Magna Carta, or “Great Charter,” signed by the King of England in 1215, was a turning point in human rights.The Magna Carta, or “Great Charter,” was arguably the most significant early influence on the extensive historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law today in the English-speaking world.
Magna Carta And Our Fundamental Unalienable Right To Rebellion.
Article thanks to HISTORY.COM
By 1215, thanks to years of unsuccessful foreign policies and heavy taxation demands, England’s King John was facing down a possible rebellion by the country’s powerful barons. Under duress, he agreed to a charter of liberties known as the Magna Carta (or Great Charter) that would place him and all of England’s future sovereigns within a rule of law. Though it was not initially successful, the document was reissued (with alterations) in 1216, 1217 and 1225, and eventually served as the foundation for the English system of common law. Later generations of Englishmen would celebrate the Magna Carta as a symbol of freedom from oppression, as would the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, who in 1776 looked to the charter as a historical precedent for asserting their liberty from the English crown.
Background and Context
John (the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine) was not the first English king to grant concessions to his citizens in the form of a charter, though he was the first one to do so under threat of civil war. Upon taking the throne in 1100, Henry I had issued a Coronation Charter in which he promised to limit taxation and confiscation of church revenues, among other abuses of power. But he went on to ignore these precepts, and the barons lacked the power to enforce them. They later gained more leverage, however, as a result of the English crown’s need to fund the Crusades and pay a ransom for John’s brother and predecessor, Richard I (known as Richard the Lionheart), who was taken prisoner by Emperor Henry VI of Germany during the Third Crusade.
Did you know? Today, memorials stand at Runnymede to commemorate the site’s connection to freedom, justice and liberty. In addition to the John F. Kennedy Memorial, Britain’s tribute to the 36th U.S. president, a rotunda built by the American Bar Association stands as “a tribute to Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law.”
In 1199, when Richard died without leaving an heir, John was forced to contend with a rival for succession in the form of his nephew Arthur (the young son of John’s deceased brother Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany). After a war with King Philip II of France, who supported Arthur, John was able to consolidate power. He immediately angered many former supporters with his cruel treatment of prisoners (including Arthur, who was probably murdered on John’s orders). By 1206, John’s renewed war with France had caused him to lose the duchies of Normandy and Anjou, among other territories.
Who Signed the Magna Carta and Why?
A feud with Pope Innocent III, beginning in 1208, further damaged John’s prestige, and he became the first English sovereign to suffer the punishment of excommunication (later meted out to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I). After another embarrassing military defeat by France in 1213, John attempted to refill his coffers–and rebuild his reputation–by demanding scutage (money paid in lieu of military service) from the barons who had not joined him on the battlefield. By this time, Stephen Langton, whom the pope had named as archbishop of Canterbury over John’s initial opposition, was able to channel baronial unrest and put increasing pressure on the king for concessions.
With negotiations stalled early in 1215, civil war broke out, and the rebels–led by baron Robert FitzWalter, John’s longtime adversary–gained control of London. Forced into a corner, John yielded, and on June 15, 1215, at Runnymede (located beside the River Thames, now in the county of Surrey), he accepted the terms included in a document called the Articles of the Barons. Four days later, after further modifications, the king and the barons issued a formal version of the document, which would become known as the Magna Carta. Intended as a peace treaty, the charter failed in his goals, as civil war broke out within three months. After John’s death in 1216, advisors to his nine-year-old son and successor, Henry III, reissued the Magna Carta with some of its most controversial clauses taken out, thus averting further conflict. The document was reissued again in 1217 and once again in 1225 (in return for a grant of taxation to the king). Each subsequent issue of the Magna Carta followed that “final” 1225 version.
What Did the Magna Carta Do?
Written in Latin, the Magna Carta (or Great Charter) was effectively the first written constitution in European history. Of its 63 clauses, many concerned the various property rights of barons and other powerful citizens, suggesting the limited intentions of the framers. The benefits of the charter were for centuries reserved for only the elite classes, while the majority of English citizens still lacked a voice in government. In the 17th century, however, two defining acts of English legislation–the Petition of Right (1628) and the Habeas Corpus Act (1679)–referred to Clause 39, which states that “no free man shall be…imprisoned or disseised [dispossessed]… except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” Clause 40 (“To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice”) also had dramatic implications for future legal systems in Britain and America.
In 1776, rebellious American colonists looked to the Magna Carta as a model for their demands of liberty from the English crown on the eve of the American Revolution. Its legacy is especially evident in the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution, and nowhere more so than in the Fifth Amendment (“Nor shall any persons be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law”), which echoes Clause 39. Many state constitutions also include ideas and phrases that can be traced directly to the historic document.
Magna Carta: The Origin of Modern Human Rights
By Karina Weller,
Magna Carta was accepted by King John of England in 1215 and granted certain rights to English noblemen.
Although the rights it gave, and the number of people to whom it gave them, were few, Magna Carta became a symbol for subjecting powerful rulers to law and fundamental rights. It holds an historic legacy as “the Great Charter of the Liberties” and its influence still endures today.
The Original Document and Pints
Magna Carta has been described as a “major constitutional document” and “the banner, the symbol, of our liberties”. But, most of the provisions of the original Magna Carta concerned the property of English nobles, who forced King John to seal (agree to) the document at Runnymede in 1215.
Most of the original provisions are no longer in force, because they are not really relevant to today’s world. One interesting provision, although not still law, is responsible for the beloved pint, as it provided for ale to be served in a standard measure, called the ‘London quarter’ (2 pints).
The Words of Magna Carta – “Pure Gold”
Certain provisions of the Magna Carta which remain valid contain some of the most important rules in the history of English law. Sir Edward Coke, a 17th century English lawyer and politician, described these provisions as “pure gold”. Lord Bingham, a judge of the UK’s highest court, proclaimed that the words still “have the power to make the blood race”.
Clause 39 of the Magna Carta states:
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.
Magna Carta’s Clause 40 states:
To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
(Slightly amended, these two clauses make up Article 29 of a consolidated version of Magna Carta, which was issued in 1225.)
Together, these provisions form the origins of what became the right to freedom from arbitrary detention and the right to a fair trial. Although originally intended only for a small class of people (the English nobility), these important provisions paved the way for our modern human rights laws, under which the State must respect and protect the rights and liberties of people within their jurisdiction.
Magna Carta and Human Rights Today
Magna Carta recognised three great constitutional ideas, which we still see today. First, fundamental rights can only be taken away or interfered with by due process and in accordance with the law. Second, government rests upon the consent of the governed, which is reinforced by our right to free and fair elections. Third, government, as well as the governed, is bound by the law, so the Human Rights Act 1998 makes it clear that public authorities can’t infringe our rights.
Advances in basic rights protection are rarely achieved without criticism or attempts to undermine them. After Magna Carta was sealed, Pope Innocent III declared it “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people”. Still, Magna Carta remains important today. The UK’s highest court in January 2017 declared that it contained the ‘most long-standing and fundamental’ rights.
In the intervening 800 odd years, the ideas behind Magna Carta have been exported throughout the world. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was hailed by Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the drafting committee, as “the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere”.
The rights contained in the UDHR had great influence on the Human Rights Convention, which takes effect in UK law through the Human Rights Act 1998. The links between these laws and the values which underlie Magna Carta are clear; modern human rights laws show our commitment to the ancient ideas that power must be subjected to the rule of law and must not be allowed to violate fundamental freedoms.
For more information:
- Read about the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- Learn more about the Human Rights Convention.
- Find out about other important human rights
Petition of Right (1628)
In 1628 the English Parliament sent this statement of civil liberties to King Charles I.The next recorded milestone in the development of human rights was the Petition of Right, produced in 1628 by the English Parliament and sent to Charles I as a statement of civil liberties. Refusal by Parliament to finance the king’s unpopular foreign policy had caused his government to exact forced loans and to quarter troops in subjects’ houses as an economy measure. Arbitrary arrest and imprisonment for opposing these policies had produced in Parliament a violent hostility to Charles and to George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. The Petition of Right, initiated by Sir Edward Coke, was based upon earlier statutes and charters and asserted four principles: (1) No taxes may be levied without consent of Parliament, (2) No subject may be imprisoned without cause shown (reaffirmation of the right of habeas corpus), (3) No soldiers may be quartered upon the citizenry, and (4) Martial law may not be used in time of peace.
Four of Magna Carta’s clauses are still part of English law today as follows:
Four of Magna Carta’s clauses are still part of English law today as follows:
Clause 1: “FIRST, THAT WE HAVE GRANTED TO GOD, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired. That we wish this so to be observed, appears from the fact that of our own free will, before the outbreak of the present dispute between us and our barons, we granted and confirmed by charter the freedom of the Church’s elections – a right reckoned to be of the greatest necessity and importance to it – and caused this to be confirmed by Pope Innocent III. This freedom we shall observe ourselves, and desire to be observed in good faith by our heirs in perpetuity.“
The first clause of Magna Carta guarantees the freedom of the English Church. This clause was specifically included to stop the king from interfering in what the Church did, and gave the Church the right to elect its own leaders, rather than have them chosen by the king. King John and the Pope had fallen out over the choice of the Archbishop of Canterbury before Magna Carta, and this first clause was intended to ensure that these problems did not happen again. The fact that this is the first clause is a reminder of the important part that the Church played in bringing Magna Carta about. It is also the reason that English Cathedrals guarded Magna Carta so carefully over the centuries. The last section of Magna Carta mentions the freedom of the Church again, just as a reminder of what had been agreed.
Clause 13: “The city of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water. We also will and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports shall enjoy all their liberties and free customs.”
This clause is the most surprising of the four clauses that are still part of the law. It was intended to ensure that the rights that London and other cities and towns had been granted were no longer taken away by the corruption of King John’s reign. One of the rights that was important to the city of London was the right to choose its own mayor, for example. Like the English Church, the people of England wanted to make sure that it wasn’t the king that got to decide everything that was important.
Clause 39: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.“
This clause established the idea that people could only be judged according to the law, and that even the king himself had to follow the law. King John had previously acted as if the law did not apply to him. The other thing that is important about this clause is that it stipulates that a person should be judged by a group of their equals (not by the king or his men). The jury system that still exists in Britain today is a continuation of the idea put forward in this clause.
Clause 40: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
This is one of the shortest, most significant and most timeless clauses of Magna Carta. It ensures that nobody will be deprived of their rights, or have to pay for their rights, or be made to suffer by waiting for their rights. It was a response to the fact that King John was very corrupt and frequently demanded bribes from his subjects. The delay of justice is still a big problem in many places of the world today – making innocent people wait for years until a court hears their case, for example.
There are other clauses that are no longer part of English Law today but were a very significant part of Magna Carta. These include:
Clause 12 “No ‘scutage’ or ‘aid’ may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent, unless it is for the ransom of our person, to make our eldest son a knight, and (once) to marry our eldest daughter. For these purposes only a reasonable ‘aid’ may be levied. ‘Aids’ from the city of London are to be treated similarly.“
This clause meant that the king could not demand new taxes without first obtaining the approval of the key people in his kingdom. It led to the idea of parliament, (formally established in England 50 years later). Parliament comes from the French word parler, to speak or to converse.
The USA used this clause to justify independence from Britain in 1776. The American people objected to being asked to pay taxes to Britain without having representation in Parliament.
Clause 61 (also known as the security clause) “….We give and grant to the barons the following security: The barons shall elect twenty-five of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to them by this charter. If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us – or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice – to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning from the day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon.”
This clause is probably the most radical clause in Magna Carta. It gave the barons the right form a committee of 25 who would monitor the king and take action against him if he failed to honour his agreement to them and to the freemen of his kingdom. The king hated this clause most of all.
Magna Carta a children’s version.pdf 223.8 KB (.pdf)
Where Is The Original Magna Carta?
Four original copies of the Magna Carta of 1215 exist today: one in Lincoln Cathedral, one in Salisbury Cathedral, and two in the British Museum