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Magna Carta:

Historical Background

Magna Carta is the charter or grant issued by King John of England in 1215. It was written in the form of a letter directed primarily toward the barons, who had come into conflict with the king. The barons had presented a set of petitions, "The Articles of the Barons" and were threatening armed conflict. King John and the barons met at Runnymede, an island on the River Thames near Windsor, with each party strategically camped on opposite banks. The resulting document, signed by King John at Runnymede, became known as Magna Carta ("Great Charter") to distinguish it from lesser charters such as those regarding royal forests. It was based on the "Articles of the Barons" and outlines legal rights and procedures, regulating relations between the king and free persons, particularly barons and nobles.
The issues leading up the conflict included financial needs, relations with the barons, relations with France, and relations with the church. King John’s financial problems had been partly inherited and partly his own doing. His great-great grandfather, William I (William the Conqueror) of Norman France, had won the Battle of Hastings in 1066 for control of England and had created the rank of baroncy. A series of wars of succession, sometimes between nobles of France and England, had followed. John’s predecessor, Richard I (Lionhearted) had been captured on his return from the third crusade, and payment of his ransom had drained the financial resources already depleted by all the wars. Richard himself was killed by a poisoned arrow while fighting in southern France. John had continued the military campaigns, losing Normandy, and the financial pressures led him to resort to any method of raising revenue, including levying unfair taxes and fees, and delaying or abrogating traditional rights and procedures of justice. These measures especially affected the barons, who had gone so far as to march on London and capture the Tower.
King John’s strained relations with the church had also led to a crisis. His father, Henry II, had had a quarrel with Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, leading to Becket’s murder by Henry’s men. When a new Archbishop was needed, John refused to let Pope Innocent III choose one. John proposed one candidate and a faction of the cathedral chapter proposed another. The Pope declined both nominations and instead consecrated Stephen Langton, Cardinal of York, without John’s approval. John retaliated by seizing church lands; the Pope in turn excommunicated the king. In 1213, John learned that Philip Augustus of France was preparing to invade England on the grounds that John was no longer king because of his excommunication. John then accepted Langton’s appointment, promised to return church money and property, offered to submit England to the Pope, and even swore allegiance to the papacy as a vassal.
In the Magna Carta, King John guaranteed and restored many of the traditional rights and practices and set up some new procedures, including the precursor of the parliament. Many copies of the document were made and dispersed throughout the land. When the Pope found out about the limits it put on the king’s power, he declared it null. A civil war followed and France took advantage of the unrest to invade England. John died in 1216 and was succeeded by his son, Henry III (with William Marshall as regent for the nine year old boy), who reissued several revised versions of the charter in 1216, 1217, and 1225.
Four original copies, each one slightly different survive: one at Lincoln Cathedral, one at Salisbury Cathedral, and two at the British Museum. One of the British Museum copies was put on display in the United States for one year in honor of the United States’ Bicentennial; it was then replaced with a replica.
The Magna Carta (and its later various reissues) form the basis of English law. Though the rights were mainly applicable to noble freemen, the ideas have been influential and the document has been hailed as a model for democratic rights. Copies of Magna Carta were taken by colonists to the New World. William Penn wrote a commentary on it, and the Magna Carta formed the basis of Pennsylvania law. The name "Magna Carta" has come to be used for any standard agreement of procedure.


Chart of Rulers


Sources. Sources of English Constitutional History: A Selection of Documents from A.D. 600 to the Interregnum. Vol. 1. Rev. ed. Ed. Carl Stephenson and Frederick George Marcham. *Harper & Row.

Hogg, R. Malcolm. "Magna Carta, 1215: Guidance to the Meaning of Its Clauses." Bulletin of Bibliography 52.1 (1995) 15-20.

Holt, J.C. Magna Carta. 2nd ed. Cambridge. 1992.

Mantello, F. A. C. and A. G. Rigg. Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press. 1996.

See also: Magna Carta Latin Text page.