In June of 1215, what important document told the English King that his reign and his government were not above the law?

And the answer: Magna Carta.    
Photo credit: public domain.

Latin for "Great Charter," the Magna Carta declared that the sovereign is subject to the rule of law. It also introduced the foundation of individual rights in the science and philosophy of law known as jurisprudence.

At the heart of many Western constitutional documents lies one inspiration: the Magna Carta. In 1215, English nobles (also known as barons) united with church leaders to draft a document, which, for the first time in European history, actually suppressed the King’s power. The Magna Carta was one of the first documents to protect and acknowledge the rights of citizens, and is widely considered to be the first constitutional document in Europe.

Yet the road to securing King John’s seal on the Magna Carta was…rough, to say the least. The citizens of England had suffered under the King’s heavy taxes and aggressive assertion of feudal privileges for several years before the outbreak of war. Finally, as King John left the country to wage a disastrous war in France, the barons of England met and drafted a document: the Magna Carta.

When King John returned, the barons quickly overtook his forces and presented their set of demands. After failing to find followers to support him, King John retired to the south bank of the Thames River and affixed his seal to the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215.

Of the document’s 63 sections, several offer protections to citizen groups such as women and children, while others state that people can not be punished for crimes unless they are lawfully convicted. One provision even asserts the right to declare war on the King for disobeying the demands. Ultimately, the powerful limitations on the monarch’s power deeply influenced the abilities of the monarchy for centuries to come. As the power shifted gradually out of the hands of the monarchy, it became that of the barons, and later, Parliament.

Learn more about the impact of the Magna Carta here.


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