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What is the Magna Carta?

The Magna Carta is a document that dates back to the year 1215. The name is Latin for 'Great Charter'. A charter is a written document that defines the rights of a group of people. In this case the document defined the rights of King John, who ruled England at the time, a group of wealthy men called barons and the Catholic Church in England. Throughout history the document's meaning has expanded to include other people as well.

Why was it created?

King John ruled at the beginning of the 13th century. He was an unpopular king for a number of reasons. One was that he was unsuccessful in some battles which made him look like a weak leader. Among these battles were wars over parts of France which had belonged to England but which France reclaimed during John's reign. When John lost these areas less money flowed into England through taxes. This, along with continuing expensive battles with France, led John to demand higher taxes from people in England.

The English barons were not happy about this, not just because they did not want to pay higher taxes but also because it was the custom in those days for the king to consult with the barons before raising taxes. John raised taxes on many occasions and even introduced new ones without consulting them.

John also acted against custom by choosing someone to be the Archbishop of Canterbury against the wishes of the pope who wanted someone else to fill this role. This angered the pope so much that it caused a lot of problems for King John. To get back in favour with the pope, John gave him the kingdom of England and paid him yearly rent to continue living there. This gave the barons less control over their land because now it was officially owned by the Church, which made them even angrier.

There were other ways in which John acted according to what suited him regardless of its effects on others. His rule was harsh and unpredictable and lost him the support of many people including the barons and the Catholic bishops. These two powerful groups got together and wrote a list of things they wanted the king to do, most of which were rights that they wanted him to guarantee them. John rejected these demands until the barons raised an army against him and overtook London.

This action forced John to negotiate with the barons. In June 1215 he met them in a field near London where they made him sign a document which contained their list of demands. This document was called the Articles of the Barons but an official version of it called the Magna Carta was released soon afterwards and copies were distributed throughout the kingdom.

In return for the king's signature on the document the barons agreed to end their hostilities and renew their pledge of allegiance to him.

What was contained in the Magna Carta?

Once signed by the king, the Magna Carta became a list of promises that he was supposed to keep. They included promises to protect the freedom and rights of the Church, to consult more closely with the barons (especially on matters such as taxes) and to guarantee certain freedoms to all free men. For this reason the document also stated that a council of 25 barons would be created to advise the king.

A number of the promises, or clauses, in the document ensured that the king would not do whatever he felt like but would be constrained by laws and proper processes. For example, he had to guarantee that if someone was accused of a crime they would be given a proper trial and would be judged by their peers (people of the same status, in this case fellow Englishmen). The king was not allowed to seize property or possessions from people but had to pay for them like everyone else. Similar forms of mistreatment by the king were also ruled out by the document.

The Magna Carta was not just intended for the parties involved in its creation but for future parties as well, particularly any future kings or queens.

Why was it important?

John only signed the Magna Carta because he was forced to at the time, not because he believed in any of its principles. Within months he returned to war against the barons. But the Magna Carta was re-issued ten years later by John's successor, Henry III, but the document had been changed with parts that the monarchy did not like being left out. Many kings after Henry, however, also re-issued it.

In later centuries the Magna Carta was almost forgotten. When it was rediscovered around the time of Queen Elizabeth I it was looked upon with pride by the English as evidence of a supposed history of legal principles and people's rights in their country.

Even though this was not really true - the Magna Carta was a solution to a specific situation rather than a grand declaration of rights for all people - it came to be used as a kind of bill of rights. People used it to back up a broad range of arguments about the powers of parliament, the Church and the monarchy and people's rights. It influenced the content of other documents that protect people's rights such as constitutions (including Australia's constitution) and America's Bill of Rights.

What did it contribute to the development of democracy?

Perhaps the Magna Carta's main contribution to democracy was that it was the first document in English history to limit the power of the monarch. Until then, there had been a belief that the monarch was the absolute ruler and therefore could do whatever they pleased. The Magna Carta forced the king to accept that there should be some laws that even the monarchy had to obey. This established the principle of the rule of law, meaning that law itself should be the absolute ruler, not kings and queens (or, later in history, governments and parliaments). The rule of law established certain rights for all people, such as the right to a fair trial. Over the years these rights have been expanded in ways that are discussed in other chapters in this unit.

In John's time there was no parliament. Because the Magna Carta established the council of 25 barons whom the king was supposed to consult on matters that were important to the country, some people also believe it sowed the seed for parliamentary democracy in England. Even though John was not required to take the barons' advice, this did mark the beginning of the power being shared by more people. The running of the state was now the concern of a group rather than an individual.


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Question 1/5

1. To please the pope, King John gave him:

the right to choose the Archbishop of Canterbury

parts of France owned by England

the kingdom of England

the Magna Carta


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