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"agreement" signed by King John at Runnymede on June 15, 1215 to end a rebellion by English barons and church leaders
Reasons for the Magna Carta
England had enjoyed rule by able and fair kings for over one hundred years, kings who respected feudal law and tried to govern justly, despite there being no one to control their power. All that changed, however, soon after King Richard I died and John succeeded him to the throne, in 1199. Having taken the throne instead of Richard's son, Arthur, John was immediately distrusted and disliked by the English nobility. He had already proven to be an ineffective ruler during his brief reign over Ireland as a teenager, and his ineffectiveness was magnified once he ascended the royal throne. As king, John abused his power and threw away respect for feudal traditions. He demanded more military service from the feudal class than was customary, sold royal positions to the highest bidders, and increased taxes without the customary consent of barons. He was also known for deciding court cases based on whims rather than established law.
By 1213 the nobility had had enough. That year, barons and church leaders met at St. Albans, near London, and called for a halt to the king's injustices. They also drew up a list of rights they wanted granted to them. After King John refused the demands twice, the barons raised an army against him. Unable to stop the rebellion, King John was finally forced to surrender to the barons and sign the "Article of Barons." The document was engrossed as a royal charter -- the Magna Carta -- four days later; copies were subsequently made and distributed throughout the kingdom.
Provisions of the Magna Carta
The Magna Carta consisted of 63 articles, most of which pledged the king to uphold feudal law. Some of the articles granted the church freedom from royal interference, a few guaranteed the rights of the middle class. Among its most important provisions was establishment of a Council of Barons to make certain that the king kept his promises. If the king violated the charter in any way, the Council had the right to raise an army and force him to either live by its provisions or abdicate the throne. The Council also had veto power over virtually every decision made by the king, especially with regards to taxes. Ordinary freemen and peasants were barely mentioned in the document at all.
After the Magna Carta
King John began breaking his promises almost immediately after signing the Magna Carta, prompting new revolts. The king died just as it seemed he was about to be victorious, in 1216. Subsequent monarchs, however, agreed to abide by the charter, beginning with John's successor, King Henry III.
The Magna Carta went largely forgotten for over 300 years, as reigning kings and queens abided by its provisions in spirit, if not always in actuality. That changed in the 1600's, however, when the Parliament used the charter to rally support against the despotic rule of the Stuart kings. Parliament began seeing the Magna Carta as a constitutional check on royal power, and cited it as legal support for the argument that no laws or taxes could be created without its consent. In the 1700's, Sir William Blackstone set down many of the ideals set forth in the charter in Commentaries on the Laws of England, which served as a kind of textbook for framers of the United States Constitution.
This page was last updated on March 25, 2017.