Magna Carta – by Isaac Chok

Hi, welcome to an informative document on Magna Carta.

Many resources on the internet for this particular topic tend to be too long and packed with too much unnecessary information, so I feel that having a short, yet informative piece of art on this topic is vital to the education of our community, to our ancestors and to our heirs.

Magna Carta can be explained in four questions, at least what the general public need to know anyway:

1. What is Magna Carta?

2. What is so important about Magna Carta? Why is it so prominent in our history?

3. Why did King John sign Magna Carta if  it limited his power?

4. What does Magna Carta mean for modern British Parliament? 

Question 1, What is Magna Carta?

Magna Carta

The document of Magna Carta itself

It would be obvious to start on this question, because one cannot continue without basic knowledge on what Magna Carta is!

Magna Carta is a legal document/charter that dealt with the regulation of feudal custom, mostly for the good of the higher tiers of the feudal community, the barons. It also addressed:


  • English Church, and to keep its freedom and importance.
  • Law to make ‘heirship’ of important positions more safe and secure.
  • Widow’s rights and their right to not marry.
  • Debt, how to handle it and rules regarding it, to make sure that the debtors are not oppressed if they can handle the debt.
  • Towns allowed having free liberties and customs.
  • The justice system, where the trials and pleas for innocence will be held.
  • What will happen when a free man commits a crime?
  • What happens if a deceased man owes something to the general public?
  • Taking of corn illegally without permission. And timber.
  • The safety of merchants, in and out of England.
  • The abolishment of those who practice evil customs.
  • What happens when someone is punished unfairly?
  • The grudges and quarrels that the barons may have anyone in general.

In comparison to the real Magna Carta, this is a very simple version and interpretation. Note that a lot of modern interpretations (mine as well) may have lost the real meaning of the text, so if you are really interested, I highly recommend that you read the document up yourself. Also I have left out a lot of obscure rules because I felt that they were not necessary to add.

Magna Carta was made because the barons (loyal to the king, often a vassal of a feudal system) were unhappy that King John was and the royal authorities were misusing their powers. (more info in question 3)

Magna Carta translated means ‘The Great Charter’. It originally was called the Charter of Liberties, but due some rules being taken out and put into a separate document called ”The Charter of the Forest’, they named to original Magna Carta to clear up the difference.

Only four copies of Magna Carta survive. History tells us that after the sealing of Magna Carta by King John, copies of Magna Carta were sent out to clerks, sheriffs, bishops etc. all around England. Even though history tells us many copies were sent, only four survive today, one of them burnt.

Magna Carta was written by Archbishop Stephen Langton, one of the most powerful barons in all of England. I can infer that he was not the lone person who had imput into it though, most likely a lot of barons had influence in the contents of Magna Carta and what it enforced against the King.

Other Facts:

  • Magna Carta was sealed by King John on the 15th June, 1215
  • Magna Carta was signed at Runnymede, Egham, Surrey
Magna Carta's seal

Seal used by King John to seal Magna Carta

Question 2, What is so important about Magna Carta? Why is it so prominent in our history?

Magna Carta is important because it provided the base for freedom in our western world. At the time of the writing of Magna Carta, it said to all of England “Your king will now have the same rights as everybody else. He will not be able to break the own laws he created.”

The kings of the time were not tyrannical, but if they had the ability to do so, they were able to. The king can take possessions without permission for their own wealth pre-Magna Carta. Magna Carta then stated that the king can’t simply take timber or corn from someone without their permission; they had to either pay or get their permission first.

Many historians regardless on their interpretation of Magna Carta believe that this the greatest document in the history of England. It is like a nation rising against the king, except in written form.

If you look at America today, you will see that they have a lot of rules about freedom, freedom of speech etc. A lot of this actually comes from Magna Carta, and Magna Carta really in a subtle way shapes what the world is today.

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, nor will we proceed with force against him, except by the lawful judgment 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.”

– Magna Carta, Clause 39

And a clone found in Article 21 of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights

That no freeman ought to be taken, or imprisoned, or disseized of his freehold, liberties, or privileges, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any manner destroyed, or deprived of his life, liberty, or property, but by the judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.”

– United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Article 21

It is simply that, the most significant statement according to our modern world. But it didn’t mean much at the time of writing. The most important part of the writing at the time was everything that was addressed in the list at question one. So now you know Magna Carta affected us in ways you didn’t know about. Isn’t that great?


How a baron would look like

Question 3, Why did King John seal Magna Carta if it limited his powers?

First misconception, King John did not sign Magna Carta. In fact, there is no solid evidence that King John even knew how to write. He sealed Magna Carta with the Great Seal, meaning that he swore to do everything Magna Carta said.

Secondly, King John was forced to seal Magna Carta as you may have already heard of back at question one. King John had generated a bitter relationship between him and the barons, doing many things that upset them.

Here is a list of things that King John had done to provoke the barons:

  • In 1205 King John fought with the Pope Innocent III about who should be archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope wanted Stephen Langton (man that will write up Magna Carta)  to be archbishop, but King John said that he would never be archbishop
  • In 1209 The pope rebeled and banished King John and banned all church services in all parish churches. After this, King John gave up and made Stephen Langton archbishop.

  • Usually when tax rates are hightened, the king would talk with the barons as they were the ones collecting the tax. But because King John was failing in his military attempts, he raised the tax rate without the Baron’s consent, pushing them over the edge. This happened in 1212

  •  General quarelling in this period between the king and the barons, the barons want the king to govern under the laws that existed before the Normans came, (1066) but the king refuses.

  • The Barons take matters into their own hands and capture London tower in May 1215

  • King John is forced to sign Magna Carta in order to prevent a full civil war between those loyal to the Barons and those loyal to King John.

(Events are in chronological order)

Now it should make more sense to why King John would sign such a document that inhibits his power to such an extent. This is a survival move by King John, seal this or face a civil war.

King John pressured into signing Magna Carta

King John pressured into signing Magna Carta

Magna Carta did a lot to restrict the king’s power. Now the King couldn’t just take someone’s stuff for his castles, he couldn’t control towns as much as he used to etc. People were more independant, like today’s society where people often have ownership over their house, mayors have ownership over their towns etc.

This angered King John, and he secretly wrote to Pope Innocent III to write about how Magna Carta was unjust:

“not only shameful and base but also illegal and unjust. We refuse to overlook such shameless presumption which dishonors the Apostolic See, injures the king’s right, shames the English nation and endangers the crusade. Since the whole crusade would be undermined if concessions of this sort were extorted from a great prince who had taken the cross, we, on behalf of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and by the authority of Saints Peter and Paul, His apostles , utterly reject and condemn this settlement. Under threat of excommunication we order that king should not dare observe and the barons and their associates should not insist on it being observed. The charter with all its undertakings and guarantees we declare to be null and void of all validity for ever.”
– Pope Innocent III

Pope Innocent III

An artist's impression on Pope Innocent III

 Another series of events followed after this that sparked civil war. So in the end, the sealing of Magna Carta was a failure, civil war still erupted between the barons and the king. London was under siege by John and castles were being attacked and taken over. Barons and Knights still loyal to the king left his side as he was their own. This battle can be compared with the modern fight for a reform by the Libyan rebels. Eventually, when King John died of deteriorating health, his heir was given power, a nine year old boy, Henry III. His advisers asked him to re-instate Magna Carta. But due to the boy king relying of Frenchmen to do his work for him, he was forced to concede and return to France. Going off topic, its about time we continue on the line of history and see where British Parliament blossomed.

Question 4, What did Magna Carta mean for modern British Parliament?

Led by Earl Simon de Montford, the nobles arranged the first meeting of Parliament in 1265. This was after boy King Henry III was instated as King, and the nobles rebelled against him because of his weakness. This was after King John died because of his deteriorating health. This was after he could have got better treatment if he wasn’t leading a campaign against the barons. This was after the barons declared civil war against the King John because he had asked Pope Innocent III to write negatively about Magna Carta. And this was after the barons forced King John to sign Magna Carta. And this was after the barons were compelled to reform King John after he overtaxed the community.

So that was a link, there is another one as well. Magna Carta was still in force because King Henry III had re-instated it. So in parliament, they had those rules in mind and throughout history they constantly reformed those rules to make Magna Carta what it is today, barely Magna Carta in fact, more like 3 individual rules.

  • The clause guaranteeing the freedom of the English Church.
  • The clause guaranteeing the independence of London and other towns from the King. (or just their independence in general)
  • The clause, most famous, stating that no free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions.
Here are some other inferences that show my personal opinion on Magna Carta’s influence (these may be/are inaccurate, as I do not have any source to back me up)
  • The barons who came together to make Magna Carta were like a little parliament. They may have sparked the idea of parliament today.
  • Many of Magna Carta’s removed rules may still be here today in UN rules, but in different form.
  • As parliament grew bigger, the rule of the monarch as a general rule became smaller. If Magna Carta didn’t exist, we would most likely be under significant power of the monarch.
  • Parliament has influenced nearly everything in history, imagine a world without the system of parliament, even though parliament may still have slowly evolved without Magna Carta, (even though I highly doubt it) the world would be a much different place, most likely more violent as UN itself is a bit of a parliament, and other countries would declare war against each other, therefore inhibiting modern world development. This is an extreme view, but just putting it out there.
European Parliament

What the concept of parliament has done to help us

Hope you enjoyed reading this and I hope you found it as informative as I have. I also claim responsibility for any mistakes, it has been a very hard topic to research for me. I do not claim responsibility if you have taken my inferences too seriously. This is not a professional essay.

Bibliography – Essay provided by – Information provided by British Library.

1215 – The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham – Information and quotes from Magna Carta from book. – Quote from United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights provided. – Helping to understand big words