What is the Magna Carta?

The original version of the Magna Carta was written in 1215.
It was written in medieval Latin on animal skin.

In 2015 we celebrate the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta is the most important document you may never have heard of.

You may not have read it, but its legacy has inspired liberty and freedom in many countries across the world today.

The grant of the Magna Carta 800 years ago has led to the idea that liberty and freedom should be protected by the law.

It showed us it was possible to build societies based on the rule of law and respect for the liberty of all people.

"Magna Carta has lived in the hearts and minds of our people. It is an incantation of the spirit of liberty. Whatever its text or meaning, it has become the talisman of a society in which tolerance and democracy reside, a society in which each man and woman has and is accorded his or her unique dignity, a society in which power and privilege do not produce tyranny and oppression".

King John sitting on the throne looking sinister

A Tyrannical King

King John was the King of England in 1215. He was a tyrant who ruled unfairly and unjustly. He answered to no one and thought he was above the law.

He stole land, kidnapped people, and starved them to death.

He had people jailed without trial and gave harsh punishments for small crimes.

Whenever he needed more money he would increase taxes.

King John was so hated that no other King of England has ever been called John.

"Hell itself is defiled by the presence of King John"

"...John was to be remembered as a tyrant with no redeeming qualities."

War or Peace?

The barons, the Church of England and the people were tired of King John's disregard for the law. They wanted him to respect the law, and their liberty.

In 1215 there was usually only one way to get rid of a King - WAR.

The barons gathered an army and announced that they were rebelling against the King. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, attempted to negotiate with King John and the barons.

The barons took control of London and it seemed war was unavoidable.

A list of demands, "The Articles of the Barons" was drafted, and a negotiation was set up at Runnymede, halfway between London and Windsor Castle.

Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton and the barons work on the demands which are to soon be granted as the Magna Carta.

Interactive Magna Carta

The Grant of Magna Carta

What is the legacy of Magna Carta?

The Charter of Liberties Annulled

Despite the fact that the 1215 Magna Carta did not last 3 months before it was annulled, it was reissued after the death of King John. These reissues kept the ideas of the Magna Carta fresh in the minds of the English people.

The Death of King John

It is said that King John died of dysentery, caused by eating too many peaches and drinking too much cider. Henry, John's 9 year-old son, was crowned King Henry III. Henry could not fully assume his position as King until the age of 21.

Between 1216 and 1225 the rebel barons were defeated and the Magna Carta was reissued three times. Henry III was succeeded in 1272 by William I who reissued the Magna Carta in 1297.

The Magna Carta became part of the law of England and the foundation for ideas that forever changed the way people viewed the relationship between the people and the King.

The Magna Carta Today

Today the Magna Carta is a symbol of the triumph of liberty over tyranny. Its legacy can be captured in the principles below, which have developed over the last 800 years:

Limits on the power of government

In 1215 King John believed he could do whatever he wanted - the Magna Carta attempted to put a stop to this. Today, many countries have statutes or Constitutions which define what the government can do.

The Magna Carta was a landmark document that said people in charge must follow the law and have limits on their power.

The beginnings of an independent and qualified judiciary can be seen in the Magna Carta. Judges in many legal systems have the task of applying the law to everyday situations. In some countries judges decide cases about whether a government official is acting lawfully.

Independent judges who apply the law without fear or favour ensure that the rights of individuals are protected and that all people act according to the law.

Preventing people from being arrested or punished for no lawful reason was an important idea in the Magna Carta

The Rule of Law

The Magna Carta came at a time where kings frequently abused their power and considered themselves as being above the law. King John came from a family of kings who believed that the king's word was law, and that they had divine right to rule - beyond the question of their subjects.

The Magna Carta became the foundation of the idea that the king was not above the law. This has developed over time into the concept of the rule of law: the idea that all people are equal before the law.

Excessive sentences of imprisonment for small crimes were a serious issue.

The Foundation of Modern Democracy

The Magna Carta was the result of people demanding a say in how they are governed and the laws which apply to them. Rather than rule as he pleased, King John was forced to rule with the consent of the barons.

The Magna Carta established the idea of consultative government, an idea that is central to modern democracy.

Many of the clauses of the Magna Carta controlled the ways in which the King could raise money.

The King agreeing to limits on taxation was a fundamental moment in the development of democracy.

Access to Justice

Access to justice means that people are able to access the law to resolve disputes and seek justice for crimes committed against them. Having access to a court which stayed in the same place allowed people to rely on and have confidence in accessing a legal solution.

People having confidence they can access courts and legal processes is as important as those processes being fair and free from corruption.

The Magna Carta was read aloud in every county in England. The idea that the law must be accessible to all, not just the King and the barons, gave people confidence and hope that the law would protect their rights.

If all people know the law they can follow it, have an opinion about it, and participate in government.


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Magna Carta Baron reciting clauses