What is Magna Carta?

A woodcut from 1864 depicts King John and the barons at Runnymede

It's now been over 800 years since King John sealed Magna Carta here at Runnymede. But what do you really know about this 'Great Charter of Liberty'?

A disagreement

In 1215 England was in political turmoil. King John had become vastly unpopular, thanks to bitter disagreements with the church and a series of high taxes to fund ongoing war with France. An alliance of disgruntled barons and important members of the clergy had been mounting pressure on the king for years. At the start of 1215 the barons seized control of London - giving him no choice but to negotiate.

Events came to a head in June, when King John finally met with the barons to hear their demands. By 15 June he agreed to seal the proposed 'Great Charter of Liberty', enshrining their rights in law.


What did it say?

Magna Carta was special because it held the king accountable to the rule of law, just like his subjects. In total it was made up of 63 clauses, covering law, liberty and the church.The most famous and important of these clauses enshrined to the rights of "free men" to justice and a fair trial. Although at the time "free men" only referred to a small number of noblemen, this passage has taken on symbolic significance over the years. Today it is one of three original clauses that still survive in British law.

How important is Magna Carta?

At the time Magna Carta had very little legal impact. At King John's request it was repealed almost immediately by the Pope, who emphatically declared the document "null and void of all validity forever".
It was only later that the 'Great Charter' began to have real consequences. King John's successor King Henry III released three revised versions of Magna Carta during his reign, and over the years it began to take on symbolic status.
In the 800 years since it was first sealed, this milestone of individual rights and freedoms has provided inspiration for many important constitutional documents. The 1791 United States Bill of Rights, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and many more owe a huge debt to one summer's day at Runnymede all those years ago.