In June of 1215, King John rode to meet his angry nobles at Runnymede, a wide meadow on the banks of the Thames River. No one present on that day could have guessed that the nobles’ demands, written in the form of the document we now call Magna Carta, would later become the cornerstone of constitutional government and representative democracy. The original purpose of Magna Carta was to limit the powers of the king.
Most of its 63 clauses were designed to protect the feudal rights of the nobles; eventually, English legislative and judicial decisions extended these rights. Magna Carta included such concepts as church freedom, trial by jury, and “due process of law”-the orderly, consistent working of law. Over the centuries, Magna Carta gradually increased in importance as later kings reaffirmed its principles. Eventually it became a symbol of the fight against oppression. Magna Carta forms part of the British Constitution, and the ideas that originated in Magna Carta can be found in the Constitution of the United States. King John and Magna Carta One son of Henry II, King John, is famous for bringing on a revolt among the nobles of the realm. This revolt occurred when King John forced them to pay taxes that they considered unjust. On June 15, 1215, the English nobles forced John to accept a document known as Magna Carta (Latin for “great charter”), which protected the liberties of the nobles.
Some provisions of Magna Carta, however, dealt with the rights of England’s ordinary people. These provisions have come to be considered the most important parts of the document. King John made several promises. He agreed not to collect any new or special tax without the consent of the Great Council, which was a body of important nobles and church leaders who advised the king.
He promised not to take property without paying for it, and he agreed not to sell, refuse, or delay justice. The king also promised to grant any accused person a trial by a jury of his peers, or equals. Magna Carta meant that the king was not above the law-the king had to obey the law just as his subjects did, or they would be free to rebel against him. Although the charter was not considered significant at the time, later political thinkers regarded many of its clauses as important precedents. Today Magna Carta is considered one of the world’s great documents, spelling out the basic principles of limited government and the rule of the law.