800 Years of Magna Carta

It was in the year 1215, when King John of England and barons were locked off in another stage of a long tussle between feudal strong men and their overlord. They would have never realized at that point of time that a treaty which was designed to avert civil war would be celebrated on its eight-hundredth anniversary and in a land far away from where it was signed.

Magna Carta is a Latin term which means “great charter”. The document was a series of written promises between the king and his subjects that he, the king, would govern the country according to the customs of the feudal order. Magna Carta was an attempt by the barons to stop the king from abusing his power.

What propelled the king to sign a document enforced upon him by the barons, who were subordinate to him?

King John’s reign had been a tumultuous one. John had spent most of his time trying to hold on the land conquered in France. He alienated the Pope Innocent III by refusing to accept the Pope’s nominee for the archbishop of Canterbury. He expelled the monks from Canterbury. The Pope, miffed by King John’s actions, excommunicated him. John, faced with threat of invasion from big powers like France, Wales, Rome and others decided to make peace with the pope, and he accepted his nominee for the archbishop.

The barons were annoyed with King John because of his exorbitant demands in form of taxes. To make matters worse, in  1214, the king suffered many of his military defeats trying to reclaim his territory in France. He returned to London demanding more taxes from the barons. This time, the barons were not willing to listen. They rebelled against him and captured London. But, they could not defeat him entirely. By the spring of 1215, both parties were willing to negotiate. King John decided to agree to the terms of the barons and those terms were the Magna Carta.

What did Magna Carta contain?

Magna Carta contained sixty-three clauses. It promised laws that were good and fair. It stated that everyone shall have equal access to the court. It also stated that no freeman shall be imprisoned without going through a proper legal scrutiny.

But, Magna Carta was a failure. The Pope annulled it declaring that it had been signed under duress. Over the years, Magna Carta was reissued a number of times. It was invoked during protests, rebellions and so on. But during the 18th and 19th centuries, it lost its life in Britain and found a new life in America.

When Englishmen travelled to the New World, they brought the charters which established the colonies. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties bore similarities to the clause 29 of Magna Carta. When it was drafted, the Court viewed Magna Carta as the chief embodiment of the English Common Law. In 1638, Maryland sought to  recognize the Magna Carta as a part of the law of the province, but it was not granted by the king. William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania first published Magna Carta in America. The title of his book ‘The Excellent Privilege of Liberty and Property Being the Birth-Right of the Free-born subjects of England’ indicated a belief that Magna Carta was considered to be a fundamental law.

In comparing Magna Carta with the Bill of Rights, the Fifth Amendment guarantees that, “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” Likewise, there are a number of similarities between the clauses of the American Constitution and the Magna Carta. The writers of the American Constitution wanted to ensure that the rights they already held, such as those provided by Magna Carta, were not lost, unless curtailed explicitly in the Constitution of the United States of America.

Now, the Magna Carta belongs to the Americans more than the British. American jurists still refer to it in the legal cases.  A federal district court judge, ruled against delaying Paula Jones’s sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton, then America’s President, on the ground that “our form of government …asserts as did the English in Magna Carta and the Petition of Right,that even the Sovereign is subject to the God and the law.[i]  Magna Carta carries little legal weight in modern Britain, and most of its modern clauses have been repealed and relevant rights ensured by other statutes. But in USA,  the supreme court is adorned with an inscription containing  the text of Magna Carta.

Celebrations of the 800th anniversary

The Magna Carta will complete eight hundred years on 15th June, 2015. The copy of the Magna Carta held by the Lincoln Cathedral  is in the Law Library of the Congress in Washington DC from November 2014 till December 2015. Back in its place of origin, the British Library will be bringing all of its four existing copies together on 3rd February 2015.

About the Author

IMG_0603Diva Choudhary 

Diva is presently pursuing first year, B.A.LL.B at Symbiosis Law School, Pune. She is an avid reader and a dog lover. She loves photography, travelling and creative writing. She is also a staunch feminist.




[i] The Economist (December 20th2014-January 2nd 2015).

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