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Magna Carta: An Early Constitution or An Unsuccessful Peace Treaty?

Did you know that during the American Revolution (1775-1783), when the American colonists fought against Britain, they were fighting not so much for their freedom and independence but to preserve liberties and rights that they believed to be enshrined in the Magna Carta? Were the freedoms and rights they wished to uphold and for which they fought based indeed on a constitutional text, or was the Magna Carta just a text conferring liberties of some aristocrats signed by John, the King of England, under the threat of the Barons? Magna Carta functioned simply as the start of the development of constitutional institutions in England, but it also affected the global history. In essence, Magna Carta was a failed peace treaty which led to a civil war between the barons and King John. (1)

How It All Started

Firstly, Magna Carta was a royal charter of rights and freedoms agreed by the King John of England at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. This charter of liberties was the result of the King's disastrous foreign policy and overzealous financial administration. John had suffered a staggering blow the previous year, having lost an important battle to King Philip II at Bouvines (1214). When the defeated John returned from the Continent, he attempted to rebuild his coffers by demanding scutage (a fee paid in lieu of military service) from the barons who had not joined his war against Philip. The barons in question protested and condemned John's policies, insisting on a reconfirmation of Henry I's Coronation Oath (Concessions Henry had made to his barons in 1100), which would, in theory, limit the king's ability to obtain funds. (2) But John refused to withdraw his demands; by spring most baronial families began to take sides. The rebelling barons soon faltered before John's superior resources, but with the unexpected loss of London, they earned a substantial bargaining chip. John agreed to grant a charter.

The document conceded by John and set with his seal in 1215 however was not what we recognize today as the Magna Carta, but rather a set of baronial stipulations, now lost, known as the "Articles of the Barons". After King John and his barons agreed on the final provisions and additional wording changes, they issued a formal version on June 19. This is this document that came to be known as the Magna Carta. A minor wording change has proved to be of great significance to future generations: the replacement of the term "any baron" with "any freeman" in stipulating to whom the provisions applied. Over time, it would help justify the application of the Charter's provisions to a greater part of the population. While freemen were a minority in 13th century England, the term would eventually include all English, just as "We the People" would come to apply to all Americans in this century. (4)

John and the rebellious barons did not trust each other, and neither side seriously attempted to implement the peace accord. Disputes began to emerge between the royalist faction and the rebellious group who had expected the charter to return the lands that had been confiscated. A chapter of the Magna Carta contained a commitment from John that states he would "seek to obtain nothing from anyone, in our own person or through someone else, whereby any of these grants or liberties may be revoked or diminished" (Carpenter, 1996). (5) John did not intend to abide neither the terms of the Magna Carta nor its articles and chapters. Less than three months after the Magna Carta had been mutually agreed upon, violence broke out between the two sides. John and the loyalist barons firmly repudiated the failed charter, and the First Barons' War erupted (Crouch, 1996) (6) (Maurois, 1975). (7)

The Magna Carta. Photo: the Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral from the Library and Archive collections.
The Magna Carta. Photo: the Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral from the Library and Archive collections. (8).

Political Reforms during the 17th Century

The first attempt at a proper historiography concerning the Magna Carta was undertaken by Robert Brady (1627–1700), an English academic and historical writer, who refuted the supposed antiquity of the Parliament and the belief in the immutable continuity of the law. Brady realized that the liberties of the Charter were limited, and argued that the liberties were the grant of the King. By putting the Magna Carta in historical context, he cast doubt on its contemporary political relevance.

According to the Whig interpretation of history (an interpretation that presents history as a journey from a dark and terrible past to a "glorious present"), the Glorious Revolution (the disposition of King James II and IV) was an example of the reclaiming of ancient liberties. British Political Party the Whig believed England's constitution to be a social contract, based on documents such as the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, and the Bill of Rights. The English Liberties in 1680 (often referred as the British Liberties in later versions), written by the Whig propagandist Henry Care, was a cheap polemical book that was influential and much-reprinted, among the American colonies as well as Britain, and made the Magna Carta central to the history and the contemporary legitimacy of its subject. Ideas about the nature of law in general were beginning to change. In 1716, passing of the Septennial Act had a number of consequences. First, it showed that the Parliament no longer considered its previous statutes unassailable, as it provided a maximum parliamentary term of seven years, whereas the Triennial Act (1694) had provided a maximum term of three years. It also greatly extended the powers of the Parliament. Under this new constitution, monarchical absolutism was replaced by parliamentary supremacy. This supremacy would be challenged by the likes of Granville Sharp. Sharp regarded the Magna Carta as a fundamental part of the constitution, and maintained that it would be treason to repeal any part of it. He also claimed that the Charter prohibited slavery. Sir William Blackstone published a critical edition of the 1215 Charter in 1759, and gave it the numbering system that is still used today (Matthew, 2015) .(9) Thomas Paine, in his Rights of Man, would disregard the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights on the grounds that they were not a written constitution devised by elected representatives (Chesterman, 2015). (10)

The 1217 Magna Carta at the New-York Historical Society. Photo: New-York Historical Society.
The 1217 Magna Carta at the New-York Historical Society. Photo: New-York Historical Society. (11)

Legacy and Inheritance

All in all, Magna Carta was the starting point for the establishment of liberties and rights in English - British as later referred - history. Over the years, starting with the Magna Carta and through the Habeas Corpus, the petition of right, the bill of rights and other lesser judicial and royal decisions, liberties have started to be given to barons, later followed by the lower classes such as sheriffs, knights, counts and at last the citizens, and all the free men of the English Kingdom. Therefore, the Magna Carta was also the beginning of the evolution of the modern constitutional system in Britain. And its peculiarity is evident in the following fact: despite the fact that monarchy, as an institution, began to lose ground against the democratic and liberal authorities so early (1215), it continues to exist to this day. The reason for this lies in the fact that the transition has been relatively smooth. Anglo-Saxon people and Franco-Norman aristocratic class were not extremely oppressed like the third class in France almost six centuries later (1789) to the point of revolting to abolish monarchy. So, today England maintains monarchy within a democratic framework, while France does not.


  1. Magna Carta. (2019, April 26). National Archives.

  2. Coronation charter of Henry I. (n.d.). The British Library. Retrieved November 16, 2021, from The British Library.

  3. John Signs the Great Charter. [Photograph]. From Doyle, J. W. E. (1864). "John" in A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 – A.D. 1485, London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, p. 226.

  4. Magna Carta Legacy. (2019, December 6). National Archives.

  5. Carpenter, D. (1996). The Reign of Henry III. London: Hambledon Press, p. 13.

  6. Crouch, D. (1996). William Marshal: Court, Career and Chivalry in the Angevin Empire 1147–1219. Longman, p. 114.

  7. Maurois, A. (1975). A History of England, (Translator) H. Miles, The Bodley Head, London, p. 87-97.

  8. The Magna Carta. [Photograph]. The Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral from the Library and Archive collections.

  9. Matthew, S. (2015). Early America and Magna Carta. The British Library.

  10. Chesterman, S. (2015). «The Myth of Magna Carta – Or, How a Failed PeaceTreaty with French Aristocrats Was Reinvented as the Foundation of English (and American) Liberty», National University of Singapore Press, NUS Law Working Paper 2015/012, p. 5-6.

  11. The 1217 Magna Carta at the New-York Historical Society. [Photograph]. New-York Historical Society.

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Miltos Spiratos

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