allowed for English lords and barons to settle their differences with the English monarch in an amicable manner. Obviously, the document (and its successors) did not completely eliminate all conflicts between the English lords and kings/queens. However, the document’s usefulness lies in the fact that it helped govern the relationship between an English monarch and his/her barons.
Allowed for the flourishing of democracy
As a result of the framework in Magna Carta, common people who constantly suffered under brutal dictators had a mechanism to agitate for greater liberties and freedom. This was most evident in the American Revolution and the French Revolution. By controlling the arbitrary use of royal authority, democracies in those countries flourished. This also allowed for parliaments and people’s assemblies to be set up.
Other interesting facts about Magna Carta
Here are a few more interesting facts about Magna Carta:
- Magna Carta is also known as “Magna Carta Libertatum” (the Great Charter of Freedoms). It was written in medieval Latin on a dried sheepskin (i.e. parchment). Back then, Latin was the language of the elites in English society. Bear in mind, Magna Carta was not a document that applied to commoners. It only applied to “free people”. Commoners weren’t “free” in 13th century England.
- Magna Carta does not refer to a single document, i.e. the one agreed upon at Runnymede on June 15, 1215. Instead, Magna Carta by definition refers to the grouping and evolution of all the amended charters that obviously started from King John’s era down to the birth of the Parliament of Great Britain in 1707.
- The location where Magna Carta was first issued was at Runnymede. It is for this reason why the first issue of Magna Carta is sometimes called Runnymede Charter.
- After negotiations were concluded between King John and the barons, several copies of Magna Carta were made. The barons made sure that every county in England had a copy. Many of those copies appeared in vernacular because the commoners in those days could not read Latin.
- Shortly after it was released, Pope Innocent III (reigned from 1198- 1216) came to the defense of King John by stating that Magna Carta was null and void. Because it threatened the authority of the king, the Pope feared that there could be a spill over effect on the church as well.
- In the ensuing civil war that followed after John refused complying with the charter, the barons sought to replace John with Prince Louis of France. Aside from France, the barons had support from the Alexander II of Scotland.
- About one-third of the text in the original Magna Carta was either removed or rewritten in the coming years. That is, the Runnymede Charter that King John I agreed to in 1215 had 63 clauses. However, his successor and son, Henry III, revised Magna Carta, trimming it down to about 42 clauses in 1217.
- Today, King John’s seal would not hold up in the court of law. The reason for this is because the king himself did not sign the Runnymede Charter; neither did any baron sign Magna Carta.
- To many people, Magna Carta is considered the first written constitution in Europe.
- Four very well-preserved copies of Magna Carta remain to this day. The Lincoln Cathedral and the Salisbury Cathedral have one copy each. The remaining two copies can be found at the British Library. For example, the copy in Salisbury Cathedral was hand-written on a sheepskin and then sealed.
- In years after 13th century, many of the clauses in Magna Carta either got repealed or rewritten. It is not the original clauses that matter per se, it is what those clauses stood for, i.e. the governing principles. Owing to what those principles espouse, monarchs and the ruling elite have had their absolute use of power curtailed. Citizens across the world now enjoy greater liberties and right to justice more than at any point in the history of humans. And all these liberties we see today can be traced indirectly back to the framework of the Charter that was prepared in 1215. Click here to read the English translation of the original 1215 edition of Magna Carta.