Magna Carta – What was its purpose?

What was the Magna Carta?

The Magna Carta was one of the most important documents in the history of Britain and in the history of world constitutions. The Magna Carta Libertatum (Latin for ‘The Great Charter of Liberties’), was a charter of rights agreed to by King John on June 15th, 1215.

It paved the way for parliamentary style of government, justice for all, equality before law, accountability of the crown and limitations on the powers of the monarch.

Purpose of Magna Carta

First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, it was the first official document to establish the principle that everyone – including the king, himself – was subject to the law.

The Magna Carta also ensured the rights of individuals, gave everyone the right to a fair trial and a shot at equal justice. The document was written in an attempt to make peace between the highly unpopular King John and a group of rebel barons leading the First Barons’ War.

Background of Magna Carta

During that time, England was ruled by King John, the third Angevin King, from 1199 until his death in 1216. The Angevin monarchs ruled using ‘force and will’ – taking executive decisions and often justifying them on the basis that the king was above the law.

After King John lost many of his lands in France, he forced heavy taxes onto the landowning barons. This was done to accumulate money for a war that ended with failure. In the wake of the war, the barons revolted and this led to the First Baron’s War. They eventually captured London in May 1215.

A Compromise between King and Rebel Barons

The purpose of the Magna Carta, introduced originally as a peace treaty between the rebels and King John, was to guarantee the right to justice for everyone. It conceded the rights of the barons as well as individuals in general.

Magna Carta Today

While nearly a third of the text was deleted over the years – and most of it rewritten – almost all the clauses have been repealed in recent years. While most of the points of the charter dealt with problems during the time of King John, within them lie a number of other fundamental values that challenged the monarchy and are relevant to democracy today.

The 39th clause of the Magna Carta, for example, gave all ‘free men’ the right to justice and a fair trial. Some of its core principles are even echoed in the current constitutions of the United States of America and several countries across Europe. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) are also based on many of its fundamental points.

In the modern era, the Magna Carta has become an international rallying cry against the arbitrary use of power. Three clauses of the 1225 version of the Magna Carta remain on the statute book, to this day. The first clause defends the liberties of the Church of England; the second confirms the liberties of several towns and cities, including London; and the last of the three clauses gives every individual the right to justice and a fair trial.