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.