The Magna Carta | Study Guide

King John

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The Magna Carta | 10 Things You Didn't Know


The Magna Carta Libertatum translates from the Latin to the "Great Charter of the Liberties." Compiled in 1215 by a group of unhappy English barons, the charter reined in the power that King John of England had abused for much of his rule, as he overtaxed his subjects and treated them with cruelty. The charter attempted to limit the king's power of taxation and protect the Church's rights, among other things.

While many of the charter's clauses have been discarded or replaced by later statutes, the Magna Carta has always held a position of importance in English constitutional history. It is a vitally important part of American political history as well, and great statesmen such as Franklin Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela have referred to it in speeches.

1. King John threw a tantrum when he was forced to accept the Magna Carta.

King John was not known as a reasonable man. He may even have been a murderer; chroniclers called him a "tyrannous whelp" and "nature's enemy." He certainly did not want to sign the Magna Carta, but he had no choice. With his barons camped in a meadow called Runnymede, the king traveled down the Thames River and met them there. According to one chronicler, "He gnashed his teeth, rolled his eyes, grabbed sticks and straws and gnawed them like a madman." He cried out, "Why, amongst these unjust demands, did not the barons ask for my kingdom also?" Eventually, however, the king accepted the document.

2. The Magna Carta was a complete failure—at first.

After King John was forced to accept the Magna Carta, he appealed to Pope Innocent III, who was England's feudal overlord under Church law. The Pope, recognizing that the document might interfere with his own power, overturned it about 10 weeks after the signing. The king died a little over a year later, and his son, Henry, was only nine years old at the time. A regent, William Marshall, took charge and revised the document, and Henry revised it again in 1225. In 1297 King Edward I reissued it, and that version of the charter became law.

3. Winston Churchill tried to bribe the United States to enter World War II with a copy of the Magna Carta.

When World War II began, the United States had borrowed a copy of the Magna Carta to put on display at a trade fair in New York. At that point, the United States did not plan to enter the war, and Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, knew he would need America's support in the conflict. He and his cabinet considered offering the document as a gift to the United States, noting that it was "the only really adequate gesture which it is in our power to make in return for the means to preserve our country" and pointing out that "after all, we possess four copies of the Magna Carta." However, the Magna Carta was not the government's to give away; it belonged to Lincoln Cathedral. The plan fell through.

4. The Magna Carta gave previously unheard-of rights to women.

Before the Magna Carta was signed, women in England, even noblewomen, had virtually no rights. While the document did little to address inequality and didn't help lower-class women at all, it did grant some rights to the wives of barons. They were allowed to inherit their husbands' lands, and they could no longer be forced into marriage by the king on the deaths of their husbands. The purpose of those clauses in the charter, however, was to protect the inheritance of the barons' sons, not to aid their wives.

5. One of the original copies of the Magna Carta was almost blown up in the 1939 World's Fair in New York.

During the World's Fair in New York in 1939-40, a bomb was discovered in the British Pavilion. Bomb squad police carried it out and tried to defuse it, but it blew up in their faces, killing two of them. At the time, one of the original copies of the Magna Carta was displayed in a bulletproof case in the pavilion and might have been destroyed had the bomb, disguised as a portable radio, not been found and removed.

6. The only privately held copy of the original Magna Carta was sold for over $20 million.

One of the copies of the 1297 Magna Carta was owned by billionaire Ross Perot, who was a candidate for president of the United States in 1992 and 1996. Perot put the document up for sale at Sotheby's auction house in 2013. David Rubenstein, another billionaire, decided to buy it, stating, "I thought it was important that this document, which had really been influential in the Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights, should stay in our country." He purchased the copy for $21.3 million. It now resides in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

7. As of 2017, three of the original clauses from the Magna Carta are still law in England.

Of the 63 clauses in the original Magna Carta, three are still integral parts of British law. One states that "the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired." The second allows for the city of London, and all other cities and towns, to "enjoy all ... ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water." The third, and probably most important, calls for timely jury trials, stating that "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land," and that "To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."

8. A copy of the Magna Carta from 1300 was found in 2015.

In the town of Sandwich in 2015, Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia found a copy of the Magna Carta in the town archives. It had been filed inside a scrapbook from the 19th century. This 24th confirmed copy of the document was verified to be from the year 1300.

9. The Magna Carta was the first document to recognize Scotland's right to self-rule.

King John held the titles "Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou," along with that of king of England, which included Scotland and Wales. The barons who demanded his acceptance of the Magna Carta came from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales as well as England. In 1209 the Treaty of Norham had established the English king's rule over Scotland, but this treaty was supposedly negated by a clause in the Magna Carta that stated:

We will act toward Alexander, king of the Scots, concerning the return of his sisters and hostages and concerning his franchises and his right in the same manner in which we act towards our other barons of England ...

The Scots have long claimed that this clause recognized Scotland's right to self-rule.

10. The Magna Carta served as the basis for the Declaration of Independence.

The settlers who came to America brought charters from the English crown that documented their colonies' rights. Many of the charters contained clauses giving colonists the same rights that Britons held, including those provided by the Magna Carta. Several colonists brought with them copies of the Magna Carta, and law students, including Thomas Jefferson, studied the charter.

When Benjamin Franklin was asked by what authority the colonists resisted the Stamp Act of 1765, he responded that they could not be taxed without consent as this negated their rights, "as declared by Magna Carta." In addition, the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments in the U.S. Constitution, includes clauses providing for due process, jury trial, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, all concepts originating in the Magna Carta.

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