Why was the Magna Carta drawn up?

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The Magna Carta, drafted in 1215, was the solution to a political crisis between King John and those opposed to tax policies and disagreement with the Pope. The medieval feudal system essentially established the king as the creator, distributor, and mediator of laws in the land. Likewise, the laws were unclear and could change often. English barons rose up against King John and recruited allies in France and Scotland who were loyal to the Pope, who had excommunicated King James. A civil war broke out and after much fighting, John met with the rebels at Runnymede and there they negotiated and signed the Magna Carta. John later protested that he was coerced into signing the document, which was partly true, as he had to concede some power to stay on the throne.

The document itself enshrined protections and liberties for the Church, towns, and the individual. The document, for example, protected individuals form having their property seized and gave them the right to justice in a court. The document also stated that no one was above the law, not even the king.

So the Magna Carta, in essence, can be understood as the first major step in limiting the power of the feudal system by enshrining in law protections of religion, property, and individual liberty.

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What was the importance of the Magna Carta at the time it was written?

The Magna Carta today is seen as a major statement of the idea of limited government.  At the time when it was written, it was not quite such a grand document.  Instead, it was one that simply shifted the power between the monarch and the lesser nobility.

What the Magna Carta did at the time was to redefine and reemphasize the feudal relationship between the king and his vassals.  It simply made clear that the king had responsibilities to his vassals and could not just rule as an absolute monarch.  This was already an idea that was firmly rooted in feudal tradition, but the Magna Carta put it formally on paper.

At the time, then, the main importance of the Magna Carta was that it decreased the power of the king and gave more weight to the rights of the lesser nobility.

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Why is the Magna Carta important?

Although it was written just over 800 years ago, Magna Carta remains important today largely because it was the first statement of the idea of limited government in the modern world. 

Before Magna Carta (and, in many places, for a long time afterwards) governments were above the law.  Governments were controlled by monarchs who had absolute power.  There were no laws that monarchs had to obey.  A monarch and his or her government had no limits.  They could do anything that they wanted to do and there was nothing that could stop them. 

Magna Carta was, in a sense, the beginning of the end of this idea.  Among other things, Magna Carta set out a number of rules that the king of England agreed to obey.  Most famously, it established that no “free man” (though this was a small group at the time) could be punished for any crime unless they had been tried and convicted by a jury of their peers. 

Even after Magna Carta, monarchs had much more power than we would let our governments have today.  However, Magna Carta started the trend toward limited government.  It set out the idea that even the government has to obey laws.  This is a very powerful idea, one that has shaped the world in which we live today.

 

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