Popular perceptions of the Magna Carta

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The Magna Carta

It is seen as the symbol of rights for citizens and the beginning of democracy, so the Magna Carta is considered to be one of the most vital legal documents in history. The popular perceptions of it are not entirely based on fact, but they have made the charter more important than its contents.

Originally written in 1215, it was never intended to make long-term changes, but only to alleviate what the barons perceived as mistreatment by the king. After his death, it was revised and reissued several times during the reign of the next two monarchs. The document that is most commonly displayed as the Magna Carta is actually the 1295 version, because this is the one that remains on the statute books in England.

King John never intended to adhere to it; he was only trying to buy himself some time. His barons objected to the fact that he had raised their feudal payments and imposed an income tax. They pushed him into meeting with them, and he agreed to their terms. In return, they renewed their oaths of loyalty to him. It was really just a treaty to make the king accountable, and to place some limitations on his powers. It was not the document to human liberties, which many believe it was.

The common perception is that King John and the barons signed the Magna Carta in Runnymede in June of 1215, but it was actually never signed by anyone. King John simply put his seal to it. Supposedly, it bound him and his heirs to follow its rules forever. However, he renounced it almost immediately, and a full-scale civil war broke out a few months later. John died of dysentery during that war.

The most significant part of the document was clause 61, which stated that a committee of 25 barons could convene and over-rule the king at any time. When his son, nine-year-old Henry III was crowned, the charter was reissued in his name, but several clauses, including clause 61, were omitted from the revision.

In fact, even the original Magna Carta was not really original. Much of it was copied almost verbatim from the Charter of Liberties, which had been written by King Henry I when he ascended to the throne in 1100. Henry’s predecessor, his brother, William Rufus, was a ruthless leader, disliked for his abuses of power. The Charter of the Liberties was intended to address those problems.

The Magna Carta was pretty much forgotten for a century. It is hardly mentioned in the literature from the Tudor period. William Shakespeare’s play, “King John”, contains no allusion to it at all. It had little effect on anything until the Elizabethan age.

Parliament brought it to light, using it in their struggles with the Stuarts. During that time, the perception was that it denoted the law and liberties of England dating back to ancient times. This interpretation played a part in the development of the constitutional monarchy that is the present form of government in England.

The Puritans brought these ideas with them to the new world, when they settled in America, and they used them in establishing their new government. The Magna Carta is seen as the precursor to the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights.

So, a treaty between a king and his unhappy barons became a force that changed the world. Intended only to limit the power of a monarch, it has become the symbol for the rights of citizens. Popular perceptions of it made the Magna Carta more important than the words that it contained.