What is Magna Carta? What is its importance in history?

This year 2020 marks the 805th anniversary of the Magna Carta. 

Magna Carta meaning Great Charter is initially written in Latin. It is the first constitution in the European history. It has 63 clauses that much of it concern about various property rights of barons and other influential citizens signifying the framers’ limited intentions. For centuries, the benefits of the charter favored only the elite classes, while most English citizens still lacked a voice in the government.

A significant event happened in the 17th century with the two defining acts of English legislation: the Petition of Right (1628) and the Habeas Corpus Act (1679), referred to as Clause 39. It states that “No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” Clause 40 states, “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice” also had substantial inferences for future legal systems in Britain and America. 

The charter is one of the most important documents in history because of the established principles that excuse no one, not even the King.  Moreover, it guarantees individuals’ rights: the right to justice and the right to a fair trial.

Meanwhile, in 1776, Magna Carta was looked by the rebellious American colonists as an ideal for their outcries of liberty from the English crown at the eve of the American Revolution. The influence of the carter is much seen in the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. The ideas and phrases that can be traced directly to the historical document were also included in many state constitutions.

During the civil war in 1215, King John gained control over London, and on June 15, 1215, at Runnymede, on the River Thames, near Windsor, he accepted the terms included in a document called the Articles of the Barons. Four days later, after further amendments, the King and the barons issued a formal version of the document, known as the Magna Carta.

The charter failed in its goals to be a peace treaty, as civil war broke out within three months. The death of King John in 1216 lead to the reissuance of the Magna Carta through the advisors of Henry III, his nine-year-old son, who became his successor. Some of the charter’s most controversial clauses were removed, thus preventing further conflict. The document was reissued in 1217 and once again in 1225 (in return for a taxation grant to the King).

Why is it significant today?

Magna Carta contributed significantly to the individual liberties that we have today. It is the foundation of the freedom that we now enjoy, and it presents an ongoing challenge to arbitrary rule. For many, it has been seen not only as a basis of liberty but also of democracy, although in the time of its drafting, it was not envisioned.

The broad views and broader implications of Magna Carta make it applicable today. Firstly, it is a document of historical and legal worth, and next, it is a principle essential to how we live with equality under the rule of law and accountability. 

Magna Carta matters both for what it said in 1215 and, perhaps of more significance now, for what it has come to signify.

In the century after Henry III’s version of the Magna Carta, parliament interpreted the document’s message as a right to a fair trial for all subjects.  Also, the charter has dramatically contributed to the first steps taken in England towards the establishment of parliamentary democracy. 

Magna Carta a source of liberty

The charter has well established its stand on freedom, which importance continues.

One key provision was that imprisonment should not take place without due legal process. This had contributed to the idea of trial by jury. Clause 39 established the rule of law, protecting individuals from subjective punishment.

What broader role has it played?

There are significant influences from the Magna Carta in the American Bill of Rights that was written in 1791. Today there are 1297 copies in the National Archives in Washington DC.

The rudimentary principles of the Magna Carta are also reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 just after the Second World War. 

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