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“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” —Micah 6:8

The Signing of the Magna Carta, June 15, 1215

In the year 1100, King Henry I of England issued a document known since then as “The Charter of Liberties,” in an attempt to curry favor with his barons. He was the youngest son of William the Conqueror, but was able to grab the throne after the death of his oldest brother, during a time that his second oldest was on crusade in the Holy Land. Neither the barons nor the church were happy with Henry’s accession to the throne. The document addressed some of the abusive taxation and unpopular ecclesiastical practices of the former king, William II (“William Rufus”). Although the Charter was mostly ignored in practice, 115 years later it was cited as precedent for claiming certain rights against the unpopular and overbearing King John. This time, rebellious barons themselves imposed a charter of rights on the King, a list of rights that has come down to us today as the Great Charter — Magna Carta.

Cardinal Stephen Langton and the nobles and barons of England met November 20, 1214 at St Edmund’s Abbey to swear that, if King John refused to uphold the liberties and laws granted to the church, they would withdraw their allegiance to the crown

In 1199, John, son of Henry II, became king of the realm upon the death of his brother Richard “the Lion Heart” (who died from an arrow wound while besieging the castle of Chalus in central France.) A man of fiery temper and “utterly lacking in morals,” John offended his Irish lieges, failed to conquer recalcitrant nobles in Wales, and saw his choice for Archbishop of Canterbury annulled and replaced by papal decree. He was excommunicated by the Pope. His English nobles considered the onerous taxes levied by John an adequate cause for rebellion against him.

Richard I of England (1157-1199), third son of Henry II

13th-century illustration showing King Henry II and his children:
(L-R): William, Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John

The papal choice for Archbishop of Canterbury was one Stephen Langton, justly famous for dividing the Bible into chapters, a system still in use today. In 1212, the Roman Pontiff absolved the English barons of their allegiance to King John. The following year, the barons gathered at Westminster Abbey, where Langton produced and read the Charter of Liberties that King Henry had issued 115 earlier. The idea that English liberty was rooted in their history, unified barons from different areas of the realm against the King. After capturing London in 1215, the barons, along with Langton, met King John at a gathering brokered by the Master of the Knights Templar at Runnymede. There the recalcitrant monarch signed the Great Charter, written in Latin and perhaps mostly authored by Stephen Langton, which has stood to this day “as a fundamental statement of English constitutionalism.”

Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) excommunicated John in November 1209

Plaster maquette of Stephen Langton — one of seventeen made for life-sized bronzes representing the Magna Carta signatories

Among the sixty-three articles was a declaration that the English church was free of government control, a list of feudal obligations, and principles for the administration of law and justice — including the lex talionis principle of “an eye for an eye.” It set down rules for “no taxation without representation,” and the requirement of jury trial by peers and many other legal rights of freemen. All in all, it restored the ancient rights of Englishmen against the usurpations of a Norman tyrant. John disavowed the Charter shortly after signing it, but it has remained a seminal statement of English rights for more than eight centuries, and was quoted by the American Founders of 1776 as one of the guarantors of the rights of the colonies.

One of four known surviving 1215 exemplars of the Magna Carta

King John signs the Magna Carta

Read the Full Text of the Magna Carta

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