The Magna Carta ("great charter" in Latin) is an important document in the history of British government. Angry English noblemen and churchmen forced King John (also called John Lackland; 1167–1216) to approve the charter on June 15, 1215. The Magna Carta ensured personal liberty and asserted the rights of the individual, stating that: "No freeman [citizen] shall be arrested and imprisoned, or dispossessed [deprived of property], or outlawed, or banished, or in any way molested [physically assaulted]; nor will be set forth against him, nor send against him, unless by the lawful judgment of his peers, and by the law of the land." The statement about "lawful judgment of his peers, and by the law of the land" is usually interpreted to mean that the Magna Carta guaranteed the right to a trial by jury—that is, the right to be tried for a crime in a court of law on the basis of evidence and judged guilty or innocent by a group of persons from one's own community. Modern historians note, however, that the charter did not actually make this statement, and that later scholars were responsible for giving it an incorrect interpretation. Nevertheless, the Magna Carta was important to the development of the British constitutional system (government based on written laws).
John ruled from 1199 to 1216 and was notorious for his abuse of power. While his brother Richard I (1157–1199; Richard the Lionheart) was still king, John tried to take over the throne. Though he failed in this effort, he became king when Richard died in 1199. After John refused to recognize the new archbishop of Canterbury (head of the Catholic Church in England), he was excommunicated (expelled) from the church. In order to regain favor with the pope, the supreme leader of the Catholic Church, John was forced to give up his kingdom in 1213; it was returned to him as a papal state (territory governed by the pope). He was further required to pay an annual tribute (a price paid for protection) to the pope. In order to raise funds for this tribute John levied (placed) heavy taxes on powerful noblemen and churchmen. Outraged at his actions and tired of his interference in their affairs, they drafted the sixty-three chapters of the Magna Carta, which they wrote in John's voice. Then in 1215 the noblemen and churchmen met the king at a meadow called Runnymede in Surrey, along the banks of the Thames River, as he returned from an unsuccessful invasion of France. They forced him to put his seal (an official wax emblem) on the document, which asserted the rights of noblemen, churchmen, and townspeople. It also stated that John would not violate those rights. In short, the Magna Carta required that the king, too, was subject to the laws of the land. The Magna Carta also made a provision for a council, to be comprised of noblemen and church officials who would approve the actions of the king toward his subjects and ensure that the charter would be upheld. John immediately appealed to Pope Innocent III (1160 or 1161–1216), who declared the charter invalid. Nevertheless, John died before action was taken and the Magna Carta was later upheld as the basis of the English justice system.
Further Information: "Magna Carta." MSN Encarta. [Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/index/conciseindex/38/03826000.htm, October 26, 2000; National Archives and Records Administration. Magna Carta. [Online] Available http://www.nara.gov/exhall/charters/magnacarta/magmain.html, October 26, 2000; Wright, Louis B. Magna Carta and the Tradition of Liberty. Washington D.C.: American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, 1976.