Magna Carta

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Magna Carta

Magna Carta or Magna Charta [Lat., = great charter], the most famous document of British constitutional history, issued by King John at Runnymede under compulsion from the barons and the church in June, 1215.

The Reasons for Its Granting

Charters of liberties had previously been granted by Henry I, Stephen, and Henry II, in attempts to placate opposition to a broad use of the king's power as feudal lord. John had incurred general hostility. His expensive wars abroad were unsuccessful, and to finance them he had charged excessively for royal justice, sold church offices, levied heavy aids, and abused the feudal incidents of wardship, marriage, and escheat. He had also appointed advisers from outside the baronial ranks. Finally in 1215 the barons rose in rebellion. Faced by superior force, the king entered into parleys with the barons at Runnymede. On June 15, after some attempts at evasion, John set his seal to the preliminary draft of demands presented by the barons, and after several days of debate a compromise was reached (June 19). The resulting document was put forth in the form of a charter freely granted by the king—although in actuality its guarantees were extorted by the barons from John. There are four extant copies of the original charter.

The Original Charter

The original charter, in Latin, is a relatively brief and somewhat vague document of some 63 clauses, many of which were of only transient significance. The charter was in most respects a reactionary document; its purpose was to insure feudal rights and dues and to guarantee that the king would not encroach upon baronial privileges. There were provisions guaranteeing the freedom of the church and the customs of the towns, special privileges being conferred upon London.

The charter definitely implies that there are laws protecting the rights of subjects and communities that the king is bound to observe or, if he fails to do so, will be compelled to observe. Historically most important were the vaguely worded statements against oppression of all subjects, which later generations interpreted as guarantees of trial by jury and of habeas corpus. Such interpretations, however, were the work of later scholars and are not explicit in the charter itself. The fact that many of the early interpretations of its provisions were based upon bad historical scholarship or false reasoning, however, does not vitiate the importance of the Magna Carta in the development of the British constitution.

Revisions and Reinterpretations

As an actual instrument of government the charter was, at first, a failure. The clumsy machinery set up to prevent the king's violation of the charter never had an opportunity to function, as it was invalidated by the Pope two months after it was issued and civil war broke out the same year. On John's death in 1216, the charter was reissued in the name of young King Henry III, but with a number of significant omissions relative to safeguards of national liberties and restrictions on taxation. It was reissued with further changes in 1217 and again in 1225, the latter reissue being the one that was incorporated (1297) into British statute law; three years later it was first publicly proclaimed in English.

In later centuries it became a symbol of the supremacy of the constitution over the king, as opponents of arbitrary royal power extracted from it various “democratic” interpretations. This movement reached its height in the 17th cent. in the work of such apologists for Parliament as Sir Edward Coke. It came to be thought that the charter forbade taxation without representation, that it guaranteed trial by jury, even that it invested the House of Commons (nonexistent in 1215) with great powers. These ideas persisted until the 19th cent., when certain scholars came to maintain that the Magna Carta was a completely reactionary, not a progressive, document—that it was merely a guarantee of feudal rights. It is generally recognized now, however, that the charter definitely did show the viability of opposition to excessive use of royal power and that this constitutes its chief significance.


See W. S. McKechnie, Magna Carta: A Commentary (2d ed. 1914, repr. 1960); H. E. Malden, ed., Magna Carta Commemoration Essays (1917); F. Thompson, The First Century of Magna Carta (1925, repr. 1967); M. Ashley, Magna Carta in the Seventeenth Century (1965); J. C. Holt, Magna Carta (1965, repr. 1969); A. Pallister, Magna Carta (1971); J. C. Holt, Magna Carta and the Idea of Liberty (1972) and Magna Carta and Medieval Government (1985); N. Vincent, Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction (2012); D. Carpenter, Magna Carta (2015); S. Church, King John and the Road to Magna Carta (2015); D. Jones, Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty (2015); N. Vincent and A. Musson, ed., Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom, 1215–2015 (2015).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Magna Carta


document signed by the English king John Lackland on June 15, 1215. Written in Latin, it contains 63 articles.

The signing of the Magna Carta was preceded by an uprising of the barons, who were dissatisfied with the strengthening of the king’s power. Also participating in this uprising were knights and burghers who were opposed to the tax yoke imposed on them by the king’s officials and dissatisfied with the failure of the king’s foreign policy. Most of the articles of the Magna Carta, which reinforced the temporary victory of the barons over the king, reflected the interests of the feudal aristocracy. The Magna Carta guaranteed the observance by the king of feudal customs with regard to his vassals, the barons. It forbade the collection of subsidies from the feudal lords without their consent and the trying of the barons except by a court of their equals, known as peers. It eliminated the king’s right to interfere in the jurisdiction of the feudal courts and established a committee of 25 barons who, in case of a violation of the charter by the king, could initiate war against him.

Considerably less was granted by the Magna Carta to the knights and the upper stratum of the free peasantry: the barons and the king were forbidden to demand from them more services and obligations than were required by custom, and all free people were guaranteed protection against arbitrary treatment by officials. The cities received merely a confirmation of already existing privileges. A unified standard of weights and measures was established, The basic masses of the English people—the serfs (villeins)—did not receive any rights from the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta played a prominent role in the political struggle of the 13th and 14th centuries, which led to the formation of the British class monarchy. Nullified by John at the end of 1215, the Magna Carta was subsequently reaffirmed by Henry III, Edward I, and Edward II, with the exception of the so-called constitutional articles which diminished the prestige of the crown. Forgotten at the end of the 15th century and during the 16th century, the Magna Carta was used by the leaders of the Parliamentary opposition on the eve and at the beginning of the British bourgeois revolution to provide grounds for Parliament’s right to control the exercise of the king’s power.


Petrushevskii, D. M. Velikaia khartiia vol’nostei, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1918.
Pamiatniki istorii Anglii XI-XIII vv. Moscow, 1936.


Gutnova, E. V. Vozniknovenie angliiskogo parlamenta. Moscow, 1960. Chapters 4-5.
Petrushevskii, D. M. Ocherki iz istorii angliiskogo gosudarstva i obshchestva v srednie veka, 4th ed. Moscow, 1937.
McKechnie, W. S. Magna Charta. Glasgow, 1905.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Magna Carta

, Magna Charta
English history the charter granted by King John at Runnymede in 1215, recognizing the rights and privileges of the barons, church, and freemen
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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