Magna Carta

Magna Carta

In June 1215 King John signed the Magna Carta, which would become one of the most important documents in the history of Medieval England. Latin for ‘Great Charter’, the Magna Carta was signed by the King of England at the time - John - and the feudal barons at Runnymede near Windsor Castle, and it was essentially designed to determine the way the country would be run.

The Magna Carta was a means of limiting the king’s power and to ensure the population of England did not suffer at the hands of Royalty abusing their power. It was a series of writings between the king and his subjects promising that the king would govern England and deal with the nation according to feudal law customs.

The document has such historical significance because not only did it place constraints on the power of a king, which was rare at the time, but it has also sparked debate over exactly why a king would agree to such a deal.

Magna carta cum statutis angliae (Great Charter with English Statutes) early 14th-century
Magna carta cum statutis angliae (Great Charter with English Statutes) early 14th-century

Central to the signing of the Magna Carta was the relationship between the king and the barons. The king was reliant on the barons to raise money, which would in turn be used for military campaigns, particularly to defend the territories it controlled in France. As with typically under the Feudal System, to collect the taxes, the king would need to consult with the barons, who would then gather the money - this made the king, in part at least, reliant on the barons.

While this system worked quite effectively for in Medieval England, it was tested under the reign of John, who constantly wanted more taxes to be raised for his ever-expanding military campaigns overseas. And by 1204, when the king had lost his land in northern France, John decided to bring in higher taxes without consulting the barons.

The king also made other mistakes in different areas, one of the most notable of which was to anger the Roman Catholic Church. The pope acted out of temper due to John's behaviour and from 1207 the decision was made to ban all church services in England. Of course for people in Medieval England, religion, and the fear of being sent to hell, were extremely important - both for barons and peasants. With the churches shut, people’s chances of showing themselves to be a good Christian and thus going to heaven would be extremely difficult, which worried them and therefore turned them against the king.

John himself was confronted with an even more serious situation in 1209 he was excommunicated by the pope, which rendered it impossible for John to get to Heaven unless the pope withdrew it. John therefore backed down by accepting the Church’s power and allowed them many privileges in 1214.

John experienced another reason why 1214 was not a good year for him. He faced military defeat for another time when trying to get his territory back from the north of France. He headed back to London and ordered more tax money - but the barons were not interested in listening this time and opposed his power. They captured London but did not totally defeat John and once the Spring of 1215 came around, both sides were prepared to discuss matters - resulting in the Magna Carta.

The full Magna Carta Transcript, which can be seen here, outlines all of the 63 clauses within the agreement.

The document concerned the position of the Catholic Church in England in the first part and the relationship between the king and the barons in the second part. Ultimately it centred on ways of modernising the English legal system.

Magna Carta promised just laws and it states court access shall be granted to everyone, and that costs and money shouldn’t affect anything if someone wanted to take an issue to the law courts.

It also states that no freeman (i.e. a person who was not a serf) will be sent to prison or given a  punishment without going through the proper legal system beforehand. In the future the word "freeman" was replaced by "no one" to include everyone.

The last sections address how the Magna Carta would be imposed in England. 25 barons were made responsible of ensuring the king did what was required in the Magna Carta and it is clear that they were allowed to be forceful if they thought it would make a difference. For more impact with the document, King John’s royal seal (see image below) was included to demonstrate to people it had his royal approval.

Magna Carta Red Seal
Magna Carta Red Seal

MLA Citation/Reference

"Magna Carta". 2015. Web.