Magna Carta 1215-2015: A timeline of people power

Making the modern world

Magna Carta was a crucial step on the road to modern democracy. It may have started as a peace treaty but it became a symbolic milestone in human history. The ideals it expressed influenced the development of law and liberty throughout the world.

But the history of civil liberties is not an inevitable march towards democratic freedom: it's marked by fierce debate, impetuous rulers and bloody conflict. Here we look at some of the hard-won breakthroughs fuelled by the ideals of Magna Carta.


Law and order comes to England

The story of Magna Carta doesn’t start in 1215. Societies had long contemplated how best to govern and dispense justice.

Under pressure from his nobles, King Henry II began reform of the justice system in England. The Assize of Clarendon committed to written law the formation of a kind of medieval neighbourhood watch – a group of men would report crime to the King’s judges, meaning responsibility for upholding the law rested with the community. It marked a shift towards an early system of trial by a jury of peers. For the guilty, a punishment could be as extreme as deportation or even the amputation of limbs.

Courtesy of Masters of the Bench of the Inner Temple.
Courtesy of Masters of the Bench of the Inner Temple.


Magna Carta

King John, facing the threat of civil war, reluctantly agreed to demands by his wealthiest and most powerful subjects - rebellious barons and bishops.

Alongside specific protections for their property and rights, the group’s demands included clauses which established the right of all ‘free men’ to justice. While such an idea was not new, this was the first time it was committed to written law. Magna Carta asserted that all – even the King – were accountable and subject to the law.

David Starkey comes face to face with the 1215 Magna Carta Clip from David Starkey's Magna Carta (BBC Two).


Magna Carta re-issued (again)

King John reneged on the original Magna Carta within just six weeks, but its ideas lived on.

The charter was now an important tool for negotiating peace between a ruler and the ruled. Kings continued to reissue the charter in times of civil unrest, including 1216, 1217 and 1225. The 1225 version issued by Henry III – John’s son and heir – is the version we remember today. Strikingly issued of the King’s own ‘spontaneous and free will’, it redefined the nature of monarchical rule in England, enshrining in law the principle that a king governs only with the consent of his people.

King Henry III is crowned.
John's son, King Henry III is crowned.


Taming the Crown

When King Charles I defied Parliament and flouted the rights of his subjects, lawyer Edward Coke decided to curtail him.

He argued Charles’s actions violated the liberties afforded to his subjects by Magna Carta. He drew up a new document, the Petition of Right, which turned the charter’s core principles into constitutional law. Yet Charles wouldn’t be constrained for long and civil war ensued. Magna Carta’s legacy of holding power to account reached its starkest and bloodiest conclusion yet: a king put on trial and beheaded for breaching the rights and freedoms of his subjects.

David Starkey on Edward Coke's mission for civil liberties Clip from David Starkey's Magna Carta (BBC Two).


The great writ

The right to a fair trial can be traced back to Magna Carta: “No free man will be seized or imprisoned… except by the lawful judgement of his equals.”

It wasn’t until 1679 that the principles of the charter’s most famous clause became part of English law. Habeas corpus ensured the state could not arbitrarily imprison people without the backing of the law. If an individual was imprisoned without charge, they now had the right to challenge their detention before a judge. A landmark in English legal history, it proved Magna Carta had the power to influence the nation’s law some 300 years later and remains on the statute book today.

Prisoner in an 18th century jail
“You may have the body” – Habeas corpus


A glorious revolution

When another meddling monarch – King James II – was deposed, Parliament acted to ensure his replacement would not interfere in the democratic process.

It was a momentous opportunity to reorganise England’s power structure according to the will of the people. Before they could take power, the new King, William of Orange and his wife Mary were required to agree to a Bill of Rights. It set out a series of rules governing how Parliament should be run and limiting the power of the Crown. The monarch was no longer the sovereign power in the land – Britain’s sovereignty now resided in the Palace of Westminster, rather than the palace of a King.

David Starkey on how the Bill of Rights profoundly changed Britain's democracy (Clip from David Starkey's Magna Carta BBC Two)


No taxation without representation

As English people spread across the world, so did their ideas. In particular, Magna Carta had a profound influence on the founding fathers of the USA.

When the mother country imposed a tax on its overseas colony, giving its inhabitants no say in the matter, the likes of Thomas Jefferson saw it as breaching fundamental rights enshrined in Magna Carta. The US Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, promised liberty and equality under law. Magna Carta harboured the symbolic power to shape a world well beyond 13th Century England.

Dr David Starkey on Magna Carta's impact on the US Declaration of Independence Clip from David Starkey's Magna Carta (BBC Two).


A charter for an industrial age

By 1832, Britain’s democracy needed to be redefined for a society radically changed by the Industrial Revolution.

The Great Reform Act redistributed parliamentary seats to more fairly represent a population which had shifted from a mainly rural to a mainly urban one. Although it did not go nearly as far as giving all citizens a say in how they were governed – a cause taken up immediately by the Magna Carta-inspired Chartist movement – it set in motion the birth of modern, fully-representative parliamentary democracy.

The Reform Act  of 1832 satirised by a contemporary artist.
The Reform Act of 1832 satirised by a contemporary artist.


Extending the vote

At a time when people were being asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, Britain’s political system needed to evolve.

The Representation of the People Act came at the end of World War One, when the seismic events of the preceding years led to a profound re-evaluation of British society. It brought reform, most notably granting women over the age of 30 – many of whom had played a major role in the war effort – the right to vote, and represented a move towards greater political equality among all British citizens.

Mother voting in 1918


A global Magna Carta

The United Nations was established as the world reeled from the atrocities of the Second World War.

It sought to foster a new co-operative international order. It adopted its Declaration in 1948 which set out to define and protect basic human rights to which it believed all individuals are universally entitled. Many of its articles echo the sentiments of Magna Carta, such as the right to equality before the law and protection against the arbitrary seizure of personal assets. In 1953, the UN’s aspirations were enshrined in European law in the form of the European Convention on Human Rights.


Rule Britannia

The Human Rights Act, which came into force in the UK in October 2000, set out a series of fundamental rights to which all citizens are entitled.

It brought together and codified 16 clauses from the European Convention of Human Rights and ensured British citizens could process human rights issues through UK courts. Over 700 years after King John appeased a group of rebellious barons, Magna Carta’s principles were being reaffirmed in British law ready for a new millennium.

A statue with a figure holding a sword and a set of scales, representing justice.
The Old Bailey, the central criminal court of England and Wales.


Liberty vs security

Following the attack on New York’s World Trade Centre in 2001, British and US governments introduced legislation to address the threat of terrorism.

This put civil liberties firmly back on the political agenda. Laws which enabled authorities to monitor and detain people without charge were seen by some as an infringement of fundamental rights first written down in Magna Carta. In 2008, debate raged when the government introduced the Counter-Terrorism Bill, aiming to increase the maximum detention period for suspected terrorists to 42 days. The clause was eventually dropped but not before leading MP David Davis resigned in protest.

Dr David Starkey on Magna Carta in a new millennium Clip from David Starkey's Magna Carta (BBC Two)


Another decade, another charter?

Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to scrap the Human Rights Act and produce a British Bill of Rights if the Conservative party were re-elected.

He claimed the European convention was no longer fit for purpose, citing the Magna Carta as an example of Britain’s commitment to liberty and equality. The move sparked debate – was reform necessary or did it pose a threat to the legitimacy of human rights law in Britain? This latest chapter in the story of civil liberties confirms the enduring legacy of Magna Carta – a symbolic touchstone used to challenge, define and protect fundamental rights and freedoms by generations throughout history.

The House of Commons, London.
The House of Commons, London.

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