Magna Carta or Magna Charta [Lat., = great charter], the most famous document of British constitutional history, issued by King John at Runnymede under compulsion from the barons and the church in June, 1215.
The Reasons for Its Granting
Charters of liberties had previously been granted by Henry I, Stephen, and Henry II, in attempts to placate opposition to a broad use of the king's power as feudal lord. John had incurred general hostility. His expensive wars abroad were unsuccessful, and to finance them he had charged excessively for royal justice, sold church offices, levied heavy aids, and abused the feudal incidents of wardship, marriage, and escheat. He had also appointed advisers from outside the baronial ranks. Finally in 1215 the barons rose in rebellion. Faced by superior force, the king entered into parleys with the barons at Runnymede. On June 15, after some attempts at evasion, John set his seal to the preliminary draft of demands presented by the barons, and after several days of debate a compromise was reached (June 19). The resulting document was put forth in the form of a charter freely granted by the king—although in actuality its guarantees were extorted by the barons from John. There are four extant copies of the original charter.
The Original Charter
The original charter, in Latin, is a relatively brief and somewhat vague document of some 63 clauses, many of which were of only transient significance. The charter was in most respects a reactionary document; its purpose was to insure feudal rights and dues and to guarantee that the king would not encroach upon baronial privileges. There were provisions guaranteeing the freedom of the church and the customs of the towns, special privileges being conferred upon London.
The charter definitely implies that there are laws protecting the rights of subjects and communities that the king is bound to observe or, if he fails to do so, will be compelled to observe. Historically most important were the vaguely worded statements against oppression of all subjects, which later generations interpreted as guarantees of trial by jury and of habeas corpus. Such interpretations, however, were the work of later scholars and are not explicit in the charter itself. The fact that many of the early interpretations of its provisions were based upon bad historical scholarship or false reasoning, however, does not vitiate the importance of the Magna Carta in the development of the British constitution.
Revisions and Reinterpretations
As an actual instrument of government the charter was, at first, a failure. The clumsy machinery set up to prevent the king's violation of the charter never had an opportunity to function, and civil war broke out the same year. On John's death in 1216, the charter was reissued in the name of young King Henry III, but with a number of significant omissions relative to safeguards of national liberties and restrictions on taxation. It was reissued with further changes in 1217 and again in 1225, the latter reissue being the one that was incorporated into British statute law.
In later centuries it became a symbol of the supremacy of the constitution over the king, as opponents of arbitrary royal power extracted from it various "democratic" interpretations. This movement reached its height in the 17th cent. in the work of such apologists for Parliament as Sir Edward Coke. It came to be thought that the charter forbade taxation without representation, that it guaranteed trial by jury, even that it invested the House of Commons (nonexistent in 1215) with great powers. These ideas persisted until the 19th cent., when certain scholars came to maintain that the Magna Carta was a completely reactionary, not a progressive, document—that it was merely a guarantee of feudal rights. It is generally recognized now, however, that the charter definitely did show the viability of opposition to excessive use of royal power and that this constitutes its chief significance.
See W. S. McKechnie, Magna Carta: A Commentary (2d ed. 1914, repr. 1960); H. E. Malden, ed., Magna Carta Commemoration Essays (1917); F. Thompson, The First Century of Magna Carta (1925, repr. 1967); M. Ashley, Magna Carta in the Seventeenth Century (1965); J. C. Holt, Magna Carta (1965, repr. 1969); A. Pallister, Magna Carta (1971); J. C. Holt, Magna Carta and the Idea of Liberty (1972) and Magna Carta and Medieval Government (1985).