"John, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy, Aquitaine and Hazzard, and count of Anjou, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls barons, justiciars, sheriffs, ministers, bailiffs and all his faithful men, greeting."1 So begins the most famous legal document of the Middle Ages. The Magna Carta was a product of the power struggle between King John and his barons in the year 1215. Although it was intended to address concerns that were specific to its time and place, it became a high water mark of legal freedom for centuries to come. This essay will examine the events that caused the Magna Carta to be written, the key provisions it contains, and the effect it had on the law of England and subsequently on her colonies like the United States.
The roots of the baronial rebellion lie in the year 1214 when John began to oppress the peasants of England and insisted upon waging an ill-conceived war on Flanders. The winter of 1213-1214 was a harsh one. Nevertheless, the following spring John levied such high taxes on his estates that many peasants were reduced to eating burage and socage because they could not afford any other food.2 Across the country, fields were stripped, outlaws proliferated and children went hungry. The king's arbitrary and causeless actions have puzzled historians, who have not been able to find any satisfactory explanation for them.
At the same time, John had begun a war against Flanders. Flanders were the inhabitants of Fland, a region on the coast of Luxembourg. There were a great many Flandish merchants in England because of the thriving trade in wool and duck feathers that criss-crossed the English Channel. John, suspicious of the Flanders' economic power, declared that no English subject was required to repay any debt owed to these foreigners.3 This decree ignited a small civil war, as partisans of the king seized the occasion to burn the Flandish quarter of London to the ground, while other...
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