On this date, following a revolt by the English nobility against his rule, King John put his royal seal on the Magna Carta, or “Great Charter.” (Contrary to popular belief, the Magna Carta was not signed by King John; he was illiterate.) His uncontrollable barons had had enough of his high taxation and arbitrary decisions. The document, essentially a peace treaty between John and his barons, guaranteed that the King would respect feudal rights and privileges, uphold the freedom of the church, and maintain the nation’s laws. The Magna Carta contained no new rights or privileges, but only put in writing old laws. The barons needed John to make explicit what was already implicit.
The origin of the barons’ rebellion came about from the moment when John came to the throne in 1199. John had inherited the crown from his brother Richard I, or to be correct, seized it from the legitimate heir, his nephew, Prince Arthur. The French King Philip II supported Arthur’s claim, not only to the throne of England, but to French lands in Normandy and Anjou, which had been held by Richard. King Philip summoned John to appear before him and when John refused, confiscated his French lands and allocated some of them to Arthur and some to himself. John responded by sending an army to defend his lands in Normandy, thus bringing about a minor but costly war.
In order to defray the cost, John instituted a series of taxes, including Forest Law, a set of regulations regarding woodlands, which were difficult to obey in their entirety, easily broken, and raised a great deal of money in fines. John also started an Income Tax, which raised him enough to pay for his wars and more besides. Naturally, the barons were unhappy at this state of affairs and a group of them joined together in rebellion. They captured London, forcing John to leave the city, and then rounded on him at Runnymede, where, at the point of a sword, he sealed The Magna Carta.
As might be expected, the text of the Magna Carta bears many traces of haste, and is clearly the product of much bargaining and many hands. Most of its clauses deal with specific, and often long-standing, grievances rather than with general principles of law. Some of the grievances are self-explanatory: others can be understood only in the context of the feudal society in which they arose. The precise meaning of a few clauses is still a matter of debate.
Although more a reactionary than a progressive document in its day, the Magna Carta was seen as a cornerstone in the development of democratic England by later generations. Thus, it can also be considered the first British constitution, setting down the relationship between citizens and state. The document was remarkable in that it implied there were laws the king was bound to observe, thus precluding any future claim to absolutism by the English monarchy. Of greatest interest to later generations was clause 39, which stated that “no free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised [dispossessed] or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimised…except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” 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).
The complete text can be read here.