Primary History

British History: The Magna Carta

  • Richard, the Lionheart

    Richard, the Lionheart, King of England had spent much of his reign outside England fighting wars in the Middle East and France. To pay for these he had taxed the English heavily. In 1199, Richard died and his brother, John became king.

    John continued to fight wars in France but he kept losing battles. He needed more money so his government in England ruthlessly demanded more taxes from the nobility who were expected to pay tax if the King asked.

    The Barons became very unhappy about John exploiting their loyalty and belief in his complete power. They rebelled and took over London and forced John to negotiate.

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  • Magna Carta

    On the 19 June 1215 at Runnymede King John signed the Magna Carta. (This means Great Charter.)

    It was the first formal document stating that a King had to follow the laws of the land and it guaranteed the rights of individuals against the wishes of the King. This meant people couldn't be arrested, imprisoned of have their possessions taken away except by the judgement of his equals and/or the law of the land. This laid the way for trial by jury which means people are tried by their peers and guaranteed the civil rights of the individual.

    The Magna Carta established the principle that the people of England, at this stage represented by the Barons, could limit the power of a King, if he was doing things that were not good for the country

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  • Medieval Latin

    This is one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta that were sent out across England to tell people what had happened. It is written in Medieval Latin on parchment.

    Parchment is made by soaking sheepskin in lime and the stretching it very tightly between pegs in the ground and then leaving it to dry. The skin is then scrapped with a knife which creates a smooth writing surface.

    It was very expensive so scribes wrote in small letters and often abbreviated words.

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Fun Facts
  • Before the Magna Carta, widows and daughters of Barons could be sold by the King in marriage in order to make money.

  • Of the 63 clauses of the Magna Carta only 3 are still in use. The three include a defence of the rights of the English church, the liberties and customs of London and the right to a fair trial and only being arrested for a just cause.

  • The Magna Carta was authenticated by a royal seal rather than a signature and there is no evidence that King John could write at all.

  • The scribes used tiny writing and abbreviated words to save space because parchment was so expensive.

  • Runnymede was selected for both sides to meet because it was a large meeting place near Staines where the Barons had their HQ and the King's place at Windsor.

  • It is the basis for constitutions throughout the world including the United States of America.

  • It was not written on the day at Runnymede but was written down at a later date by scribes working in the Royal Chancery.

  • The scribes made many copies of the Magna Carta which were sent across England but now only 4 survive.

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