Signing of the Magna Carta

The signing of the Magna Carta is popularly remembered as the first great confrontation between the monarchy and the lower-ranking nobility in England and the root of many important judicial practices, although many of its provisions became obsolete within a few centuries of its enactment.

Summary of Event

King John, because of his firsthand acquaintance with local government and military desertions he had suffered during campaigns in Normandy, distrusted England’s barons. This distrust was met with deep discontent: English barons had paid heavily for John’s wars, with eleven scutages in sixteen years (as opposed to three during the ten-year reign of John’s predecessor, Richard I). As a result, in 1214 and 1215, John faced a revolt from the barons in the north and west. The barons forced his hand, and John signed the Magna Carta, or Great Charter, on June 15, 1215. In it, he agreed that even the king was subordinate to the “law of the land.” [kw]Signing of the Magna Carta (June 15, 1215)
[kw]Magna Carta, Signing of the (June 15, 1215)
Magna Carta
England;June 15, 1215: Signing of the Magna Carta[2260]
Government and politics;June 15, 1215: Signing of the Magna Carta[2260]
Laws, acts, and legal history;June 15, 1215: Signing of the Magna Carta[2260]
Social reform;June 15, 1215: Signing of the Magna Carta[2260]
King John
Henry III (1207-1272)

@NORMAL (1) = Despite its modern reputation as an early instrument of constitutional law, however, the charter was a compromise document, aiming for efficient functioning of the king’s courts, not for destruction of his power. It limited the king only according to specific grievances and not in principle. The irrelevance of any compromise soon became clear: John appealed to Pope Innocent III to annul the charter, and the pope cooperated, declaring that anyone who revolted against John would be excommunicated. Two-thirds of the barons had accepted the Norman-French king Louis IX as their lord, and one-third remained loyal. John established himself in the north and continued his battles with the barons, but he soon died of dysentery.

The Magna Carta gained a reputation as a monument to constitutional freedoms through seventeenth century historians such as Edward Coke, but in fact little of the charter addresses such freedoms. Nevertheless, of the documents in which the constitutional tradition of the English-speaking peoples is enshrined, the Magna Carta is, if not the oldest, the first to have won for itself a place in the public memory. The sixty-three chapters of this “Great Charter,” wrung from King John John (king of England) by civil war, extend a grant of liberties to all the freemen of the kingdom including barons, churchmen, and townspeople.

At first sight the fame of the Magna Carta in later centuries seems puzzling. The doctrines that were to find a prominent place in the famous libertarian documents of later centuries are absent here. The Magna Carta does not advance against the king in the name of God, or the sovereignty of the people, or the inalienable rights of humans. Yet its veneration is deserved.

The Magna Carta defined the legal relationship between king and subject in terms of the relationship that existed between a feudal lord and his vassal. The limitations that applied to the feudal lord, the Magna Carta held, were applicable in substantial measure to the king as well. In a sense a new juridical identity was created for the king; he was king no longer but feudal lord, and in this capacity his subjects could claim from him numerous rights. Monarchy;England

An artist’s rendition of the King John signing the Magna Carta.

(Library of Congress)

Chapter 12, for instance, states in part that no aid, or demand for payment of money, “shall be imposed in our realm except with the common council of the realm” unless it be to ransom the person of the king, to knight his eldest son, or to marry his eldest daughter. Even in these cases “only a reasonable aid shall be levied.” To obtain money beyond these three designated occasions, the king must have previously obtained the consent of his subjects. This common “counsel of the realm” is to be obtained, according to chapter 14, from the Great Council convened by specific letters of summons sent by the king to his tenants-in-chief.

The three designated occasions when the king need not obtain consent are at best infrequent and, as soon as the royal government had evolved beyond the most primitive stage, the sums supplied from these sources became more and more irrelevant and inadequate so that the king was bound to obtain consent for most exactions necessary to operate government. In effect, chapter 12 of the Magna Carta secures the property right of the subject: He need yield to the Crown only those sums to which he has consented. Looked at from another viewpoint, the property right of the subject constitutes a limitation on the power of the Crown; it forms an enclave into which the king may not, so to speak, intrude without permission. Moreover, the necessity of obtaining consent led easily in time to the institution of Parliament, where eventually consent to taxation was given provisionally on the condition that the sums realized be spent for one purpose and not another.

The fact that the king needs the consent of his “tenants-in-chief” rather than of his “subjects” when he requires additional “aids” roots the Magna Carta’s limitations in feudal law. Laws and law codes;England The legal literature of England in the decades before the great Charter distinctly showed that the aids a feudal lord could ask of his knight or tenant-in-chief were specifically limited. For instance, the Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Kingdom of England
Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Kingdom of England (Glanville) (c. 1188), a summary of English law usually attributed to Ranulf de Glanville, Glanville, Ranulf de similarly states that the aids a lord may demand from his knights must be moderate according to the size and wealth of their fiefs and that similar moderate demands may be made by the lord only when his son is knighted or his eldest daughter married. Already, the lord is limited in what he can ask of a knight. The notion of limitation, vague in the case of Glanville but precise in the Magna Carta, is common to both documents. Since in the Magna Carta the king’s subjects are his tenants-in-chief and the king is considered a feudal lord, the limitations of a feudal lord are made to do duty in limiting the king. The kings of England since William the Conqueror had been feudal lords as well as kings. The Magna Carta exploited this fact.


The Magna Carta contains inklings of some modern political ideas, such as the “due process” clause of the U.S. Constitution. It also guaranteed that no freeman should be imprisoned or dispossessed except by legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. Furthermore, justice would not be denied, sold, or delayed. Chapter 61 allowed for machinery to provide means of enforcement. Although Pope Innocent III repudiated the charter for John after the king had declared himself a papal vassal, it was confirmed seven times during the reign of Henry III Henry III (king of England) and reissued again in 1297 under Edward I. The following interpretation of the Magna Carta was handed down in the statutes of Edward III (1354): “No man of what estate or condition that he be, shall be put out of land or tenement, nor taken nor imprisoned, nor disinherited, nor put to death, without being brought in answer by due process of law.”

While its precedents for modern law are well known, large parts of the Magna Carta have been largely forgotten. Sir Ivor Jennings, author of Magna Carta and Its Influence in the World Today (1965), asserted that “if the Magna Carta were redrafted in the form of an Act of Parliament, it would contain four parts.” The first part, according to Jennings, would be “a single clause from Chapter 1, protecting the rights . . . of the English church . . . so general in its terms that it has never been very important.” The second part would be drawn from the fourteen provisions relating to feudal land tenure, most of which have been repealed by later law. The third part would contain the fourteen provisions relating to the administration of justice. While chapters 8, 14, and 29 have had a seminal effect on later law, the other eleven provisions “were obsolete before the end of the thirteenth century,” according to Jennings. Part 4 would contain the last nine provisions of the Magna Carta, of which five are still workable under present law.

The significance of the Magna Carta therefore lies not in any one chapter or group of chapters, but rather in the fact that it established a degree of juridical equality between subjects and government, an indisputable prerequisite if the lowly subject was to claim successfully rights that the government must respect.

Further Reading

  • Breay, Claire. Magna Carta: Manuscripts and Myths. London: British Library, 2002. Argues that the Magna Carta, although symbolizing a democratic vision, was not intended as a legal document for human rights but was instead a response to political circumstances in England.
  • Danziger, Danny, and John Gillingham. 1215: The Year of Magna Carta. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003. Investigates both the politics and social concerns of the time, including the lives of ordinary people in a time of great change.
  • Dickinson, J. C. The Great Charter. London: Historical Association, 1955. This brief work outlines the principles and historical circumstances of the Magna Carta.
  • Holt, J. C. Magna Carta. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Examines the judicial roots of the Magna Carta, tracing the hostility toward the monarchy that developed in England after the Norman Conquest.
  • Jennings, Sir Ivor. Magna Carta and Its Influence in the World Today. New York: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1965. Includes the text of the Magna Carta.
  • Painter, Sidney. The Reign of King John. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966. Traces the development of the Magna Carta against the background of King John’s reign.
  • Swindler, William F. Magna Carta: Legend and Legacy. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965. Discusses the use of the Magna Carta by the later generations of English and American historians.