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Why is the Magna Carta Important?

Updated on March 30, 2018
TessSchlesinger profile image

Globetrotter, author, and thinker with interests in environment, minimalism, health, dancing, architecture, décor, politics, and science.

The Magna Carta Established the Rule of Law and the Establishment of the 'Commons.'

The Magna Carta is a document that was signed on June 15th, 2012 by King John of England.

It is arguably, the most important document for mankind was written. The British Parliament was established as a result of Magna Cart a and its ideas inspired the both French Revolution and Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the American Declaration of Indepenencein 1776. When Nelson Mandela defended himself when he was on trial in Rivonia, he invoked the Magna Carta when he said, "The Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, and the Bill of Rights are documents which are held in veneration by democrats throughout the world."

The document is the first instant of law in which kings and rich men are subject to the same rule of law that peasants are.

The Magna Carta also established that land could not be claimed by government, kings, and those with the power to remove others. The 'commons' was land which was free for all to use. Capitalism opposes this principle in that all land can be owned even when it is not in use by the owner.

One of the clauses from the Magna Carta
One of the clauses from the Magna Carta | Source

The Use of Force by Monarchs

King John of England (and his predecessors) used force to take land from the barons who owned it. The divine right of kings enabled monarchs to do what they liked as well as take possession of anything they wanted. This included the right to tax barons any amount the king required.

As the king had lost substantial land in France and was required to pay compensation. He required his barons to provide him with the money to meet his debts but they rebelled, built up their own military force, and marched on London. After defeating the king, the barons, led by Robert Fitzwalter, required that the king to adhere to the earlier Charter of Liberties. The Charter of Liberties (also called the Coronation Charter) addressed the abuse of power by kings and was the precursor to the Magna Carta, It detailed how the king would treat nobles and clergy. It was also responsible for exempting the church from taxes, inheritance tax, and for widows to keep land and their dowries.

The barons met with the monarch on the 15th June, 1215, and the Magna Carta was created. "It promised the protection of church rights, protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and, most importantly, limitations on taxation and other feudal payments to the Crown, with certain forms of feudal taxation requiring baronial consent."

Clause 8 of the Magna Carta
Clause 8 of the Magna Carta | Source

The Magna Carta Established the Rule of Law

There are sixty three clauses to the Magna Carta, each of them dealing with a different issue. The main ones are:

  • The first women’s rights were established in clauses seven and eight. This meant that if a women's husband died, she had forty days to leave the house (so wasn't forced to leave immediatetly), and she could take her dowry with her so that she had something with which to survive.
  • Clauses thirty and thirty one forbade the king (the state) from taking any land or property from the individual for any reason. If a person had settled on property, then it belonged to that person. Zoning, a modern practice in which government dictates the use of land, would be outlawed by the Magna Carta.
  • Clauses thirty five through forty made it a requirement that those who administer law have the knowledge to do so. They also established that one was innocent until proven guilty and introduced a jury system. For the first time, there had to be evidence provided in order to prove someone guilty. The word of the rich and powerful would no longer be taken as truth.
  • Clause sixty one appointed the barons of England to ensure that the king was living within the dictates of the law. If he wasn’t, then the barons were empowered to size ‘castles, lands, and possessions’ until he ‘amended his ways.’ It also contained obtained a promise from King John that he would "seek to obtain nothing from anyone, in our own person or through someone else, whereby any of these grants or liberties may be revoked or diminished."

This replica of the Magna Carta is in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington.
This replica of the Magna Carta is in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington. | Source

The Failure of the Magna Carta

King John felt he was forced to add his seal to the one page document. He asked the pope to denounce it which the pope readily did. This led to war between the barons and the king. King John died, and in 1216, Henry III reissued the 'Great Charter' with some unpopular revisions.

Sir Robert Worcesterexplains the relevance the Magna Carta in the 21st century

The Charter of the Forests November 6, 1217.

In 1217, a second charter was created by Henry III - the Charter of the Forests. It recognized that if nobles and kings (insert rich men) owned all the land, then poor men had nowhere to hunt for food, nowhere to find wood for their furniture, and nowhere to sleep if they didn’t have land to build a home. Thus the concept of common land - the Commons - was established. It prevented the king from from having personal ownership of the forests, and the forests were now open for the common man to hunt in the forests as well as grow their own food or build a home in it.

In 1297, the Charter of Forests became a companion document to the Magna Carta of 1215.

Quote from Noam Chomsky about the Magna Carta
Quote from Noam Chomsky about the Magna Carta | Source

Influence of the Magna Carta

The Magna Carta set a limit to the power of the king in taking for himself anything that he desired. It also prevented the king (and others) to kill or imprison anyone that they disagreed with. It was the first document that contained the seeds of all modern democracy and within the same century the British parliament was born - a direct result of the document.

Without it, we would not have Habeus Corpus - innocent until proven guilty. We would also still have Ancien Regime, the right of kings and presidents to do what they will. The precepts of the Magna Carta influenced every single country that eventually went on to embrace the concept of we-the-people.

© 2014 Tessa Schlesinger

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