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Magna Carta

In 1215, King John of England approved a document acknowledging laws, rights and freedoms which eventually became an icon for liberty throughout the world

Detail of Magna Carta
Magna Carta, 1215, Cotton Augustus ii.106
Copyright © The British Library Board

How did Magna Carta come about?

In the 1210s England's King John, struggling to regain his lands in Normandy, set ever more demanding taxes upon his barons. Those who defaulted were punished severely. In January 1215 a deputation of barons met with John, seeking assurances. But John prevaricated and soon the barons rebelled.

When the barons captured London, John was forced to negotiate. The two sides met at Runnymede, near Windsor, in June 1215. The result of the negotiations was written down, in Latin, as the Articles of the Barons. It was this document, sealed in the presence of John, which was converted by the king's clerks into the formal royal grant known as Magna Carta ('The Great Charter').

What does the document say?

Much of Magna Carta deals with specific recent grievances regarding the ownership of land, the regulation of the justice system, and feudal taxes with no modern equivalent (such as 'scutage', 'socage' and 'burbage'). It demands the removal of fish weirs from the Thames; the sacking of one Gerard de Athée and eight named colleagues; the standardisation of various weights and measures ('haberject' was to be sold in units of 'two ells per selvedge', for instance); and so on.

But it lays out many general principles too, and these are what has made it famous. It established that no taxes could be demanded without the "general consent of the realm", meaning the leading barons and churchmen. It re-established privileges which had been lost and allowed certain sureties. For instance, it linked fines to the severity of the offence so as not to threaten an individual's livelihood. It also confirmed that a widow could not be forced to remarry.

Amongst its many clauses, all of which applied only to free men (meaning those not indentured to their lord) were two of lasting significance:

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.

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

These gave all free men the right to justice and a fair trial. It was the direct ancestor of the principle of habeas corpus, namely that no one could be imprisoned unlawfully.

Did John keep his side of the bargain?

No. Not surprisingly, John ignored the charter, and had it annulled by the Pope. Within months he was at war again with his barons. They were prepared, though: Magna Carta had allowed them a right of redress if the King did not comply.

John died a year later, but Magna Carta did not die with him. A slightly revised version was issued in the name of his young son, Henry III, in November 1216 and again the following year. Upon reaching eighteen in 1225, Henry reissued it in a shortened version and that version was enshrined in English law in 1297 by Edward I. By then Magna Carta was taking on its status as the source of English liberty. Much later, in 1628, the noted jurist Sir Edward Coke made a speech to the House of Commons criticising the king, Charles I, for wielding too much power. Coke stirringly invoked the provisions of Magna Carta, reconfirming it as a foundation stone that upholds the fundamental liberties of all those governed by the laws of England - and, subsequently, across the British Empire.

Did Magna Carta apply outside England?

A part of Magna Carta originally applied to Wales, as it specified "English law shall apply to holdings of land in England, Welsh law to those in Wales, and the law of the Marches to those in the Marches." This was dropped in the 1297 version.

However, Magna Carta never applied in Scotland, and the writ of habeas corpus, which was standardised in England under the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, has no meaning in Scotland. It was not until 1887 that the Criminal Procedure Scotland Act introduced the equivalent requirements for a prompt trial. Ireland had its own Habeas Corpus Act in 1782.

How many copies were made?

It is not certain how many copies of Magna Carta were originally issued, though it is likely a copy was sent to each of the 40 shires. Only 13 copies were specifically noted in royal archives, and only four of these survive: one in Lincoln Cathedral; one in Salisbury cathedral; and two at the British Library, one of which was badly damaged by fire in 1731.

Find out more

Our new website covers The history and legacy of Magna Carta, including a full translation.

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