The Magna Carta

King John signing the Magna Carta.
King John refusing the barons’ demands when they are first presented to him.
The Magna Carta, perhaps the most famous document in the world.
The United States Constitution was inspired by the Magna Carta.

In the early 13th century, many English barons had become very displeased with the English King John. The king, the barons believed, was overstepping his authority by both demanding too much and punishing too hard. Among other things, the king demanded that the barons provide him with both money and soldiers, and he often made sure that people who disobeyed his orders were tortured or imprisoned.

Challenging the king

Quite understandably, the barons wanted to curtail the king’s power, but given that many 13th-century Englishmen thought that kings had their powers granted to them by God, challenging a king was no easy task. Nevertheless, a group of daring barons presented their grievances to King John. The king, in a rather telling non-response, ignored the petitions, leading the barons to capture London by military force, increasingly pressuring the monarch. As the noblemen had hoped, then, this pressure left King John with little choice but to agree in writing to put limitations on his powers and grant liberties to the barons, a 1215 agreement which became known as the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta, to describe it a little further, stipulated that a king should be entitled to no more than what was the customary fair share, and that he should not arbitrarily imprison anyone. In case of transgression on the part of the king, the Magna Carta continued, the barons would be allowed to refuse his demands, a right which they got to enjoy for being upper class. The lower class, which the 1215 charter did not specifically concern itself with, were not granted the same protection.

Liberties which lived on

Although as mentioned, the Magna Carta made little mention of commoners, and although neither King John nor the English barons were to fully live up to their respective part of the agreement, the document has come to have great historic significance. This is because the Magna Carta, very early on, recognized the principle that there should be limits to rulers’ powers, and because this groundbreaking new principle then inspired the authors of other important documents. As late as the 18th century, as a matter of fact, the Magna Carta still served as inspiration when the founders of the United States added individual rights and liberties to the U.S. Constitution.