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Magna Carta, or "great charter," is the charter of English
liberties granted by King John (r. 1199-1216) in 1215 and modified during the
reign of Henry III (r. 1216-72) in 1216, 1217, and 1225. This document is the
first systematic elaboration of the fundamental idea of rule by law, and one
of the first examples in western Europe of an appeal to written law as opposed
The barons of England forced Magna Carta on King John because he was
abusing his royal power. The Angevin Empire (consisting of England and most
of France) established by Henry I (r. 1100-1135) and Henry II (r. 1154-1189)
had fallen on hard times. John's military misfortunes were expensive, and he
became ruthless in raising cash. The unpopularity engendered by his loss of
England's French possessions and his style of ruling was heightened by his quarrel
with Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216). The lay investiture question became an
issue again after the pope quashed John's choice for the archbishop of Canterbury.
In the end John was forced to accept Innocent's nominee, Stephen Langton (1150-1228),
and become the pope's vassal.
With at least Langton's tacit support, the barons of England rebelled against
John in 1214. After a brief civil war, John capitulated to the barons' demands,
and in 1215 at Runnymede he granted Magna Carta, which became a symbol
of liberty and constitutional government for future generations. It is a part
of the written and unwritten constitution that still governs England, and the
liberties it grants have made their way into the laws of many other countries.
Article 39, for instance, is the historical origin of the English Habeas Corpus
Act of 1679: "No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or
outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him,
except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land."1
Magna Carta is the first modern statement of the idea that a ruler
is bound by the rule of law. Many of the traditions and customs associated with
Germanic kingship, which rulers often ignored, were positively established as
law by Magna Carta. Germanic custom, for instance, called for a group
of barons to advise the king, but Magna Carta ensured this process
by binding the king and lords in an explicit and written contract.
 J.C. Holt, Magna
Carta (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 461.
Editions of the Document
Latin text and English translation of Magan Carta in J.C. Holt, Magna Carta
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Revised 2nd edition), pp. 448-473.
William Blackstone, The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest
(1759) reprinted in Law Tracts, vol. II (Oxford, 1762).
Sources of Our Liberties: English and American Documents from Magan Carta
to the Bill of Rights, ed. for the American Bar Foundation by Richard L.
Perry (McGraw-Hill, 1964), pp. 1-22.
"Magna Carta (1297)" in Anne Pallister, Magna Carta: The Heritage
of Liberty (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972),pp. 108-121.
Works about the Document
Gottfried Dietze, Magna Carta and Property (Charlottesville: University
Press of Virginia, 1965).
J.C. Holt, Magna Carta (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Revised 2nd edition.).
Anne Pallister, Magna Carta: The Heritage of Liberty (Oxford: Clarendon
Berard H. Siegan, Property Rights : From Magna Carta to the Fourteenth Amendment
(New Brunswick: Transactions, 2001), "The Rights of Englishmen", pp.
Faith Thompson, The First Century of Magna Carta: Why it persisted as a
Document (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1925).
Faith Thompson, Magna Carta: Its Role in the making of the English Constitution,
1300-1629 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1948).
The introduction to the Text originally appeared on The
Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.