June 15th 2015 is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, but what is Magna Carta and why is it so important?
King John of England became increasingly unpopular during his reign due to his mishandling of the wars with France and his high-handed attitude toward his feudal barons, who provided him with both knights and tax revenue. By 1215,he faced rebellion and was forced to negotiate with his barons when they arrived in London.
They presented him with a document detailing their demands - modeled on the Charter of Liberties of 100 years earlier issued by King Henry I - which effectively reduced John’s power and protected their own privileges. The “Articles of the Barons” included clauses relating to their property, rights, and duties, but also made the king subject to the law of the land.
Clause 39, in particular, had profound implications: “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 other 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.” Implicit in the barons’ demands was the concept of habeas corpus. This requires that a person under arrest be brought before a court, and protects individuals from arbitrary abuse of power. For the first time, the freedom of the individual from a tyrannical ruler was explicitly guaranteed. John had no choice but to accept the terms and attach his seal to what later became known as the Magna Carta (Latin for “Great Charter”).
Unfortunately, John’s assent was only a token, and much of the document was later ignored or repealed. Nevertheless, the key clauses remained, and the spirit of Magna Carta was highly influential in the political development of Britain. The rebellious De Montfort’s Parliament in 1265 was the first such body, featuring elected representatives, knights, and burgesses (borough officials) as well as barons for the first time.
In the 17th century, the idea of making the English monarch bound by the law of the land came to a head in the English Civil War, and Magna Carta symbolized the cause of the Parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell. Although at the time it applied only to a minority of already privileged citizens, Magna Carta pioneered the idea of laws to protect the liberty of the individual from despotic authority. It also inspired the bills of rights enshrined in many modern constitutions, particularly those of the United States, as well as many declarations of human rights.
The article is an excerpt from The Politics Book, an innovative and accessible guide to government, law, and power.