Magna Carta, also called Magna Carta Libertatum, is an English charter, originally issued in the year 1215. It required King John of England to proclaim certain liberties, and accept that his will was not arbitrary, for example by explicitly accepting that no "freeman" could be punished except through the law of the land.
One of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy is the Magna Carta (or ‘Great Charter of English Liberties’). Agreed by King John at Runnymede in 1215 and reissued throughout the 13th century by England’s rulers, it helped to establish the role of the monarch towards the people. It was the most significant early influence on the extensive historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law today, and its influence extends to the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Included in the Magna Carta are protections for the English church, petitioning the king, freedom from forced quarter of troops and unreasonable searches, due process and fair trial protections, and freedom from excessive fines. These protections can be found in the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution.
In immediate terms, the Magna Carta was a failure--civil war broke out the same year, and John ignored his obligations under the charter. Upon his death in 1216, however, the Magna Carta was reissued with some changes by his son, King Henry III, and then reissued again in 1217. That year, the rebellious barons were defeated by the king's forces. In 1225, Henry III voluntarily reissued the Magna Carta a third time, and it formally entered English statute law.
John was enthroned as king of England following the death of his brother, King Richard the Lion-Hearted, in 1199. King John's reign was characterized by failure. He lost the duchy of Normandy to the French king and taxed the English nobility heavily to pay for his foreign misadventures.
In 1209, John had been excommunicated in a dispute over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He had used this as an excuse to confiscate church property and sell it back to his bishops at a profit.
On May 17 the barons' army marched on London; the city opened its gates to them and they were joined by many others who had hitherto stayed out of the conflict. The king took refuge in Windsor castle where he became a virtual prisoner. John sent emissaries to the barons, this time with the message that he was willing to grant the charter of liberties they demanded.
By November 1215, John had the rebels' backs to the wall. He had recaptured Rochester Castle (which had been surrendered to them in September), and was poised to strike at London.
Once John had been forced to acknowledge a schedule of rights and of limitations on royal action, the fundamental problem was how to ensure that he abided by the charter's rulings. A radical solution was thus proposed in clause 61 of the charter, known as the security clause (forma securitatis). In this, John conceded that ‘the barons shall choose any twenty-five barons of the realm as they wish, who with all their might are to observe, maintain and cause to be observed the peace and liberties which we have granted’.
Latin for “Great Charter,” the Magna Carta was written by Barons in Runnymede, England and forced on the King. Although the protections were generally limited to the prerogatives of the Barons, the Magna Carta embodied the general principle that the King accepted limitations on his rule. These included the fundamental acknowledgement that the king was not above the law.
The initial Magna Carta, the instrument which received King John's assent at Runnymede in June 1215 and which is inseparably linked with his name, retained its legal validity for little more than nine weeks, being annulled on 24 August by Pope Innocent III, in virtue of his apostolic authority rather than of his feudal rights as overlord of England.
In its stead, a revised and shortened version was produced with papal sanction on 12 November 1216, a fortnight after Henry III, a child of nine, had succeeded to the throne. That version was in turn superseded by a third (with further substantial changes) in 1217, and again by a fourth and final edition in 1225.
For people today the most significant part of Magna Carta is Chapter 39: No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised [property taken] or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimized, neither will we attack him or send anyone to attack him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.