Prince John and his barons signing the Magna Carta

What was the Magna Carta?


King John signing the Magna Carta, as depicted in A Chronicle of England

Eight hundred years ago, on the 19th June 1215 at Runnymede in Surrey, King John signed the Magna Carta.

The term Magna Carta means Great Charter. It was the first legally binding document which said that even the King had to follow the laws of the land. The charter also said that if the King was not acting in the best interests of the country then the Barons could place a limit on his power. Within the Magna Carter there are fifteen chapters that list the different ways in which the King was no longer allowed to abuse the privilege of being the monarch.

The Magna Carta made important changes the lives of ordinary people, the most significant being that nobody, whether they were rich or poor, could be arrested, have their belongings taken away, or be imprisoned without a trial by jury.

Magna Carta was the first official document that outlined the principle that ‘No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land’. Not only did this idea become the fundamental principal of English justice, but it also forms the basis of the United States Constitution, and part of the legal declarations of all modern democracies.

As well as the law, the Magna Carta also guaranteed the rights of the medieval Church.

King John never wanted to sign the Magna Carta, but he was so unpopular with both the Barons and the Church, after he’d spent years forcing people to pay heavy taxes to fund his unsuccessful wars, he had no choice.

Once the King had sealed the original document, many copies of the Magna Carta were made and taken to each of England’s administrative centres. Eight hundred years later, only four of these original documents have survived. They can be found in Lincoln Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral and The British Library in London. You can also find copies of the Magna Carta from 1216 and 1217 in Durham, Bury St Edmunds, Canterbury, Hereford and Oxford.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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