On June 15 1215, King John met with a band of 25 rebel barons in Runnymede, Surrey, and begrudgingly signed Magna Carta (Latin for great charter). In the decades leading up to this great charter, King John had grown increasingly unpopular with his subjects, and by signing Magna Carta he hoped to avoid further revolt and civil war in England.
Having lost most of his father’s lands in France (the main contributor of the crown’s income), his inability to regain control of the lands lost, and the ensuing reparations he had to pay to France to ensure peace; King John needed lots of money, and fast.
Had the war against French King Louis swung in his favour, he might have been able to hold on to the goodwill of his people a little longer; but within a few months of his return to England, John discovered that barons in the north were starting a coalition opposing his reign and ever-increasing taxation of his people. The king had lived above the law long enough, and his people weren’t going to pay for his mistakes anymore.
In a last-ditch attempt to secure peace in England, King John met with the rebel barons on neutral ground under the pretence that giving his seal to the charter would bring both sides into line. The decree listed basic laws that all men - including the king - were bound to. Included in its tenets were: No man is above the law - even the monarch; that you cannot be detained without evidence of having committed a crime; that everyone has the right to a fair trial by jury, and swift justice; and that a widow could not be forced to marry and give up her property (the first step towards women’s rights).
Shortly after having signed the decree, both sides reneged on their promises, and John had the charter annulled by Pope Innocent III. This led to the First Barons' War - a bloody civil war that swept the country. Whilst fighting John contracted dysentery (likely from the poor living conditions in his camp) and died in October of 1216.
Aware of how his father’s rule had caused chaos across the country, John’s ascendant, Henry, reissued a revised version of Magna Carta. Having stripped back some of the more extreme laws, the new Magna Carta was used to form the peace treaty signed at the end of the Barons' War in 1217. As new monarchs ascended the throne, revisions and reissues were created and, by the end of the century, Magna Carta was decreed to be statute law in England.
So how, then, does a piece of parchment written over 800 years ago still hold any influence in today’s society?
The British legal system
Some of the tenets set out in Magna Carta can still be clearly reflected in the modern British legal system today. By ensuring that all men were considered equal in the eyes of the law, that all men had the right to swift justice, and that all men were entitled to a fair trial before imprisonment; Magna Carta laid the foundation both for what would later be accepted as the roots of the British legal system.
The founding of a nation
When colonising the world, British explorers took with them copies of Magna Carta by which they could establish laws and liberties in their new settlements. Across the 13 states of America, Magna Carta was used to establish a new legal understanding, but also to ensure that those born in the colonies had the same rights as subjects born in England. As America bloomed as a nation in its own right, Magna Carta was the inspiration behind one of the most important documents in all American history: The Declaration of Independence.
Displeased with how the colonies were being treated by Great Britain and her king (another monarch who taxed his subjects unfairly), on July 4 1776 the 13 states separated from the colonies citing:
'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.'
The colonists were upset that their rights, as set out by Magna Carta, were not being recognised. Magna Carta was also drawn upon for the creation of both The Constitution of the United States of America (1787) and the Bill of Rights (1791).
Human Rights around the world
As with the Americas, the British legal system was used as a model to build on in countries across the world including India, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and many more. As Britain colonised the world, they brought with them their basic tenets of law and liberties.
Throughout history the evolution of legal precedence, fundamental practices, and human rights in British colonies around the globe could trace their origin through the creation of Magna Carta; however, there was still no one universal acceptance of all nations of what constituted basic rights and liberties of people.
In 1948, following the atrocities of WWII and the Nazi regime, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was introduced by United Nations and, to this day, remains in place as the fundamental human rights of all peoples around the globe. When the UN was creating the declaration, they drew from both Magna Carta, and the Bill of Rights to create. To this day the Universal Declaration of Human rights is in practice in legal systems around the globe, ensuring that every man is held accountable to the law no matter what their station.