Magna Carta

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The Magna Carta was a charter of rights agreed to by King John of England in 1215, and was Europe’s first written constitution. Prior to the implementation of the Magna Carta, English monarchs were considered above the law of the land and ruled with relatively absolute power. King John was pressured into agreeing to the Magna Carta to make peace in England, as barons from the north and east of England rebelled against his rule and demanded protection from the king’s unbridled power. The Magna Carta created a legal system by which the king had to abide, instilling protections for the clergy and nobility. The Magna Carta was the basis for English common law, and thereby indirectly also had influence on American law. The Founding Fathers of the United States particularly admired the charter’s rebellious nature against the English throne. The writers of the Bill of Rights and state constitutions were inspired by concepts born in the Magna Carta: that a government should be constitutional, that the law of the land should apply to everyone, and that certain rights and liberties were so fundamental that their violation was an abuse of governmental authority.

Although the Magna Carta was primarily meant to protect the powerful Church and wealthy nobility in medieval feudal England, it introduced legal concepts that persisted over time and came to be found in American law. Notably, its protections were given widely to all free men who held land, as opposed to solely the Church and nobility. It assured them protection from illegal imprisonment, forming the basis for the concept of a habeas corpus petition. It also promised them all access to swift justice - an early promise of due process. It guaranteed that they could not be imprisoned, outlawed, exiled, or have their possessions or land confiscated without the lawful judgment of their social equals, paving the way for trial by a jury of one’s peers. Moreover, the Magna Carta established a council of barons as a predecessor to Parliament, which monitored the king’s actions to ensure he abided by the new law and rectified breaches of the law. This council was therefore an early example of a checks and balances safeguard.

[Last updated in June of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]