How did a peace treaty from 1215 forge the freedoms of 2015?

Open navigator

1. The 'Great Charter'

Just after the Second World War, former First Lady of the USA Eleanor Roosevelt called the new United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights ‘a Magna Carta for all mankind’ – one of many people to draw inspiration from one of the most famous documents in British history.

In truth, Magna Carta – 'the Great Charter' – was a desperate attempt, made 800 years ago, by a violent and hated king – John I of England – to avert civil war.

But what started as a peace treaty has become, over the centuries, the basis and byword for the freedom, justice and democracy enjoyed by billions across the world.

2. Making peace

Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede, near Windsor in June 1215. Rebellious nobles and bishops brought their king to the negotiating table and forced him to agree to their specific set of demands.

Dan Jones explores how and why Magna Carta was written.

3. The men who made Magna Carta

The Great Charter was written and agreed by the elite of 13th Century England – a coalition of powerful landowners and religious leaders on one side, the King on the other.

The King – John: Ruler since 1199 having inherited the crown from his brother Richard I 'the Lionheart'. His reign was unpopular, marked by conduct which had isolated the elite. Yet the King needed their support to ensure peace within the kingdom.

Universal History Archive/UIG

Via Getty Images

The Archbishop – Stephen Langton: Following disputes with the Pope, the King had isolated the Church. Langton, as Archbishop of Canterbury, took a key role as mediator – overseeing the peace as he also sought to protect the Church’s interests.

Via Mary Evans Picture Library

The Elite – Barons: Having renounced their loyalty, the elite sought to overthrow John and end his reign. Failing that, they wanted guarantees which protected their property and ancient rights. A committee of 25 sought to represent their interests.

Edwin Mullan Collection

Via Mary Evans Picture Library

The Pope – Innocent III: The Church had a major role in 13th Century life. Papal authority was sometimes greater than royal authority, and Pope Innocent III took a keen interest in the quarrel between John and the barons.


Via Getty Images

4. Inside Magna Carta: What it actually says

Despite its continued power today, Magna Carta contains 63 clauses explicitly addressing the concerns of England’s ruling class 800 years ago. Click below to explore some of them and find out whether they have stood the test of time.

This content uses functionality that is not supported by your current browser. Consider upgrading your browser.

5. A broken peace

The original agreement lasted just six weeks. King John deliberately broke his promise to the rebels and used the Pope to have the charter officially annulled.

Frustrated, the barons turned to John’s enemies in France for help. Threatened by invasion, John fled to Winchester, and when Prince Louis of France arrived in London in May 1216 to claim the crown he met little resistance. Five months later, in October, John died after contracting dysentery. He named his nine-year-old son Henry as his chosen heir on his deathbed.

The King is dead, long live Magna Carta

John’s death did not end the rebellion – though with a new monarch came a new opportunity for change. Advisors to the young King, statesman William Marshal and Guala Bicchierri – the Pope’s new representative in England – drew on the growing influence of Magna Carta to rally support in the growing war against France.

After the French were defeated at Sandwich in Kent, and the rebels at Lincoln, the charter was issued again and formed the basis for the subsequent peace. It was only now, in 1217, that it gained the name Magna Carta – ‘The Great Charter’. So-called in order to separate it from the smaller 'Charter of the Forest', establishing rights to royal forests, issued alongside it.

A permanent charter of liberties

In 1225, Henry III sealed another version of Magna Carta. From then on the King was theoretically subject to the same laws that governed his people. He ruled with their consent, not regardless of it. This potent idea lasted well beyond the 13th Century – inspiring debate and reform for the next 800 years.

Many of the rights which we take for granted today were first enshrined in Magna Carta. Equal treatment under the law and the right to trial by jury all owe their development to the complex origins of the great charter.

Although it was not written with universal liberty in mind, Magna Carta came to inspire many of the basic principles of democracy, laying the foundation for the freedoms we enjoy today.

6. Legacy and inspiration

In the centuries since it was sealed, Magna Carta has provided the inspiration and legal basis for key moments in British and world history.

Trial of King Charles I

In 1649 Charles became the first King in English history to be put on trial.

You selected

Trial of King Charles I

Image courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library/

His opponents cited Magna Carta as they tried to limit the King's attempts to halt the legal processes being used to hold him to account.

Declaration of Independence

In 1776 the American colonies issued a statement declaring freedom from the British Crown.

You selected

Declaration of Independence

Image courtesy of Mary Evans/Classic Stock/H.

The legal power of Magna Carta & the principles of an individual’s right to freedom were used to argue for colonists' right to independence.

The Chartist movement

In the mid-19th Century, a mass protest movement, seeking political reform, emerged in Britain.

You selected

The Chartist movement

Image courtesy of Illustrated London News Ltd

The movement was based on ‘The People’s Charter’ – a manifesto published in 1838 and much presented as a contemporary Magna Carta.

Nelson Mandela

In 1964, Nelson Mandela stood trial in Pretoria, South Africa – using his time at the dock to speak of his political beliefs.

You selected

Nelson Mandela

Image courtesy of API/Contributor.

In his defence, Mandela cited Magna Carta – arguing for the necessity of ensuring the “independence and impartiality” of any judicial system.