The Magna Carta, Latin for "Great Paper", was written as a charter for England in 1215 (Magna 1). The Magna Carta has had the most significant influence on modern day common law and constitutions. The document was originally written because of disagreements between the Pope, King John, and his English barons over the rights of the king. The Magna Carta required the king to renounce certain rights, and to accept that the powers of the king could be bound by law (Asimov 12). There are a few misconceptions about the Magna Carta, however. It was not the first document to attempt to limit the power of the king. It, however, failed to limit the power of the king, especially during the Middle Ages. The Magna Carta had been strengthened during the Stuart and Tudor period, and well into the 18th century. In fact, evidence of the Magna Carta can be seen in the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Almost every common law country with a constitution has been influenced by the Magna Carta. Most importantly, the Magna Carta is not one single document; it was many documents unified under one name (Asimov 15).
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, England had become the most powerful monarch Europe had ever seen. This was in part because of the combination of the centralized government system created by the Norman rulers and the Anglo-Saxon systems (Ayars 4). After King John was crowned in the early thirteenth century, a series of failures on his part led the barons of England to revolt and place checks on the king's power. By 1215, the barons had had enough of the king. They joined forces and took London forcibly. They forced King John to sign the document know as the "Articles of Barons", which was the original Magna Carta. The most important part of the document was the clause that allowed a group of twenty-five barons, at any time, to meet and overrule the king (Asimov 22). The king even had to take an oath to the committee. However, as soon as the barons left London, King John renounced the Magna Carta. The King's actions forced England into a civil war. During the war, King John died, and the direction of the war changed. King John's nine year old son, Henry III was next in line for the throne. The royalists believed that the barons would find Henry III more palatable, and the young child was crowned in 1216, after which the war ended quickly (Asimov 30). During King Henry III's reign as king, the Magna Carta was reissued three times, twice by his regents, and once when he turned eighteen. King Henry III ruled for fifty six years, and by the time he died in 1272, the Magna Carta had become part of English legal precedent, making it very difficult for future kings to annul (Ayars 17).
The Magna Carta included many clauses which guaranteed rights to the people, and guaranteed that the king did not have certain powers. Some of the powers from the 1215 edition that are still in force today include the guaranteed freedom of the Church of England, "ancient liberties" of the city of London, and the right to due process. In the judicial department, the Magna Carta allowed for a fixed court law, which became the chancellery, and defined the scope and frequency of county assizes (Ayars 14). It also required that fines be proportionate to offences, and that offenders be tried by their peers. It is thought that this clause was the reason for jury and magistrate trails. Another clause provided that a crown official may not try a crime in place of a judge (Ayars 21). The Great Council (based on the group of barons that controlled the king's actions) was also created. The council existed for the benefit of the state rather than simply in allegiance to the monarch. It allowed the council to renounce its oath to the king, and not be pressured by the king. The Great Council was an early parliament, which began the reduction of the king's powers. Following the creation of the Great Council, the Magna...
Cited: Asimov, Isaac. Shaping of England. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969.
Ayars, James Sterling. We hold these truths: from Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights. New York: Viking Press, 1977.
Great Charter. 30 Mar 2006
The Magna Carta. 28 Mar 2006
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