There are few documents in Anglo-American constitutional history more sanctified than the Magna Carta. On its face, the document is a medieval charter commonly used to convey land, authorized in 1215 by King John of England (1167–1216) under threat of civil war from his barons. Since that date, significant constitutional principles have been attributed to the Magna Carta, even though it was a document drawn up in the midst of a violent political crisis by selfish men gifted neither with prescience nor political genius. Yet for many centuries historians and politicians have celebrated the date of its creation, and the venerable American Bar Association has erected a monument in England in its honor. Understanding the document’s true importance depends on appreciating its historical context and limitations.

The nobles and others who met with King John and secured his agreement to sign the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, were desperate men frustrated by repeated royal abuses and failures. Indeed, by that year King John had outraged virtually all of his most literate and important subjects, including the clergy, nobility, and merchants. He had insulted Rome by confiscating church lands, insisting that clerics accused of crimes be tried in royal courts, and resisting the selection of a new Archbishop of Canterbury in 1204. Successive popes responded to these actions by placing an interdict on England that denied the populace any sacraments except baptism and last rites. The interdict remained in effect for seven years, finally reaching a crisis point when John himself was excommunicated from 1209 until 1213. Never before had any English king allowed relations with Rome to degenerate into such a lengthy impasse.

John’s barons were angry because he had abused traditional feudal contracts in numerous ways. Too frequently, he had charged them fees known as feudal aids and reliefs, which had previously been limited to occasional moderate assessments. To make matters worse, the military campaigns by which John justified these exorbitant charges were uniformly unsuccessful, including the loss of Normandy, which had been held by English kings since the conquest of 1066. He tried and failed repeatedly to reclaim it, and ultimately his rival, King Phillip of France, forced John’s barons, who for generations had held land in both England and Normandy, to choose between loyalty to one country or to the other, causing them to lose land and wealth. Furthermore, John had continued the policy of his grandfather, Henry II (1133–1189), requiring that most civil disputes be tried in royal courts superseding baronial courts.

Merchants were upset that the king’s poor diplomacy and unsuccessful wars had not only cost them tax revenue, but also had inhibited their business dealings abroad. They were further offended at his constant interference in the self-governance of London and other cities. John’s inept administration, his perceived tyrannies, and his excessive taxation burdened many and resulted in such a loss of prestige that the powerful and wealthy joined forces against him. Their alliance was fragile and might not have endured lengthy royal resistance to their terms, but John signed the document they proposed. Although he immediately repudiated it, his signature did save the nation from internecine war. He died soon thereafter on October 19, 1216. At his infant son’s succession, his regents felt it prudent to reissue the Magna Carta. Over the following century its main principles were absorbed into statutory laws.

The document that emerged from these dissident groups reflected each of their complaints and, most remarkably, forced the king to acknowledge error. The original text was written in Latin as a solid block of run-on clauses that were not divided into convenient chapters or subjects. Contemporaries named it “magna” not because of its significance, but because of its great length. Later versions divided the text into sixty-three randomly ordered headings falling into four major categories. The first assured the liberties of the English Church, the second stipulated that land tenures were secure, the third modified the administration of royal justice, and the fourth contained a variety of provisions for merchants, townspeople, and others.

John promised the church that he would not interfere with its elected officials, their duties, and their lands. He acknowledged to his barons that he had violated the restraints of the feudal contract by which they held their land, and he swore that he would respect the reciprocal nature of the feudal relationship by convening them to consider extraordinary revenues. John agreed to locate his major civil court in a single place rather than require it to follow him. He also promised to make proceedings of the king’s court, known as assizes, available by a regular circuit of justices. Curiously, at the very moment when the barons might have destroyed royal justice and asserted their hegemony, they maintained its viability. The barons also wrung from John’s reluctant hand an agreement whereby they might not be legally prosecuted without the common consent of their “peers,” a phrase subsequently interpreted by many as the root of the jury system and parliamentary government. Finally, the king promised to respect the rights and privileges of urban charters and royal forests.

The Magna Carta might have declined into obscurity had it not been for the violent constitutional conflicts that erupted in the seventeenth century. Beneath the surface of its sixty-three provisions is an implied bond between lord and vassal that some later observers argued created a new relationship between the king and society. In 1628 Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634), Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, maintained that the Magna Carta had established restraints on royal power, and Anglo-American polemicists asserted that it had introduced cherished individual freedoms such as trial by jury, the assurance of swift adjudication according to recognized law, and “no taxation without representation.” Furthermore, some have credited the Magna Carta with planting the seeds of constitutional government replete with representative institutions that protect individuals and private property against arbitrary rule. Other scholars, however, acknowledge that the Magna Carta represented a dynamic seed from which much has grown, but make more circumspect claims regarding its influence. What is indisputable is that a medieval document established royal error, promised redress under the law, and did so in writing. Without question, this document created a dramatic political symbol for the future.