The Magna Carta (or Great Charter) – one of the most celebrated and influential documents of all time – was formally, although reluctantly, accepted by the English King John at Runnymede on 15 June 1215.
King John’s motives were not altruistic – he was trying to contain a worsening civil war, organized by a group of powerful barons who were increasingly unhappy with his unsuccessful and expensive foreign policies and escalating taxation demands.
Around this time John had engaged in prolonged conflict with France, leading to financial shortages back home that he tried to recoup by imposing a tax on those barons who had not supported him militarily in the French wars.
The Magna Carta tried to appease the smouldering anger of these barons by proposing that the King would be subject to the laws of the land as with all other citizens.
The concept was not initially successful and the document was amended and reissued three times – in 1216, 1217 and 1225 – eventually becoming the accepted basis for the English system of common law and one of the keystones of human social progress in several other nations.
The Magna Carta was written in Latin, containing 63 Clauses, and is now recognized as the first formal constitution in European history. It also led to further progressive laws that rolled on down the centuries resulting in increasing benefits and protection for the normal citizen.
The spirit of the Magna Carta can be found in two important English legislations of the 17th Century – the Petition of Right (1628) and the Habeas Corpus Act (1679) both of which drew from the structure of the Magna Carta. These acts referred to Clause 39 that states “no free man shall be imprisoned or disseised (dispossessed) except by lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land”.
The effects were to spill over into other countries, notably the United States of America, where its content is plainly recognisable in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Image: A 19th Century painting by James William Doyle depicting the signing of the Magna Carta, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.