What was the Magna Carta?

The Magna Carta is Latin for "Great Charter". It set down rights which became part of English law and which are now the foundations for the constitutions of all countries which speak English. It did not grant any new rights, but it did protect existing rights in writing. These rights included the basic right of anyone convicted of a crime to a jury trial; protection of private property; reasonable limits on taxes and a degree of guaranteed religious freedom. The Magna Carta was a significant influence on the long historical process that has resulted in the rule of constitutional law today.

The Magna Carta came about because King John (who only became king in 1199 when his brother King Richard I died) had a reputation for being tyrannical. His reign was marred by continuous war losses, beginning with the loss of Normandy to Philippe Auguste of France and ending with England torn by civil war. King John risked being forced out of power because of his mismanagement. By 1215, England's nobility was fed up with paying extra taxation. Members of this nobility rebelled and captured London. In June, the King met these barons at Runnymede on the River Thames to try and reach a peaceful settlement. The King reluctantly agreed to their demands by signing the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215. It was intended to limit the powers of the monarch and proclaimed certain liberties for "freemen".

Many later documents such as the US Constitution were based upon the Magna Carta.

First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons, it promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, to be implemented through a council of 25 barons.