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Significance and Meaning of Magna Carta

Renuka Savant Mar 10, 2020
Magna Carta or the Great Charter was Europe's first documented constitution. Close to 800 years old now, the document has been a benchmark of sorts for future democracies to base their principles on. This post summarizes and explains the significance of Magna Carta.

Did You Know?

• Four exemplifications or copies of the 1215 Magna Carta exist; however, there is no evidence of the original one sealed by King John (if there ever was one) having survived. Two of these are held by the British Library, one by the Lincoln Cathedral, and one by the Salisbury Cathedral.
• The copy kept on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. is from 1297, and bears the royal seal of Edward I.
Written in Latin in 1215, the Magna Carta is widely considered to be the precursor to many states' constitutions that are democratic in nature. It is interesting to note, however, that the original Charter was drafted for the sole benefit of the elite class, keeping their best interests at heart.
It was only in the 17th century that the two defining acts of English legislation―the Petition of Right (1628) and the Habeas Corpus Act (1679)―alluded to "the law of the land" and "justice"―concepts that were to heavily influence the British and American legal systems in the years to come.

History of Magna Carta

To understand the significance of the Magna Carta, one needs to peruse its history. The events which led to the creation of this document were certainly one-of-a-kind, marking the first signs of open rebellion within the haloed precincts of British aristocracy.
Magna Carta Memorial built by the American Bar Association at Runnymede.

What is the meaning of Magna Carta?

'Magna Carta' is a Latin term which translates to 'Great Charter' in English. It is widely believed to be a landmark document, the contents of which were imposed upon a King of England by a group of his subjects, with a view to limit his powers by law and protect their rights.
It is thought to be a precedent of sorts to the imposition of constitutional law in England, and eventually, the New World.

Who wrote the Magna Carta?

It was in 1215 when England's King John was staring at the prospect of an eventual rebellion by the country's powerful barons―thanks in part to years of dubious foreign policies and unjustified taxation.
The barons retaliated with a charter of liberties known as the Magna Carta that would place the King along with all of England's future sovereigns within a rule of law, thus safeguarding the interests of his courtiers. King John, under oath, placed his seal on the Magna Carta at Runnymede near Windsor on June 15, 1215, in an apparent state of duress.

Why was the Magna Carta important?

The original draft is understood to have undergone several significant changes―it was later altered and reissued in 1216, 1217, and 1225, eventually serving as the foundation for the English system of common law. It was much later that the Magna Carta would be revered by the Englishmen to be a symbol of freedom from oppression.
The document was also a source of inspiration to the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, who in 1776 looked to the charter as a valid precedent for asserting their liberty from the English colonialism.

Significance of Magna Carta

Only three of Magna Carta's clauses have stood the test of time; the rest became obsolete and were eventually repealed. The innate flexibility of the retained clauses has allowed them to be interpreted in a manner which has guaranteed their appeal and longevity.
Among three of the original clauses in Magna Carta that are still law, one defends the freedom and rights of the English church, whereas another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns. It is the third one that stands out, and this is what it says:
"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled . nor will we proceed with force against him . except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."
This statement of principle managed to escape attention for the longest time, but its message has been resounding enough to allow subsequent generations to gain inspiration from it.
In the fourteenth century, a respected jurist Sir Edward Coke drew parallels between (aristocratic) liberties and individual liberty. He was the one to oversee the framing of the Petition of Right, a landmark supplement to the liberties mentioned in the Magna Carta.
Englishmen traveling to the New World brought their sensibilities of liberty along with them, clearly reflected in the Virginia Charter of 1606 and the Massachusetts Body of Liberties.
The first copy of the Magna Carta to be printed on American soil was in 1687 when William Penn published it in The Excellent Privilege of Liberty and Property Being the Birth-Right of the Free-born Subjects of England. Penn was more or less on the same page as Sir Edward Coke, insinuating the idea that Magna Carta was a fundamental law.
The colonists took notes from English law, and the Magna Carta in particular, to usher in concepts of trial by jury and habeas corpus, both of which have resonant echoes in the American Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Fifth Amendment in the Bill of Rights says:

"No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law."
The United States Constitution includes a writ in the Suspension Clause, article 1, section 9:

"The privilege of the writ habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it."
The Ninth Amendment to the United States Constitution states:

"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."
Magna Carta in its original form simply sought to retain feudal rights and administrative principles. Its actual legacy, however, lies in the fact that it clamped down on the king's authority by establishing that the law was an authority in its own right―applicable even to the king of the land.