Magna Carta (Great Charter) was originally a peace agreement between King John and a number of rebel feudal lords (barons), signed and agreed at a meadow at Runnymede in Surrey in 1215. It addressed a number of grievances arising from the government and policy of both King John and his brother Richard I—discontents that had come to a head as a result of John’s dispute with the Church and his military defeat at the hands of Philip II of France. However, the terms of the agreement dealt with these issues by articulating general principles, rather than by settling specific concrete disputes, and it was this generality that made it a historic document of permanent importance. There were precedents for royal charters of this nature, notably the Coronation Charter of Henry I of 1101, but this was the first time that specific grievances over the misuse of power led to a general statement of principles of government.

Magna Carta contains 61 clauses. Some deal with apparently trivial issues, such as the banning of fish weirs (no. 33), or with extremely specific abuses of royal power. The central clauses of the Charter, however, articulated a series of principles that the Angevin Kings and their servants had violated. The first clause recognized the freedom of the Church, stipulating that it was not under royal control. Other important principles included limitations on royal powers of taxation and appropriation and the insistence that these limits be exercised according to known and established laws (e.g., clauses 2, 3, 4, 9, 55, and 56); that general tax levies (aids) could only be raised after the King had gained consent through the calling of a general council, according to precise rules (clauses 12 and 14); that no movable goods could be taken by royal officers without payment (clause 28); and that punishment should be proportional to the offense and should not take away a man’s means of livelihood (clause 20). The most important, both at the time and for later developments, were clauses 39 and 40. These clauses stated: “No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned, or disseized, or outlawed, or banished, or in any way molested; nor will we set forth against him, nor send against him, unless by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land” (clause 39) and “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” These articulated what would later be called the principle of “due process of law.”

The crucial importance of Magna Carta, at the time and since, was that it limited royal power by establishing the principle that such power had to be exercised in an orderly and rule‐​bound fashion in accordance with known and recognized law and not simply according to the arbitrary will or interests of its holder. In other words, it was one of the first formal statements of the principle of the rule of law. An important point to note is that it did not simply limit royal power while leaving noble or ecclesiastical power unchecked. Clause 15 limited the power of barons to levy charges on their tenants in the same way that the King’s power of taxation was restrained. Clause 60 stated, “All these customs and liberties that we have granted shall be observed in our kingdom insofar as concerns our own relations with our subjects. Let all men of our kingdom, whether clergy or laymen, observe them similarly in their relations with their own men.” Thus, Magna Carta established the principle of the rule of law as a check on power in general, at least in England.

However, Magna Carta was only the first of several such concessions by European rulers. Among the more important were the Golden Bull of Hungary (1222), the Danish Great Charter or Handfaestning (1282), the Aragonese Privileges of Union (1287), and the Statute of Piotrkow (1496). All of these concessions, like Magna Carta, laid down constitutional rules establishing a set of principles governing the way political institutions were required to operate and limiting their rule‐​making and enforcement powers. Magna Carta itself had great importance in later English history. Indeed, its real significance for many historians lies in the way subsequent generations came to see it as the basic constitution or law of the realm and to hold to it as a protection against the growth of arbitrary power. This interpretive shift occurred soon after its signing when Simon De Montfort, in his disputes with John’s son, Henry III, demanded that Magna Carta’s principles be upheld. This demand led, among other things, to the summoning of the first “Model” Parliament in 1261. Later, opponents of the Stuarts’ attempts to establish absolute monarchy in England, such as Coke, Pym, and Hampden, all appealed to the symbol and authority of Magna Carta. As late as the mid‐​19th century, as, for example, in the Chartist movement, radicals made use of the Charter to support their demands against what they regarded as arbitrary government. The principles of constitutional government and the rule of law first articulated in Magna Carta were thus passed down and developed by later generations, including the American colonists, who also looked back to it as the first statement of the principles they held dear.

Further Readings

Adams, John. “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.” The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams (selected by C. Bradley Thompson). Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2000.

Brooks, David, ed. From Magna Carta to the Constitution: Documents in the Struggle for Liberty. San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1993.

Coke, Edward. “Petition of Right.” The Selected Writings and Speeches of Sir Edward Coke. Vol. 3. Steven Sheppard, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2003.

Holt, J. C. Magna Carta. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

———. Magna Carta and the Idea of Liberty. London: Wiley, 1972.

Pallister, Anne. Magna Carta: The Heritage of Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Turner, Ralph. Magna Carta. London: Longman, 2003.

Stephen Davies
Originally published