Here is a quick guide to Magna Carta – how it came to be and what was in it.
1. The Kings of England were seen to be tyrants by the nobility
Even during the reigns of King John’s father (Henry II) and brother (Richard I) there was a lot of criticism of how the monarchs governed. The nobility complained about heavy taxation, bad and corrupt delivery of justice, having to deal with government officials who weren’t nobles, and a disregard for their rights of the aristocracy. For example, one chronicler commented on the reign of Henry II: “Once he had obtained the kingdom of the English, he placed slaves, bastards, and common soldiers in charge of the chamber, the household and the kingdom … all that his great men could expect from him was dishonour; he deprived them of their inherited estates or gradually whittled them down by trickery.”
2. King John had lost his lands in France
When John came to the throne in 1199, he was not only became the King of England but also the Duke of Normandy. However, within five years the French King Philip II had conquered the entire duchy. John would spend the rest of his reign organizing military campaigns to take it back, but he and his allies suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214.
3. Failure overseas leads to discontent at home
The leading barons and nobles of England were increasingly disappointed with John, not only for the loss of his territories in France, but also for squabbling with the church and his bad government. They pointed to the fact that King Henry I, about a century earlier, had agreed to a charter that had promised a less oppressive royal regime, and they wanted John to do the same. By the spring of 1215, various barons and nobles led armies to London, where they seized the city.
4. John agrees to the charter, but did not ‘sign’ it
Having lost control of his chief city, John knew he had to negotiate with the barons, or that worse could happen. On June 10, 1215, John met the rebel leaders at Runnymede, near the royal fortress of Windsor Castle, and talks began with the Archbishop of Canterbury acting as mediator. On June 15th the two sides came to an agreement. One common myth is that King John “signed” the charter, but he actually affixed the royal seal to the document, which was the common practice at the time.
5. What was in Magna Carta?
The 1215 version of Magna Carta contains about 3500 words which was divided into 63 clauses. Much of it was focused on reforming John’s government and reducing his power – he had to send home foreign mercenaries and put an end to various taxes, fees and fines. It also included a few clauses that would look strange to a modern audience, such as “If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it” and “There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russett, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. ”
6. Three clauses remain in force today
Today, only three clauses of Magna Carta remain part in English law – the first two confirm the liberties of the English Church and the city of London as well as other cities. The third is 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. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
7. No one lived up to the agreement
Neither side seems to intended to fulfill the agreement. The rebel barons did not give up London, and King John quickly looked for a way to renounce it. Once the Pope heard of it he immediately had it annulled, declaring that it was “null and void of all validity for ever.” By the fall of 1215 war broke out between the barons and the king.
8. King John dies – all Hail King Henry!
The situation got so bad that the barons invited the crown prince of France to take over England, but on October 19, 1216 John died of dysentery. This left the throne to his nine-year old son, Henry III. Having a new king (who just a boy) was great news to most of the barons, who quickly ended their rebellion. Between 1216 and 1225 they also revised Magna Carta, removing certain clauses and making sure that others would be properly implemented.
9. The influence of Magna Carta
Magna Carta has been viewed as laying the foundation for the emergence of Parliament and Constitutional Monarchy in Britain, and also was influential in the American Revolution.
10. The Four Original Copies
There are four copies of the 1215 version of Magna Carta that survive to this day, one belongs to Lincoln Cathedral, another to Salisbury Cathedral and the other two can be found in the British Library.
Learn more about Magna Carta:
Magna Carta in Context
King John and the Making of Magna Carta – Lecture by Carolyn Harris
715 year old copy of Magna Carta discovered
Ten Short Videos about the Magna Carta
Magna Carta in the 20th century, by Alexander Lock
Magna Carta Celebrates Its 800th Birthday! – from the British Library’ Medieval Manuscripts Blog
The Full Text of Magna Carta – from the Medieval Sourcebook
And our tag for Magna Carta