T. Maxwell Smith, PLLC
This Day in History: June 15, 1215
The Magna Carta is Signed near Windsor Castle at Runnymede, England
Co-authored by Tanner Wadsworth
On this day some 800 years ago, on a swampy plain between two bristling armies, a group of disgruntled barons extracted from King John of England a set of promises that would radically change Western government forever. These promises were memorialized in a document that became known as “the great charter.” The Magna Carta.
Before this point in English history, political theory had been simple: might made right. Whether it had been the Roman Empire, a collection of Anglo-Saxon kings, or the Norman and Viking invaders that preceded King John, the rulers of English held vast, unchecked authority while subjects had virtually no inherent rights. Entitlements we take for granted today, like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were only available to Englishmen at the whimsical pleasure of their kings and lords. The monarch’s power over everyday life was so absolute that one Norman ruler capriciously reset the nation’s standard measurement, the ell, to match the length of his own arm.
Barons and common people alike were already frustrated by the time King John took the throne. A small, elite class of French-speaking Normans controlled the country, despite the vast majority of the population being English-speaking Saxons. John’s predecessors murdered archbishops, levied heavy taxes, and squandered the nation’s blood and treasure on tiresome and often unsuccessful crusades.
This frustration came to a head when John lost an expensive war in France, and with it, several important English territories. A group of barons took an oath that they would assert their rights and resist the king’s encroachments. John’s attempts to placate them ultimately failed, and the barons took up arms against him.
The rebel army marched nearly to the gates of the king’s stronghold at Windsor before John conceded to its demands and met its leaders at a place called Runnymede. With the input of the king and the barons, the Archbishop of Canterbury drafted a document that proposed broad political reform. It protected subjects from illegal imprisonment, promised access to swift justice, and limited taxation without representation. While it focused on the rights of the barons, it also made provisions for the serfs.
Perhaps most significantly, it created a council of barons to act as watch dogs, making sure that the king kept his promises. If he did not, the charter gave the barons power to seize the king’s lands. It was the first time in English history that the people had created a formal structure that allowed them to collectively push back against the king.
The Magna Carta was not the beginning of the West’s long march toward enlightenment and democratic government: Henry I had previously issued a charter of liberties that proactively granted certain privileges to English subjects. It wasn’t the end of the march either: John would eventually renege on his promises just a short time after the document was signed.
The charter is significant though, not for its practical impact, but for its symbolic weight. By forcing the king to the bargaining table, asserting their own rights and interests as a check to the king’s absolute power, the barons at Runnymede laid the foundation for what would ultimately become the American democratic-republican system. In England, the council of barons that oversaw the king foreshadowed the later development of parliamentary, representative government.
When America’s founders drafted the Declaration of Independence, they relied on the Magna Carta in asserting that the rights of citizens are not tenuous, granted at the whim of a king, but that they are inalienable, granted by God at birth.
In the years that have passed since the signing of the Magna Carta, the world has changed dramatically. Kings no longer dictate political affairs and crusades, serfs, and barons are all things of the past. However, the principles enshrined in the Magna Carta—due process, equal justice, limited taxation and checks on government power—are as vital and relevant today as they were 806 years ago on the plain at Runnymede.