The Magna Carta is considered one of the most famous documents of all time. We explore fifteen reasons why.
In 1215, England was on the brink of a civil war. The despised King John of England met with a group of his barons in a field in Runnymede. They brought with them a list of demands, which they compiled in a document. Under the intense gaze of the gathered men, King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta (or Great Charter) has since become one of the most important documents ever created. Why should we care about it today? Here are 15 reasons:
#1. It established that no one – not even a king – is above the law
King John was infamous for making his own rules. While England was used to living under an absolute monarchy, there were still expectations for how a king should behave. King John ignored them all and treated the nation and his barons like a personal bank account. Expensive battles in France were the breaking point, which led the barons to the brink of civil war. The Magna Carta, which the king signed only to stop the barons from fighting him, established the rule of law and forbade monarchs from doing whatever they wanted.
#2. It established a limited government
When the barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, they were unhappy with his leadership. However, because England was an absolute monarchy, there wasn’t much anyone could do if the king was violating ancient traditions and disrupting the nation. There were no checks and balances. The Magna Carta was an attempt to change that. By declaring that the king – and his government – were not above the law, the Magna Carta established a limited government. It was the first document (to put in writing) that the law – not a monarch – was the source of absolute power.
#3. It helped establish the parliamentary system
England technically still has a monarchy, but it’s a constitutional monarchy that uses a parliamentary system. This is in the spirit of the limited government in the Magna Carta, which puts restrictions on a monarch’s power. Clause 14 also describes a system very similar to a parliament. Before establishing taxes, the king has to get the “general consent of the realm.” That includes archbishops, bishops, earls, abbots, and greater barons. This is very specific to the Magna Carta era, but it establishes the concept of calling upon a group to make decisions, as opposed to a singular ruler.
#4. It planted the seed for democracy
Experts see the Magna Carta as one of the first steps toward the democracy that England has today. While the Magna Carta writers didn’t intend to establish democracy, their words inspired constitutions in England and around the world. The United States is a key example as it inherited England’s laws and perception of the Magna Carta as a document extolling freedom. When fighting for independence, America’s founding fathers looked to the Magna Carta when they enshrined rights like habeas corpus, trial by jury, property rights, and more into the Constitution.
#5. It paved the way for human rights
The barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta because they believed he’d crossed a line. While they would not have thought of things like corruption, heavy taxation, harsh imprisonment, and exile as human rights violations, they did want to end these practices. By promoting the rule of law, the Magna Carta established there are certain things not even a king can get away with. Key Magna Carta principles are now included in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and England’s Human Rights Act of 1998.
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#6. It established no one can be detained without a reason
The Magna Carta also helped establish the concept of “habeas corpus,” which is an instrument that protects people against unlawful detention. It’s since been used to protest arbitrary detention. How does the Magna Carta deal with this concept? One of its clauses reads that no one can be detained without cause or evidence. It states that “no free man” can be arrested or imprisoned without the “lawful judgment” of peers or the law of the land. It doesn’t determine a person’s guilt or innocence, but rather if the person is legally imprisoned or not. The right to habeas corpus was not officially guaranteed until 1679 when Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus Act.
#7. It protected against unlawful property seizure and exile
The Magna Carta’s 39th clause says no free man shall be “stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled…except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” King John was infamous for seizing whatever property he liked. He also exiled people whenever he distrusted their loyalty. One of the most famous examples is William de Braose. Once a favorite of the king, de Braose was ordered to pay an extravagant tax on his lands. When he refused, John seized the land, imprisoned de Braose’s wife and son, and forced de Braose into exile. Historians aren’t certain about the reasons for John’s aggressiveness – it may have had something to do with de Braose knowing John had murdered a rival – but John’s behavior went too far either way.
#8. It established everyone’s right to trial by jury
In Clause 39, the phrase “without the lawful judgment of peers or the law of the land” essentially established the right to a trial by jury. The barons did not want to leave the ultimate decision up to the monarch; there needed to be others who wielded judicial authority. It was just another way to curb the dominating power of the king. While the phrase “due process of law” does not appear in the original Magna Carta (it just says “law of the land”), the 1354 statue of King Edward III uses the phrase.
#9. It hinted at early women’s rights
The Magna Carta was not intended to advance women’s rights, but there are parts of the document that hint at women’s rights. In Clause 8, the document states that a widow may have “her marriage portion and inheritance at once and without trouble.” She should also not be forced to remarry if she doesn’t want to, but a widow can’t marry whoever she wants, either. She must have royal consent. This is obviously not aligned with our modern view of women’s rights, but at the time, it was assumed that women had worse judgment. Getting royal consent was meant to protect wealthy widows from being coerced into marriage. It was the job of the king to say no to gold-digging potential husbands.
#10. It also hinted at freedom of religion
King John had a pattern of attacking the Church of England. During a conflict about church appointments in 1205, John took all church possessions, shut down places of worship, and demanded the diocese pay him high taxes. In 1209, the Pope excommunicated John. By 1213, John and the Pope had resolved their conflict, but he was still a threat to the clergy. Wanting to protect the Church from John’s vengeful behavior, the first clause of the Magna Carta reads: “The English Church shall be free, and shall have its right undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.” This protected the power of the church, but the meaning has been reinterpreted in modern times. While the barons intended to preserve the Church’s power, freedom of religion today includes the separation of church and state, as well as the right to be free from religion.
#11. It took time for the Magna Carta to influence legal precedent
According to the Chertsey Museum, it wasn’t until the 16th century that people started to see the Magna Carta as a symbol of freedom and the rule of law. Sir Edward Coke was the first to record a comprehensive account of the Magna Carta and its importance. At the time, Charles I was ignoring the principles outlined in the Magna Carta. The monarchy continued to wrestle power from the people and Parliament, but in 1689, the Bill of Rights was passed. It finally formally established many of the principles in the Magna Carta, like no right of taxation without Parliamentary approval and freedom from government interference. England’s Bill of Rights was a model for the US Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
#12. It’s a symbol of holding power accountable
The Magna Carta endures as a symbol of holding power accountable, but when it was first signed, no one had high hopes for it. King John only sealed it to stall for time before getting the Pope to annul the document. However, the principles established in the Magna Carta were so powerful, they couldn’t be ignored. The most essential parts of the Magna Carta became law and were used to try to rein in the kings during the Stuart period and the English Civil War. The Magna Carta continues to represent freedom for people around the world.
#13. It tells the story of people taking action
It wasn’t unusual for kings to negotiate with their barons, but they were never forced to sign anything they didn’t want to. They always remained the most powerful figure in the land. The sealing of the Magna Carta was the first time barons took an active role and literally forced the king to hear their demands. It’s no surprise that John refused to follow through, but as history has proven, he lost. What the barons unleashed couldn’t be put back in the bottle and the story of the Magna Carta remains inspiring to anyone eager to resist authoritarianism.
#14. It’s a prime example of how meaning and intent evolve
When King John’s barons made him sign the Magna Carta, they had no idea how the documents would be discussed in the future or what future governments would look like. They were writing the document for themselves in the time they lived in. They had two main considerations: preserving the power of the barons and the Church. The majority of people in England were not meant to benefit from the Magna Carta. Beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, however, the document took on a completely different identity. It’s since become a symbol of freedom and democracy. If the barons who came up with the Magna Carta in 1215 learned what they had inspired, they would no doubt be shocked and perhaps even appalled. That’s how progress works. Meaning and intent evolve.
#15. The original Magna Carta was a flop
The original Magna Carta had very little impact. When John signed it, he had absolutely no intention of sticking by his words. Just 10 weeks after sealing it, he asked the Pope to annul it. The Pope was only too eager to oblige, believing the document was “shameful, demeaning, illegal, and injust.” He said the Magna Carter was “null and void of all validity for ever.” The Pope’s annulment triggered the civil war the document was meant to stop, and in 1216, John died. His son Henry III reissued the document with some changes so that by 1225, the new Magna Carta was officially English statute law. There are no copies of the original Magna Carta in existence.