Updated: Dec 8, 2019
Magna Carta is famous as a symbol of justice, fairness, and human rights. Magna Carta, English Great Charter, a charter of English liberties granted by King John on June 15, 1215, under threat of civil war and reissued, with alterations, in 1216, 1217, and 1225. By declaring the sovereign
to be subject to the rule of law and documenting the liberties held by “free men,” the Magna Carta provided the foundation for individual rights in Anglo-American jurisprudence.
Magna Carta originated as an unsuccessful attempt to achieve peace between royalist and rebel factions in 1215, as part of the events leading to the outbreak of the First Barons' War.
Magna Carta means simply ‘great charter’. A charter is a legal document issued by the king or queen which guarantees certain rights. This charter has over 60 clauses, covering many areas of the nation’s life, including the right to a fair trial. It is one of several copies written immediately after
King John agreed peace terms with his barons at Runnymede, which were sent around the country as evidence of the king’s decision.
Three clauses of the 1225 Magna Carta remain on the statute book today. Although most of the clauses of Magna Carta have now been repealed, the many divergent uses that have been made of it since the Middle Ages have shaped its meaning in the modern era, and it has become a potent, international rallying cry against the arbitrary use of power.
Although Magna Carta contained 63 clauses when it was first granted, only three of those clauses remain part of English law. One defends the liberties and rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, but the third is the most famous:
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, 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 clause gave all free men the right to justice and a fair trial. However, ‘free men’ comprised only a small proportion of the population in medieval England. The majority of the people were unfree peasants known as ‘villeins’, who could seek justice only through the courts of their own lords.
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