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The great charter of freedoms: Magna Carta - June 15, 1215

The signing of the Magna Carta granted England's nobility, and later its common citizens, wide-ranging rights. On June 15, 1215, King John was forced to give in to pressure from the barons.

The Magna Carta, with its seal of King Edward I

The Magna Carta

King John of England (1167 - 1216) found that he had little choice but to sign a document of enormous significance. The reign of the king, who was seen as flighty and obstinate, seemed to be under an unlucky star. He was often mocked because, unlike his elder brothers, he wasn't given any land by his father, Henry II (1133 - 1189). He was thus often referred to as John Lackland.

From the very beginning, he suffered due to the fact that he was the successor to his popular brother, Richard the Lionheart (1157 – 1199). Additionally, he was constantly in conflict with the Church. The clergy kept a close eye on him, to be sure that he wasn't gaining too much influence over the inner workings of the Church. But the biggest factor in the rapid loss of respect for the king was the ongoing tension with France over the continental parcel of land in northern France that belonged to the English crown.

Failed invasion of France

Since 1202, France's King Philip II had been perpetuating the conflict. The British land holdings in France were confiscated, then they were given back under the rules of a treaty. The French nobles in northern France revolted against the British crown; then the pope got into the mix. In 1209, King John was even excommunicated. At the beginning of 1214, the French king threatened an attack on England, but King John acted first, invading France. The invasion failed miserably. The ignominy of defeat was the last straw for England's nobility. The barons drew up a list of 63 articles in which they detailed the rights they wanted the king to guarantee them and their descendants.

The most important demand was the right not to be subjected to any more taxes without their agreement. Furthermore, no free citizen was to be held by an officer of the court without the reason for his detainment being subject to scrutiny. In addition, the nobles demanded inalienable privileges for themselves which could not be taken away by either the king or the pope.

Depiction of King John signing the Magna Carta

Depiction of King John signing the Magna Carta

For the king, the consequences of this “charter of freedom” were clear. From then on, and for the first time, an English king would not rule solely by the “grace of God” or with the blessing of the pope. Rather, he would have to concern himself with the interests of first the nobility, and later, the common people. But for King John, there was no other course of action but to sign the Magna Carta on that historic June 15, 1215, in Runnymede, Surrey. The barons had prepared several copies – one for each county – so that within a matter of days, the content of the Magna Carta was known throughout the entire country.

Cornerstone of European law

Though it's been transformed somewhat, the Magna Carta that was signed in 1215 still forms the legal foundation of Great Britain today. Together with the Bill of Rights in the year 1791, it also became the basis for all the laws of the United States. The US Constitution draws to a large extent on the Magna Carta. And it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the Magna Carta provided the basis for every declaration that created the conditions for increased civil liberties and rights – at first, on the British isle, and later, on the European continent.

The article in the Magna Carta which states that the king is not able to impose any tax "unless by common counsel of our kingdom" calls to mind a similar political demand made during the American War of Independence at the end of the 18th century: "No taxation without representation."

Author: Matthias von Hellfeld (dc)

Editor: Andreas Illmer