5 Facts About the Magna Carta
Religion & Liberty Online

5 Facts About the Magna Carta

magna-cartaToday marks the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta. Here are five facts about this English document which helped to establish the rule of law:

1. Magna Carta (Latin for “the Great Charter”), also called Magna Carta Libertatum (Latin for “the Great Charter of the Liberties”), was a peace treaty between King John of England and rebel barons that was sealed on June 15, 1215. Magna Carta established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law.

2. The original charter was ineffective. Pope Innocent III rejected the charter’s terms, and on August 24, 1215 issued a papal bull describing Magna Carta as “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people,” and declaring the charter “null and void of all validity for ever.” In September 1215, civil war broke out between King John and his barons, leading to the First Barons’ War. Henry III reissued the document in 1216 after stripping it of some of it’s more radical clauses.

3. The charter consisted of a preamble and 63 clauses that dealt mainly with the relationship between the medieval barons and the king. Of the original 63 clauses, only three remain part of English law. One defends the liberties and rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, and the third is the most famous clause that gave all ‘free men’ the right to justice and a fair trial:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

This clause has been celebrated as an early guarantee of trial by jury and of habeas corpus and inspired England’s Petition of Right (1628) and the Habeas Corpus Act (1679).

4. Sir Edward Coke, the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in England, frequently used the Magna Carta as a political tool in arguments over the authority of the English monarchy. It was Coke’s view of the charter that influenced the American Colonists. Coke drew up the Royal Charter that established the colony in Jamestown, Virginia. This charter declared that, “The persons which shall dwell within the colonies shall have all the liberties as if they had been abiding and born within this our realm of England or any other of our dominions.” These “Liberties” appeared in one form or another in the founding charters of Massachusetts (1629), Maryland (1632), Maine (1639), Connecticut (1662), Rhode Island (1663), and Georgia (1732).

5. Some of Magna Carta’s core principles are echoed in the United States Bill of Rights (1791) and in many other constitutional documents around the world, as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950). And according to G. Tully Vaughan, in more than one hundred decisions, the United States Supreme Court has traced our dependence on the Magna Carta for our understanding of due process of law, trial by a jury of one’s peers, the importance of a speedy and unbiased trial, and the protection against excessive bail or fines or cruel and unusual punishment.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).