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What is the Magna Carta?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Magna Carta is an English legal document written in 1215 CE which had a huge influence on the developing legal system of England. Because England's legal system was used as a model by many former colonies when they developed their own legal systems, the Magna Carta also had an impact on many other governments. Many legal historians believe it is one of the most important documents of all time, and several copies of it are on display around the world for interested parties to examine.

The proper name for the document is the Magna Carta Libertatum, the Great Charter of Freedoms, although the name is usually abbreviated to the Magna Carta, or Great Charter. It could be considered a bill of rights for medieval England, although it was not heavily enforced for several centuries. Still, it set a precedent which changed the face of England forever, by establishing the King was not above the law.

King John of England signed the Magna Carta after immense pressure from the Church and his barons. The King often lived above the law, violating both feudal and common law, and was heavily criticized for his foreign policy and actions within England. The Barons, with the support of the Church, pressured King John to spell out a list of their rights and guarantee that those rights would be enforced. The Barons provided a draft, and after some negotiation, King John put his seal on the charter in Runnymede in June of 1215.

Many of the rights in the charter actually appeared in older documents, such as the Charter of Liberties published by Henry I. However, the Magna Carta also contained several clauses which were influential on the development of similar bills of rights, such as the first 10 Amendments to the United States Constitution. Among these were the right to habeas corpus, a clause protecting the freedom of the church, and other clauses which spelled out the rules for due process of law.

King John later abandoned the charter, triggering a war which lasted until his death in 1216. His son, Henry III, took the throne, and reissued the Magna Carta in 1225, albeit in a different version. Several more drafts of the document were produced, enforcing its role in English society, until the final version was released by Edward I in 1297. Strangely, the charter seemed to disappear until almost 200 years later, when the Elizabethan era sparked a new interest in and furor over the document.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon348601 — On Sep 18, 2013

How did the magna carta change the balance of power in government?

By anon326023 — On Mar 19, 2013

Can you obtain a copy without breaking the law?

By anon321883 — On Feb 25, 2013

King John would have been so cruel without the Magna Carta.

By anon310490 — On Dec 23, 2012

Didn't the Magna Carta also introduce a "Borh" system or the "Franck-pledge" System?

By anon305770 — On Nov 27, 2012

The Magna Carta was written in order to limit the power of the king and separate the church from policy making.

By anon296523 — On Oct 11, 2012

How did the Magna Carta help the British subjects?

By anon155659 — On Feb 24, 2011

i have to do an english project about the origins of english and one thing we have to include is the magna carta, but what does it have to do with the origins of english?

By anon155184 — On Feb 22, 2011

I'm not 100 percent sure of everything but what i do know is that king john was forced to sign it because society was getting fed up of the monarchy telling them what to do, and that's putting it in loose terms.

He was taken to a field and was forced to sign four copies of the Magna Carta and each copy was taken away by a horseman (each copy in a different direction). The magna carta introduced the Rule of Law (no one is above the law and all are equal before the law) and also established the right to a fair trial. It's all about human rights and stuff. I hope this has helped you all.

By anon153741 — On Feb 18, 2011

I would like to know:

When was is written? DD/MM/1215? What did it say? Why was King John forced to sign it? Why was it an important event in British history? Please help me!

By anon148030 — On Jan 31, 2011

very good. now i understand it more clearly.

By anon145385 — On Jan 23, 2011

I have to write my own Magna Carta for school but I still don't understand what it is properly. Is it a set of rules?

By anon118675 — On Oct 14, 2010

I really liked this article. it was just the right amount of information and very easy to understand.

By jessxoxo — On Aug 17, 2010

a wonderful website. It gave clear and easy to understand information and helped a lot with my overnight assignment. simply wonderful.

By anon95713 — On Jul 13, 2010

excellent work. this site helped me a lot.

By anon91827 — On Jun 24, 2010

very helpful website.

By anon91153 — On Jun 20, 2010

I wanted to know more about when was it signed.

By anon83091 — On May 09, 2010

This helped me get some facts for my homework excellent site.

By anon80834 — On Apr 28, 2010

Great. I really needed this.

By anon77283 — On Apr 13, 2010

Great! Perfect for what i needed to have to win my argument! All the facts are here!

By anon75824 — On Apr 07, 2010

Well i have to do extra credit on this to keep my grade up. it gave me a lot of information and I really do thank this website. it gave me all i needed. thanks!

By anon75281 — On Apr 06, 2010

very well done, thank you. you explained it really well.

By anon72265 — On Mar 22, 2010

i wish to know how did the nobles which are normally called barons manage to break the gate of king john's zone because i think that kings are usually protected by the military force.

By anon72261 — On Mar 22, 2010

i would like to acknowledge the work that was done by the nobles in the implementation of magna carta. I'm very willing to learn more about magna carta. i wish to know what was the role of the church in the development of magna carta and who were going to benefit from this carta.

By anon72210 — On Mar 22, 2010

Did it really leave an influence on england today?

By anon72111 — On Mar 21, 2010

i have a project on the magna carta and i got "some" information i needed but not enough.

By anon69707 — On Mar 09, 2010

I have to do a project on the Magna Carta for a grade bump. And honestly this little article helped. But just not enough. Although, I did get some information I didn't know. Just wish there was more. Besides, what was the point of King John signing it if he didn't follow its directions?

By anon64026 — On Feb 04, 2010

How does the Magna Carta affect us today? Is it still used?

By anon62076 — On Jan 24, 2010

What exactly did John do that defined him as "Living above the law"?

By anon61534 — On Jan 20, 2010

What is the Magna Carta exactly about?

By anon61483 — On Jan 20, 2010

i need to write a 1000 word essay on the magna carta and i'm only 13.

By anon59501 — On Jan 08, 2010

how did this affect canada's evolution of democracy? I have an essay about canada's history of democracy.

By anon55616 — On Dec 08, 2009

I have to write two sentences about this article; in a summary. What is this article saying?

By anon50888 — On Nov 01, 2009

1. The Magna Carta was a document that

a. shifted the power from the monarchs to the people in Britain.

b. required British royalty to obey the same laws as other English people.

c. limited the power of the people in the British government.

d. gave the power in the British government to members of Parliament.

By anon47561 — On Oct 05, 2009

What are five rights in the Magna Carta? also what are the rights in the Engish Bill Of Rights?

By anon45406 — On Sep 16, 2009

Doing this for an essay. What significant changes or declarations were included in the document?

By anon45333 — On Sep 15, 2009

I actually don't know.

By anon33919 — On Jun 14, 2009

How do you write a magna carta? Because what if you had to write one? How do you do it?

By anon31332 — On May 03, 2009

How is it that the magna carta was supposed to protect the english and the kings from uprisings yet when it was in place there were battles over its contents and the purpose of such a thing?

Also the magna carta was in place for 12, possibly more, leaders yet not in a single documentation of them is it mentioned. How is that possible or is it based on beliefs?

By anon14041 — On Jun 09, 2008

1. what did the magna carta try to do??

2. who was the magna carta meant to protect?

3. how and why was the magna carta successful at the time and later?

4. Did the magna carta protect english people?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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