The following is reprinted from the book Uncle John's Unsinkable Bathroom Reader.
Most people have heard of it -maybe in a ninth-grade history class or on Jeopardy! last week. But what is it? Answer: a piece of writing that has helped shape governments for 800 years.
When asked to name the most important documents in Western civilization, historians almost always include the Magna Carta. What's so important about it? Many people assume that this landmark document, written in 1215, helped advance human rights and led directly to the Declaration of Independence. Not quite. The Magna Carta actually wasn't intended to help the common man, but it did mark the first time in history that written law challenged the absolute power of a monarch, and the first time that governments, even kings, could be held accountable for their actions. Without that, modern democracy would not exist.
STRUGGLE FOR THE THRONE
In 1002, Ethelred II, the Anglo-Saxon king of England, married Emma, the daughter of the duke of Normandy (now a region of northern France). The marriage created a blood alliance between these two kingdoms, designed to unite them against invasion by the Vikings. In 1066 the next king of England, Edward the Conquerer (an Anglo-Saxon) died, leaving no heirs. That left the door open for the Norman bloodline (the one descended from Emma) to make a claim for the throne of England.; William, the duke of Normandy, invaded and conquered England. When William (known today as William the Conquerer) officially became king of England, he installed a feudal system. Norman troops who had fought on William's side were given English lands as a reward for their loyalty, and they became barons.
According to the feudal system, anyone who lived within a baron's jurisdiction was obliged to pay taxes to the baron and serve in his militia. The barons, in turn, paid taxes to the king. England operated that way until 1199, when King Richard the Lionhearted died and his brother John claimed the throne. John, the youngest son in the royal family, actually ranked beneath his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, in the order of succession. So how did he become king? Arthur disappeared and John took the throne by force. This enraged the barons, but what could they do? They couldn't fight the king of England ...or could they?
Two incidences ultimately drove the barons to challenge the king.
Royal Error #1: In 1207 John appointed the Bishop of Norwich, John de Gray, Archbishop of Canterbury, the Catholic Church's highest representative in England. Traditionally, the king consulted with the bishops of England before making that appointment ...but John didn't do that. The bishops protested to Pope Innocent III, who then put his own man, Stephen Langton, in the position. Infuriated that his power had been usurped, King John banished the council of bishops from England. In retaliation, Pope Innocent III excommunicated John (and, by extension, all of England) from the Church. The barons urged John to make amends, which he did ...sort of. The Pope agreed to reinstate John (and England). His price: England itself. The Church would own England, and John would be little more than a local governor. In addition, the Church levied a huge tax on England. Where would John get the money? From the barons.
Royal Error #2: In 1206 French forces seized the region of Normandy. Because it was their ancestral homeland, the barons demanded John send troops to reclaim it. He delayed for eight years before finally leading the English army into the occupied territories himself. England lost; France kept the land.
Upon hearing of the defeat, the barons became furious. They banded together in 1215 (while John was traveling back from France) and decided it was time to take action against the king. Using as a basis the "Charter of Liberties," a ceremonial document used by King Henry I at his coronation in 1100, they created a new document -one that would be legally binding. Its essence: The king's power would no longer be absolute. He would be accountable for his actions, and the barons would have a say in decision-making. John returned to London that June to find the barons had taken control of the city. There was only one way for the king to get his country back: submit to the barons' 63 written demands. In return, the barons offered to sign a pledge of loyalty to King John. The resultant document -all of it in Latin- was called the "Great Charter," or Magna Carta.
Most of the 63 demands relate very specifically to life in 13th-century England. One, for example, repealed a tax on loans inherited by minors; another opened up royal hunting lands to barons. But two section shad a much broader impact.
* Clause 61 called for a committee of barons that could meet at any time to overrule the king's actions, by force if necessary.
* Clause 39 -the only part of the Magna Carta that could be applied to a commoner (it prevented the king from jailing anyone or seizing property without proper cause or a fair trial, also known as habeas corpus- translation: "you must have the body.") John wasn't about to surrender authority, even with armed barons breathing down his neck. He signed the Magna Carta just to satisfy them. (The ceremony took place on June 15, 1215, under a tree in Runnymede, a meadow in London not far from Buckingham Palace.) But as soon as the barons relinquished control of England and left London, he renounced the document and then appealed to Pope Innocent II, who technically still ruled England. The Pope declared the Magna Carta null and void.
A NEW HOPE
When the barons learned of John's treachery, they declared civil war. But the conflict was brief: King John died in 1216 and was replaced by his nine-year-old son, Henry III. The barons called a truce when the Magna Carta was reissued under Henry's name, although with sections removed,. notably Clause 61, the "committee of barons" rule. In 1225 Henry (now 18 years old) pared it down to only 37 clauses. But since he respected the basics of the charter -staying out of Church and baronial affairs- the relationship between the crown and the barons remained smooth. Over Henry's 56-year reign, the document's principles became part of England's legal tradition, an accepted system of assumed rights and laws commonly referred to as "English common law."
COMING TO AMERICA
In 1765 England needed money to pay for the troops that protected its American colonies. Parliament decided that the colonies should foot the bill, so it passed the Stamp Act, which placed a tax on written materials sold in the colonies, including newspapers, pamphlets, contracts, licenses, and playing cards. Colonists objected to being taxed by an assembly thousands of miles away in which they didn't even have a representative. The Massachusetts Assembly declared that taxation without representation violated "the natural rights of Englishmen," by which it meant the Magna Carta, the document which had guided the moral code of governing for more than 500 years. That was the first of several colonial challenges to the throne (culminating in the American Revolution), fueled by the Magna Carta's thesis that leaders are not above the law. In addition to its philosophical influence, a few clauses of the Magna Carta actually became part of the American government. Clause 39, or habeas corpus, providing that arrests and trials of citizens must have merit, is found in Article One of the U.S. Constitution. And Clause 61, which called for a committee of barons to oversee the king's actions, inspired the "checks and balances" system by which various branches of U.S. government -executive, judicial, and legislative- have oversight of each other to ensure that none of them becomes too powerful.
What became of the actual physical document? There never was one "master" Magna Carta -42 copies were made and signed, one for each of the barons and two for the king. Amazingly, four of those 42 copies still exist. One is on display at the Houses of Parliament, one is in the British Library, and one is in a cathedral in Salisbury, England. The fourth copy is usually housed at Lincoln Cathedral in Lincolnshire, but is occasionally loaned out. It was shown at the New York World's Fair in 1939 and in 2007 at the 400th anniversary celebration of Jamestown, the first English colony in North America, where it was presented as a link between the old world of England and the New World of America.
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One 1297 version was owned by Texas billionaire Ross Perot from 1984 until 1997 when it was then sold to an American investor (David Rubenstein) who wanting to keep the copy in the United States, has it on permanent loan to the National Archives and is currently on display in the West Rotunda Gallery.
The other 1297 version has been in Australia since 1952 at Members' Hall of Parliament House in Canberra.