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Why is Magna Carta so Important?

Updated on December 18, 2017
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Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science instructor for over 20 years.

Introduction

What is Magna Carta and why is it so important? Magna Carta was a document agreed to by King John of England and the magnates of the realm on June 15, 1215. Even though the document did not seem special at the time, Magna Carta came to be used throughout English history in both substance and symbolism as an assertion for the rule of law. Although Magna Carta is seldom referenced in the law today, its importance throughout history is immense. Magna Carta is often considered the first serious beginning of western constitutionalism.

The Whipping Boy of Constitutional History

King John of England is the whipping boy of constitutional history. Held in such contempt, no other king of England has been given what is an otherwise common English name. But he did have some other names. John was called “John Lackland” because of primogeniture—being the youngest son of Henry II and Elinor he received little by way of inheritance. He was also called “John Softsword” because it was common knowledge that he ran from a fight with the King of France, Philip Augustus in 1204. He is said to have met his ignominious end by glutting himself on raw peaches and cider.

King John was not a good man
He had his little ways
And sometimes no one spoke to him
for days and days and days. A.A. Milne, Now We Are Six

John excelled at agitation, immorality, and incompetence. He conspired with his brother Richard to overthrow their aging father, Henry II. He also tried (and failed) to take the throne from Richard. He probably had his nephew Arthur of Brittany murdered in 1203. The people hated him: he seized their food, timber, horses and carts. The Pope hated him: he argued with the Pope over the appointment of church officials. And finally, he was unpopular with the barons. John’s reputation as the “softsword” was earned when he lost his French territory in Normandy to Phillip Augustus in 1204. And the baron's cup of indignation was about full by 1213 when John lost England itself, surrendering it as a fiefdom to Pope Innocent III. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langdon, and the barons were outraged at John’s capitulation to the church of Rome. Together, they produced the “Articles of the Barons.” John was forced to meet the barons at Runnymede after they had taken control of London. Runnymede was a swamp, but it was strategically located. There on June 15, 1215 John signed the Magna Carta, the “Great Charter.”

In this depiction, King John of England is shown signing the Magna Carta. It is highly unlikely that John signed the famous document as it is unlikely that he would write. It's more likely that the document was sealed, not signed.
In this depiction, King John of England is shown signing the Magna Carta. It is highly unlikely that John signed the famous document as it is unlikely that he would write. It's more likely that the document was sealed, not signed. | Source

The Great Charter

Chapter 39 of the Great Charter granted this provision which is one of the most important to constitutionalism:

No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go upon him, or send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.

While many flowery accolades are laid at the feet of the Great Charter, the agreement made between the barons and John is a very practical one and does not contain the “we hold these truths to be self-evident” language of the Declaration of Independence. It is not a document of “universal human rights” or other vaunted ideals. It did not even lament the use of power, only its abuse. The document forced John to make concessions to the barons and to the Church. The barons tried to distinguish between arbitrary rule and the rule of law. It is this establishment of the “rule of law” by charter that would lay the foundation for western constitutionalism.

Sir Edward Coke asserted that the affirmations of Magna Carta were not just for the privileged of England, but for all commoners. He included the Magna Carta in the 1628 Petition of Right which Charles I was forced to affirm.
Sir Edward Coke asserted that the affirmations of Magna Carta were not just for the privileged of England, but for all commoners. He included the Magna Carta in the 1628 Petition of Right which Charles I was forced to affirm. | Source

The Effect of Magna Carta Throughout England

The liberties and freedoms in Magna Carta did not apply to the general public at first. Over time, Magna Carta became a symbol of English liberty and many of the rights contained in it were applied to all Englishmen. After John, the parliament confirmed the Magna Carta. Under Edward I Parliament standardized the document in 1297. Later, Edward III (1368) demanded that Magna Carta be “holden and kept in all points; and if there shall be any statute made to the contrary, it shall be holden to none.” Here we see the seeds of a constitution acting as a “fundamental” or “supreme” law. During the 17th century Sir Edward Coke used the document to oppose the monarchy. He asserted that the document did not just apply to the aristocracy, but to everyone. In his 1628 Petition of Right, Coke and others forced Charles I to reaffirm the rights under Magna Carta. The English Puritans followed suit, using Magna Carta much as Coke used it in opposing the Stuart monarchy. This had the effect of giving Magna Carta a more vital role in English law.

Chief Justice John Roberts of the US and Lord Judge of England & Wales Discuss Magna Carta's Legal Legacy

Magna Carta in America

About the time the Puritans were extending the application of Magna Carta in England, the Magna Carta was making its way across the Atlantic and into North America, Magna Carta showed up in the “Parallels of Massachusetts” which said that the rights within Magna Carta are not to be denied the citizens of Massachusetts. Later, the colonists formed their own bill of rights with the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641). In William Penn’s Frame of Government (1682) Penn drew upon Magna Carta to make his document and was responsible for the first printing of the Great Charter in the colonies. Penn's views of Magna Carta were much like that of Coke's in England, treating it as a fundamental law of the land. Its importance to American constitutionalism is that many of the prohibitions on governmental action and the freedoms contained within the Bill of Rights (up to 20% of them) were contained in Magna Carta.

Today, many of the statutory features of Magna Carta have been whittled away by act of Parliament. However, there is no doubt that the foundation for many of our modern liberties lie with that great document that was sealed by England's most notorious tyrant over 700 years ago.

William Penn's view of Magna Carta was much the same as that of Sir Edward Coke in England. He was responsible for the first printing of Magna Carta in the American colonies.
William Penn's view of Magna Carta was much the same as that of Sir Edward Coke in England. He was responsible for the first printing of Magna Carta in the American colonies. | Source

What Do You Know About Magna Carta?

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© 2009 William R Bowen Jr

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    • profile image

      Noblito 3 years ago

      Thninikg like that shows an expert's touch

    • profile image

      Lissa 3 years ago

      I am totally wowed and prrapeed to take the next step now.

    • American_Choices profile image

      American_Choices 6 years ago from USA

      I read Grandma Goldie's account of Runnymede - fascinating history - one acre is American soil? Is this true?

      How can one die of peaches and cider? Simply a glutton?

      Runnymede is no longer a swamp - it appears to be a beautiful park? Is this true? I wish to visit there someday. Tops on my radar.

      The Magna Carta was the foundation for our American government. Of all the places of freedom - this place is very special and this document is paramount in understanding our American forefathers.

      Great history - very detailed. Thank you! Voted up and useful.