Magna Carta

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, as it was invalidated by the Pope two months after it was issued 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 (1297) into British statute law; three years later it was first publicly proclaimed in English.

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); N. Vincent, Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction (2012); D. Carpenter, Magna Carta (2015); S. Church, King John and the Road to Magna Carta (2015); D. Jones, Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty (2015); N. Vincent and A. Musson, ed., Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom, 1215–2015 (2015).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Magna Carta: Selected full-text books and articles

Events That Changed Great Britain, from 1066 to 1714 By Frank W. Thackeray; John E. Findling Greenwood Press, 2004
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "The Magna Carta, 1215"
Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages By Ernest F. Henderson Biblo and Tannen, 1965
Librarian's tip: The text of the Magna Carta begins on p. 135
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Shaping the Common Law: From Glanvill to Hale, 1188-1688 By Thomas Garden Barnes; Allen D. Boyer Stanford Law Books, 2008
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Magna Carta"
Reflections on Constitutional Law By George Anastaplo University Press of Kentucky, 2006
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Magna Carta"
The Governance of Mediaeval England from the Conquest to Magna Carta By H. G. Richardson; G. O. Sayles Edinburgh University Press, 1963
The Intruders: Unreasonable Searches and Seizures from King John to John Ashcroft By Samuel Dash Rutgers University Press, 2004
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "The Legend of the Magna Carta"
John, King of England By John T. Appleby Alfred A. Knopf, 1959
Librarian's tip: Appendix "The Great Charter"
Feudal Britain: The Completion of the Medieval Kingdoms, 1066-1314 By G. W. S. Barrow Edward Arnold, 1956
Librarian's tip: Chap. XIII "The Years Before the Charter, 1189-1215" and Chap. XVI "Criticism, Reform and Rebellion, 1216-66"
The Constitutional History of Medieval England: From the English Settlement to 1485 By J. E. A. Jolliffe Adam and Charles Black, 1937
Librarian's tip: "Feudal Monarchy and Bureaucracy: 1066-1272" begins on p. 174
The Making of the English Constitution, 449-1485 By Albert Beebe White G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1925 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: "The Genesis of Limited Monarchy" begins on p. 258
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