Magna Charta, or Magna Carta, one of the most important documents in world history. The Magna Charta, issued in 1215, is the foundation of constitutional liberty in English-speaking lands. By compelling King John to obey laws that limited his power precisely, it became the earliest guarantee against tyranny in England.
The Magna Charta resulted from a rebellion against King John by the English barons (nobles) in 1215. They objected to John's heavy taxes and seizures of property. In May, 1215, they captured London, and John realized he must make peace. John and the barons met on June 15 by the Thames River near Windsor, at a field named Runnymede. There he accepted a draft of demands. It was put into the form of a charter on June 19. Clauses dealing with the royal forests were later reissued separately. The rest of the document became known as the Magna Charta (Latin for “Great Charter”) to distinguish it from the shorter Forest Charter.
King Richard I and John had burdened the barons with new taxes and service obligations in addition to the customary feudal services and fees. In the Magna Charta, the barons set down fixed inheritance fees, wardship and marriage rules, and rules for collecting debts. The barons also pledged themselves not to exact new-feudal services and fees from their own vassals.
Especially irritating to the barons was John's use of scutage, a fine exacted when his vassals failed to fulfill required military service for his incessant and unprofitable wars. A clause of the charter provided that no scutage or aid (special tax) should be imposed without the approval of the general council of the kingdom. This council consisted of the important nobles of the realm, and eventually Parliament developed from it.
Two clauses guaranteed due process of law in language still meaningful. The first of these states: “No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned … save by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.” The next clause states: “We will sell to no man, we will not deny to any man, either justice or right.”
Other parts of the charter guaranteed the right of free election to offices in the English Church, provided for a fixed court of common man pleas at Westminster, reformed the judicial process, and sought to prevent abuses by royal officials. King John pledged to remove his favorites from office, make restitution to his enemies, and send away foreign mercenaries he had hired. A group of 25 barons was organized to enforce the provisions of the charter.
John disavowed the Magna Charta as soon as he was strong enough to do so. Pope Innocent III, his ally, annulled the charter and excommunicated the baronial leaders. Civil war raged until John died in 1216. He was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Henry III.
Henry's counselors ended the struggle by reissuing the charter, though omitting some of the clauses. The enforcing council of 25 was eliminated. The standard edition of this abbreviated charter appeared in 1225. It was reaffirmed repeatedly by later kings.
The Magna Charta contains no statement of general principles of government as do the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States. It was composed by a small class of nobles who identified their own rights with the general interests of the kingdom. Their concern was to halt the trend toward absolute royal power begun under Henry II and continued under Richard I and John. Their idea of liberty was the right to enjoy a specific property without interference—and property included serfs. Few clauses of the Magna Charta are concerned with the rights or protection of the serfs, or villeins, who formed perhaps three-quarters of the population.
During the 17th century the Magna Charta came to have a much wider meaning. Since serfdom had been abolished, the rights granted free men in the charter were interpreted to apply to everyone. Those who opposed the arbitrary rule of the Stuarts claimed that the Magna Charta had established trial by jury, the writ of habeas corpus, and the principle of “no taxation without representation"-developments that actually occurred well after the time of the Magna Charta. Despite these exaggerations, the Magna Charta is justly honored as the first step toward constitutional liberty.