This article has been written by members of the Hansard writing team using research by Professor David Carpenter and Christopher Tilley, as well as other sources.
What is Magna Carta?
“Here is a law which is above the King and Parliament… This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it.” (Winston Churchill)
On 15 June 1215, in a meadow at Runnymede, about 20 miles from London, King John (1167-1216) agreed to the extensive demands of the barons, the most powerful men in the kingdom. Several copies of the agreement were written in Latin on calfskin, and the royal great seal in wax was attached with ribbon or cord. Four copies of the original Magna Carta survive—two in the British Library and one each in the cathedrals of Lincoln and Salisbury—although none still has its original seal. Neither the king nor the witnesses signed Magna Carta, but their names are listed in the preamble.
For all the constitutional weight that was later placed on it, Magna Carta at first marked only a temporary truce in the civil war between King John and the rebellious barons. They were known as the Northerners because several of them held land in the north of England. King John had alienated them not only by his cruel and lecherous character, but by imposing excessive taxes and seizing their lands. A disastrous military campaign in 1214, which confirmed the loss of Normandy and other French territories, forced the king on to the defensive. In a desperate bid to safeguard his position, he conceded the barons’ demands at Runnymede, but he quickly repudiated the agreement and the civil war began again. King John laid siege to Rochester castle, which surrendered at the end of November 1215, but he was less successful fighting in the north. He is said to have lost some of the Crown jewels in the Wash, between Norfolk and Lincolnshire, when his baggage carts were caught by the incoming tide a few days before his death in October 2016.
Magna Carta was effectively the first written constitution. It was reissued in shorter versions in 1216, 1217 and 1225, during the reign of John’s son Henry III (1207-72). Because a smaller charter dealing with royal forests was issued in 1217, the charter—or formal grant of rights—became known as Magna Carta, which means “the great charter”. For the next 200 years, kings reconfirmed it at the start of their reign. During the 17th-century struggles between Parliament and Charles I, Magna Carta assumed new significance as a written guarantee of political liberty. It was a major inspiration for such great constitutional documents as the British Bill of Rights (1689) and the American Declaration of Independence (1776).
The provisions of Magna Carta covered the freedom of the Church, the rights of land owners and tenants, the liberties of towns and cities—it gave greater autonomy to the City of London: King John granted it the right to elect its own mayor—and reforms to law and justice. Magna Carta did not apply to women and unfree men (those without protected rights as freehold tenants), so affected perhaps only 10% of the population, but eventually it came to be seen as applying to everyone. One of its most famous provisions stated, “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice”. For many legal commentators, that has long been the foundation stone of individual liberties under the law. In fact, it still exists in UK law as part of Edward I’s version of Magna Carta, which was made a statute in 1297.
Parliament began to develop during the 13th century, and often appealed to Magna Carta as a precedent in support of its rights and privileges. One of Magna Carta’s provisions stated: “No scutage or aid [feudal payments or taxes] shall be imposed in our kingdom unless by common counsel of our kingdom”. That principle became significant over the following centuries as the chief means by which Parliament increased its power.
The famous scene beside the Thames at Runnymede 800 years ago, when for the first time a written check was placed on the arbitrary exercise of royal authority, is widely regarded as the first step in the long democratic development of the United Kingdom. Its influence is even reflected in the fabric of the Houses of Parliament. Statues of the 16 barons and two bishops present on 15 June 1215 watch over the proceedings in the House of Lords Chamber, a reminder that one of the functions of Parliament is to provide a challenge to the Government.
Find out more about Magna Carta
In 2015 the Houses of Parliament, along with the people of the UK, will be commemorating 800 years since the sealing of Magna Carta (1215).