Magna Carta: GPS

Adapted from the National Endowment for the Humanities website EDSITEment.


The “Great Charter” drawn up on the field at Runnymede on June 15, 1215 between King John and his feudal barons failed to resolve the crisis that had been brewing in England ever since the death of John’s brother King Richard I. Over the long term, however,Magna Carta served to lay the foundation for the evolution of parliamentary government and subsequent declarations of rights in Great Britain and the United States. In attempting to establish checks on the king’s powers, this document asserted the right of “due process” of law. By the end of the 13th century, it provided the basis for the idea of a “higher law,” one that could not be altered either by executive mandate or legislative acts. This concept, embraced by the leaders of the American Revolution, is embedded in the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution and enforced by the Supreme Court.

Historical Background

At the death of his brother, Richard the Lionhearted, John assumed the throne of England, intent on exercising power to achieve his own selfish ends. To fund military campaigns in France, he extracted exorbitant fees from nobles, who, in turn, raised the rents imposed on their tenants. At the same time, John reduced the lords’ customary powers over those tenants, restricting, for example, their power to hold court for those living on their feudal lands. He attempted to influence church elections and confiscated church properties, alienating the powerful ecclesiastical establishment and depriving the poor of the only source of relief available to paupers. He restricted trading privileges traditionally granted to London’s merchants and increased their taxes, alienating this constituency as well.

King John’s tyrannical practices extended to demanding sexual favors from the wives and daughters of his barons and to imposing brutal punishments on individuals who challenged his authority. His unbridled exercise of power, coupled with the fact that his administration was both corrupt and inefficient, ultimately led the feudal lords to challenge his authority. Rebellion against the king’s rule surfaced in 1213, when England’s nobles refused to support him in yet another war in France. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, sided with them. As animosity mounted, the barons grew more determined to reclaim their rights and in early May 1215 renounced their allegiance to the king. Initially, John refused to meet with them, but he changed his mind when London’s merchants opened the gates of the city to the nobles, demonstrating that they, too, were prepared to challenge the king’s authoritarian rule. Threatened with a violent overthrow, John had little choice but to meet with the barons and agree to the terms they presented at Runnymede. The original draft was replaced four days later with a slightly amended version that extended rights to freemen (about 10% of the population at that time) as well as nobles. That official version, though sealed by the king, was annulled on August 24, 1215 by Pope Innocent II, who threatened the barons with excommunication if they attempted to enforce it.

The Great Charter agreed to by King John was part of a movement in both England and Western Europe to restrict the powers of the monarch and assert the rights of the politically influential, i.e. the nobles. The Magna Carta laid the foundation for government based on the rule of law in Great Britain. By the end of the 13th century, England had a representative parliament and had come to recognize Magna Carta as a “higher law.” The first step toward the growing importance of this document was taken by John’s son and successor, Henry III. The new king’s regents—Henry was only nine when he inherited the throne—re-issued the charter in 1216 and 1217 in an effort to win support for the young monarch. Henry himself issued it again in 1225 when he took personal control of the country. All three re-issues contained changes, including omission of the clauses in the original that had provided for enforcement of the agreement by a council of barons. The 1225 version is considered the final version.

Although English monarchs continued to abuse their powers, they also came to recognize the need for baronial support. Henry III instituted the practice of bringing his knights together to obtain approval for new taxes. This meeting, known as “parliamentum,” had become customary by 1254. A decade later, membership had expanded to include representatives from cities and boroughs, and by the end of the century, members of the commons and inferior clergy were invited to participate. Despite the fact that groups within English society had gained a voice in financial decision making, powerful barons continued to protest against expensive foreign wars, the failure of the king to respect established laws and customs, and infringement of basic liberties. A turning point came in 1297 when King Edward I, known as the English Justinian, agreed to the Charter of Confirmation. This document established parliament as a truly representative body by requiring common consent to all tax measures, and it enhanced the importance of Magna Carta by declaring all judgments contrary to this document to be null and void. Recognition of Magna Carta as a higher law ultimately served as precedent for the assertion that the United States Constitution is the “supreme law of the land” and for judicial power to declare statutes unconstitutional.

Magna Carta took on greater significance in the 17th century as a result of the weight given to this charter by Edward Coke(pronounced “cook”), one of the leading legal scholars of that century. In 1610, in what is known as Bonham’s Case, Coke reiterated the claim that the Great Charter represented a higher law. James Otis would cite Bonham’s Case in his attack on the Stamp Act over 150 years later. Thomas Paine would cite the principle in Common Sense, as would leading colonists in their attacks on British rule.

In the meantime, colonial charters issued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries as well as political treatises published by the Commonwealthmen—English libertarians whose radical views influenced the thinking of Enlightenment thinkers in America—reinforced the significance of Magna Carta. Not surprisingly, fundamental rights cited in the Great Charter—habeas corpus and due process of law—found their way into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as well as virtually every state constitution.

Throughout American history, the rights associated with Magna Carta have been regarded as among the most important guarantees of freedom and fairness. However, these rights have not always been applied equally. Discrimination based on racial and ethnic differences has, for example, resulted in unfair practices. Perceived threats to national security have been used to justify withholding certain rights or have influenced the enforcement of constitutional guarantees. Despite or, in some cases, because of these shortfalls, the fundamental principles have remained very much a part of the American experience, finding expression in judicial decisions, legislation, news reports and editorials, as well as in the thinking of informed individuals.

These ideas not only shaped the institutions and political ideology of England, but they were also transplanted to the American colonies where they were accepted, refined, and embedded in the instruments of government as well as the thinking of the American people.

Online Resources

The National Archives website, offers two essays:

For more links visit the National Endowment for the Humanities website EDSITEment.