The Magna Carta

What is the Magna Carta?

The Magna Carta is an important medieval document that limited the right of the king to do as he wished without regard to the law. It is world-famous as a symbol of justice, fairness, and human rights.

Magna Carta means ‘big charter’ in Latin (a charter is a legal document which guarantees certain rights). When it was signed in 1215 it was intended to protect the barons and a limited class of free men from the worst excesses of the king by regulating feudal customs and rights and setting out rules relating to the administration of justice.

The Magna Carta is often seen as the basis of rights to equal and fair treatment under the law for all citizens.

Top 10 facts

  1. King Richard I ‘Richard the Lionheart', brother of King John, died in 1199. Under Richard's rule England was involved in a series of expensive wars.
  2. King John inherited his brother's wars and needed money to continue to fight so he put pressure on his barons to raise the necessary finance. He increased taxes, confiscated land and levied heavy fines.
  3. The barons were angered by what they saw as King John’s misuse of feudal customs and rights.
  4. The barons rebelled and on 17 May 1215 they captured London. King John was forced to meet with them at Runnymede in June 1215.
  5. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, played an important role in negotiations between the king and the barons. The Magna Carta contains many references to the rights of the church.
  6. The text of the Magna Carta was written by scribes in Medieval Latin. They wrote on parchment; this was very expensive and so they used small writing and abbreviations in order not to waste any space.
  7. King John did not sign the Magna Carta. It was authenticated by the Great Seal. It is possible that King John could not write!
  8. Many copies of the Magna Carta were made and sent out to important officials such as sheriffs and bishops. Only four copies currently exist; two are in the British Library, one in Lincoln Castle and one in Salisbury Cathedral.
  9. The Magna Carta originally had sixty-three clauses of which only three remain in law today.
  10. The most famous clause of the Magna Carta is interpreted as guaranteeing individuals the right to a free and fair trial under the law. This means that the law provides protection from punishments such as imprisonment, seizure of property or exile without a trial.

Timeline

  • 27 May 1199
    Coronation of King John

  • 24 March 1208
    Pope Innocent III enforces papal interdict

  • 1 June 1213
    Stephen Langton becomes Archbishop. Papal interdict lifted

  • 17 May 1215
    Rebel barons take the Tower of London

  • 10 June 1215
    Start of Runnymede meeting between barons and the king

  • 15 June 1215
    Magna Carta granted

  • 24 August 1215
    Pope declares Magna Carta illegal

  • 18 October 1216
    Death of King John. Henry III becomes king

  • 12 November 1217
    William Marshal, regent for Henry III, issues first revision of Magna Carta

  • 6 November 1217
    Second revision of Magna Carta

  • 11 February 1225
    Henry III issues revised Magna Carta

Did you know?

  • The 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta falls on the 15 June 2015.
  • Parchment was made from sheep skin which was soaked in lime before being stretched out to dry and scraped with a knife to make a smooth writing surface.
  • King John supposedly died as a result of dysentery caused by over eating.
  • King John is famous for having lost the Crown Jewels in the Wash (a Lincolnshire estuary).
  • The Magna Carta was amended and reissued in 1216, 1217 and 1225.

Look through the gallery and see if you can spot the following:

  • King John signing the Magna Carta
  • A copy of the Magna Carta with seal
  • An image of King John
  • The Crown Jewels are lost in the Wash
  • Tomb of King John
  • A penny depicting King John

Gallery

About

The feudal system is the name given to the structure of power, rights and obligations in medieval society. Under the feudal system the king owned the land which he granted to the barons as his tenants in chief. This made the barons and bishops second only to the king as powers in the land. In return for their often very substantial land holdings the barons owed their loyalty to the king. They expressed their loyalty through a series of payments and duties. The barons could let out their lands to minor nobles such as knights and other free men who in turn owed them their loyalty. The unfree peasants or villeins occupied the lowest rank in medieval society and had very little in the way or property or rights.

King John quarrelled with Pope Innocent III over the appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop. The Pope excommunicated the king and placed the country under an interdict. This meant that no weddings could be held or burials performed with Christian rites. King John was eventually forced to agree to the appointment in order to get the Pope’s support in his struggles against the barons.

Although King John had agreed to the granting of the Magna Carta in 1215 he tried to get it overturned almost straight away. The Pope agreed that the charter should be annulled. This led to another revolt which only ended when King John died suddenly in 1216.

King John’s son and heir, Henry III, was only nine years old at the time when he became king. William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke, was appointed regent. He recognised that it was important for the young king to have the support of the barons so he confirmed the status of the Magna Carta be issuing two further versions. In 1225 a further revision was issued by Henry III in his own right.

The Magna Carta was originally intended to provide protection for the barons and a limited class of freemen from the tyranny of the king. The clauses of the original document have been reinterpreted over time and the limited protection they provided has been extended as part of this process. The Magna Carta has now become a symbol of rights of the individual against tyranny and despotic rule and a foundation of principles of liberty.

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