June 15th is Magna Carta Day. While this doesn’t have the same cachet as Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, the history of the Magna Carta is arguably far more important. A number of the rights codified in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights find their origins in the Magna Carta. The charter was drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury as a way to settle tensions between the King of England and some of his barons.
The Magna Carta is the foundation of the Western conception of individual liberties, particularly in the Anglosphere. It is also one of the most mythologized documents in history. Still, many today are unaware of its actual content and the historical context in which it was drafted.
While much of the historical context is complex, the main point is this: Under the rule of King John in the 13th century, several barons were unhappy with the nebulous nature of rule and administration. The Magna Carta was an attempt to codify the procedures by which the King ruled over his subjects, in particular the barons. The “Great Charter” was renewed by subsequent kings, though under parliamentary rule, much of its main provisions were slowly stripped away.
The dispute that led to the drafting of the Magna Carta revolved around how a king was supposed to rule. It was believed at the time that, while the king had unlimited powers, he should govern with the counsel of his barons using custom as his guide. The Magna Carta is an attempt to address what the rules are for when the king is not ruling in this fashion.
The Magna Carta’s origins are as a failed peace treaty between the king and some of his rebellious barons. King John had been steadily losing his ancestral lands on the continent to King Phillip II of France. To help wage war to maintain these lands, he levied high taxes on his barons. His barons, needless to say, did not care for this. This led to the First Barons’ War, one of the earliest civil wars in England between the king and his nobles.
The main rights established by the Magna Carta are due process of law and its corollary, the right to a fair trial by a jury of one’s peers, the latter of which is spelled out in the Magna Carta. The interpretation of what these rights mean and how they are applied has changed significantly in the nearly 1,000 years since the document was first drafted. What’s more, whenever kings would readopt the charter, they would often amend it to address the issues of the day.
For the most part, these changes are very obscure and very much a product of their times. However, there are some significant trends that are worth discussing in any history of the Magna Carta. For example, in the 16th century, under the rule of Henry VIII, the Magna Carta fell out of favor. Henry VIII mounted a massive propaganda campaign denying any right of the nobles to rebel, while also demanding full support for the Crown in all of its struggles against the papacy. On the other side of things, Catholic rebels frequently cited the Magna Carta when fighting the Crown.