The 1215 agreement between King John of England and his barons provided the foundation for English common law, which spread throughout the English-speaking world. Magna Carta is the first example of a king of England consenting to written limits on his power drafted by his subjects. The Magna Carta (or Great Charter) informs the legal system in English Canada, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Arbitrary Rule

Since the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a succession of kings ruled according to traditional rights and prerogatives that allowed the nobility a certain degree of autonomy over their own affairs, and protection from arbitrary punishment. John’s father, Henry II, and brother, Richard I “the Lion-Heart” were often absent from England, defending their French domains or on Crusade. Their absence increased the independence of the English nobility. John ( king from 1199–1216) spent much of his reign in England, imposing new taxes to fund his continental wars. John's decision to selectively ignore the accepted right to judgement by peers enjoyed by his barons, in addition to increased military taxation, contributed to the discontent of the time.

John’s treatment of the noble de Braose family was one of the most notorious examples of the King’s disregard for the traditional prerogatives of the nobility. When Welsh border lord William de Braose failed to repay a sum of 5,000 marks that he owed the Crown, and when his wife Maud made indiscreet comments about the king’s role in the murder of his nephew, John confiscated William’s lands and starved Maud and her son to death in a castle dungeon. The fate of the de Braose family demonstrated to the barons that none of them were safe from the king’s arbitrary rule — inspiring the codification of the right to due process in Magna Carta.

First Barons’ War

In 1215, the First Barons’ War began after King Philip II of France imposed a humiliating peace treaty on England. John lost his French lands and had to pay compensation to Philip. During past reigns, discontented barons rallied around one of the king’s relatives to effect change, but John’s eldest son, the future Henry III, was only eight years old and therefore not an effective leader for a revolt. Since there was not an obvious replacement for John within the royal family, England’s barons and their allies decided to make an unprecedented attempt to codify their privileges in the Great Charter.

After lengthy negotiations, John affixed his seal to the Magna Carta in June, 1215. The document is the earliest example of an English king accepting formal limits on his power imposed by his subjects.

Great Charter of 1215

The charter emphasizes checks and balances on the monarch’s power. Two-thirds of the clauses focus on securing the impartial judgement of complaints against the king or his representatives, and stopping the misuse of power by royal officials.

Key clauses that continue to inform modern legal thought in the English-speaking world include:

39.“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."

40. “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

The modern legal concepts of trial by jury and habeas corpus (freedom from arbitrary arrest) have their origins in Magna Carta. In addition, while the charter focused on resolving disputes between the King and his barons, there were also clauses guaranteeing the freedom of the church and the city of London. These clauses remain active statutes in the United Kingdom.

Within months of the meeting between John and his barons at Runnymede, both sides abandoned the charter. The King appealed to Pope Innocent III to release him from the terms, and the barons returned to the traditional method of dealing with unpopular monarchs — supporting a rival claimant to the throne. The barons sent a delegation to the future King Louis VIII of France, husband of John’s niece, inviting him to invade England and claim the throne.

Magna Carta After John

John’s sudden death in 1216 allowed Magna Carta to survive and develop over the course of the 13th century. The barons withdrew their support for Louis’s invasion of England and rallied around John’s young son, who was crowned Henry III. The new king’s lengthy time as a child-monarch, some of it under the regency, or supervision, of William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, allowed the barons to assume a greater role in England’s governance and refine the ideas codified by Magna Carta.

In 1217, Marshal ratified the Charter of the Forest (Carta de Foresta), which ended the arbitrary “evil customs” in forest law mentioned in Magna Carta. When Henry III came of age in 1227, the future of both charters was uncertain as he was not obliged to uphold legislation passed during his time as a minority-aged king. To the relief of his barons, the King ultimately agreed to accept Magna Carta in exchange for a tax on the movable property of the clergy, and the Charter of the Forest for a tax on land.

Provisions of Oxford

Magna Carta informed the development of the concept of parliamentary democracy. Prior to the Second Barons’ Revolt of 1264–1267, Henry III’s discontented barons, led by his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, compelled the King to accept the Provisions of Oxford in 1258. This document developed the ideas from Magna Carta, calling for an elected body of 24 magnates who would meet regularly to advise the King. Although Montfort’s rebellion was crushed and he was killed at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, he is now known as a founder of parliamentary democracy because of his development of Magna Carta’s provisions into a form of representative government.

Decline and Rebirth

Magna Carta experienced a gradual decline in political importance after 1300. The printing press had the potential to make Magna Carta accessible to a wider public in the 16th century but printers treated it as an obscure legal document and published it within reference collections for lawyers. Henry VIII, king of England from 1509 to 1547, applied a veneer of due process to his judgements. However, when his chancellor Thomas More cited Magna Carta’s freedom of the church in his opposition to the king’s supremacy over the Church of England (see Anglicanism), More was convicted of treason and beheaded, because he refused to accept the royal supremacy. The monarch’s power appeared to be as unchecked as it had been in John’s time.

Magna Carta emerged from obscurity during the reign of James I, king of England from 1603 to 1625, when renowned jurist Sir Edward Coke argued that the charter was part of English common law and a key document within England’s “ancient constitution.” As chief justice of the Common Pleas, Coke cited Magna Carta to argue that the king was not above the law. In 1628, Coke authored the Petition of Right, which called upon Charles I, king of Great Britain and Ireland from 1625 to 1649, to respect the rights of his subjects as codified in “The Great Charter of the Liberties of England.” When Charles failed to uphold these rights, he lost his throne and his life during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s.

Global Impact

Coke’s interpretation of Magna Carta spread around the world, because Coke was also the author of legal textbooks. His four volume Institutes of the Laws of England, which argued the primacy of Magna Carta to English law, became the standard legal text in the Thirteen Colonies, read by future signatories of the American Declaration of Independence. The revival of Magna Carta therefore shaped the American Revolution and the development of common law throughout the English-speaking world.

Magna Carta in Canada

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains clauses with precedents dating back to Magna Carta. Section 9 of the Charter guarantees freedom from arbitrary detainment or imprisonment while section 10 guarantees habeas corpus. Both rights can be traced back to Magna Carta.

Magna Carta may have shaped other documents that governed the relationship between the Crown and Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The Royal Proclamation issued by King George III in 1763 was described at the time of its 250th anniversary in 2013 as “the Indian Magna Carta” because it provided the framework for all future treaties between the Crown and First Nations.

Magna Carta is also recognized as a key document in English-Canadian common law. Consider, for example, the reference made to Magna Carta in a 2000 case before the Supreme Court of Canada. In the decision of Blencoe v. British Columbia (Human Rights Commission), Justice Louis LeBel stated: “The notion that justice delayed is justice denied reaches back to the mists of time. In Magna Carta in 1215, King John promised: 'To none will we sell, to none will we deny, or delay, right or justice.'”

While the ideas within Magna Carta continue to shape the Canadian legal system, the actual text of the charter is not formally part of the constitution and is subject to provincial or federal legislation. A number of 20th and 21st century British Columbia legal cases discussed the relationship between Magna Carta, the constitution and the Criminal Code. A 1978 case, R v. Dobell, refuted the idea “that if there were a disparity between a term in the Magna Carta and the Criminal Code of Canada the Magna Carta should override the Criminal Code of Canada.” The British Columbia Court of Appeal ruled in 2003: “Unlike the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Magna Carta is not a constitutional document.” Canadian constitutional scholar Peter Hogg wrote in Constitutional Law of Canada that Magna Carta was an English statute amenable to ordinary legislation.

Surviving Copies

During the reigns of John, his son Henry III and his grandson Edward I, England consisted of 39 counties that would have all received copies of the Great Charter, carrying the royal seal, for consultation in major castles, cathedrals and town halls. There are 23 surviving copies of Magna Carta that date from between 1215 and 1300, including four from John’s reign. Most of these documents are housed in British cathedrals, museums, libraries and archives. There is one on permanent display in the National Archives in Washington, DC, and another at Magna Carta Place in Canberra, Australia.

Canadian Exhibitions

British copies of the Magna Carta have toured the world, including Canada. In 2010, the Manitoba Legislature negotiated the loan of a copy from 1217 for a three-month exhibition. While the document was on display in Winnipeg, the Queen visited to unveil a stone from Runnymede Meadow that became the cornerstone of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

The Magna Carta will return to Canada for the 800th anniversary of the document in 2015. The best preserved of seven copies of the final Magna Carta, issued by King Edward I in 1300, will tour Canada with stops in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Toronto, beginning in June 2015.