Magna Carta is an English charter written in 1215. It is the Latin word for “Great Charter” and it is a fundamentally important document of constitutional law worldwide.
It contains few statements of principle, but is a set of concessions wrung from the unwilling King John by his rebellious barons. What Magna Carta did do was to establish for the first time a significant constitutional principle: that the power of the king could be limited by a written grant. Magna Carta required the king to renounce certain rights, respect certain legal procedures, and accept that his will could be bound by law.
The British Library holds two of the original copies of the documents, the other two are held in the cathedral archives at Lincoln and Salisbury. All four copies declare themselves "given by our hand in the meadow which is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines on the 15th day of June in the 17th year of our reign." The 17th year of John’s reign is 1215.
By the beginning of the 13th century, the English king had become the most powerful monarch in Europe. England had grown in power due to the combination of the centralised leadership of the Norman Conquests overlaid with the native Anglo-Saxon systems of governance. The country was at the heart of what was known as the Angevin Empire. Angevin's last true emperor, the "coeur de lion" King Richard I, died in 1199. Richard was killed in a siege of the castle of Châlus-Charbrol in Limousin, France and left no direct heirs.
His brother John had been the de facto ruler during Richard’s extended overseas adventures and crusades. However, the Norman French territories initially rejected John as a successor, preferring his nephew Arthur of Brittany, the son of Richard and John's dead brother Geoffrey, whose claim was technically better than John's. John himself was known as “Lackland” in English (or “sans terre” in French) for his lack of an inheritance as the youngest son while also alluding to his loss of territory to France. He, like Richard, was a son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine whose alliance put so much of France in their hands – through them the English throne held more French territory than the King of France.
At the time of John's accession to the throne, there were no set rules to define the line of succession. Arthur held a claim over the Anjou empire but John struck an alliance with the French King Philip Augustus to go over Arthur’s head. As part of the bargain, John gave Philip vast tracts of the French-speaking Anjou territories. John then lost the rest of his French empire when his marriage to Isabella d'Angoulême caused her ex-boyfriend to appeal to the French king to declare Lackland’s lands forfeit. Philip then held on to his new possession by winning the Battle of Bouvines.
At the same time, there was a fierce battle in England going on to decide how to elect the Archbishop of Canterbury. Traditionally this was a king’s appointee but the pushy bishops now wanted a say. The king and the bishops elected different candidates and the Pope rejected them both. John ignored the Pope’s compromise candidate and was promptly excommunicated. The Pope then backed an invasion of England by the French. At this threat John backed down and struck a deal with Rome that left the English barons powerless and unhappy.
The loss of French income severely hurt the government bank balance. Henry II had appointed an efficient civil service but the lack of taxes hurt their ability to raise a fighting army. John introduced new and unpopular taxes and the barons revolted.
Some of the barons took London by force in June 1215. These attackers got the key help of the moderates to force King John to agree to the "Articles of the Barons". John attached his Great Seal to these articles in the meadow at Runnymede on 15 June. In return, the barons renewed their oaths of fealty to King John four days later. This compromise deal was recorded in a formal document created by the royal chancery a month later - this was the original Magna Carta.
An unknown number of copies were sent out to government and church officials. One important clause established a committee of Barons who could at any time overrule the will of the King, through force if needed. John had no intention of honouring the agreement and was forced to fight the First Baron War to oppose it. But he died of dysentery in the war within 12 months. His nine year old son Henry III was more malleable. But it was his extended reign of 56 years would establish Magna Carta as a legal precedent.
Two of the important clauses that have survived are the right to due process and the freedom of the Church. The Magna Carta was re-issued several times after 1215. The edict had varying force until Elizabethan times when jurists started to reach back into the charter for a sense of historical continuity. It became the basis of common law.
The English Civil War saw the king executed and Magna Carta temporarily suspended but it was revived with the reign of Charles II. Throughout the 17th century parliament grow in influence and with it the charter. Later the American revolutionaries quoted Magna Carta as the precedent to their claim to seek representation with taxation. Magna Carta influenced the US Bill of Rights, which enumerates various rights of the people and restrictions on government power where "due process" also gets a mention. It is one of the rare documents still revered in England, US, Canada, Australia and all other countries based on common law.
The word has even entered the language to denote any key law. So for instance, the Philippines Department of Interior and Local Government has recently reminded local officials to fully implement the provisions of what it called its “Magna Carta for Public Health Workers”. The great charter resonates on far from Runnymede, almost 900 years after it was written.