Hundreds of years before American colonists revolted against the crown, rebel nobles in England drafted the Magna Carta to curtail the power of their own tyrannical monarch–King John. While the Magna Carta, signed in 1215, primarily secured liberties for England’s elite classes, its language protecting due process and barring absolute monarchy has guided the fundamental principles of common law in constitutions around the world for the last 800 years. The Magna Carta brought an end to the absolute power of English sovereigns as they, too, were required to be held accountable by the law.
King John had a tumultuous relationship with Pope Innocent III, a controversial figure in the early 13th century who claimed supreme authority over European sovereigns. After opposing Stephen Langton’s appointment as archbishop of Canterbury in 1207, King John became the first English monarch to be excommunicated, so he struck back by taxing the Church and seizing portions of its lands. He was even more unpopular among the English barons, whom he taxed heavily to pay for his military defeats. In 1214, King John launched an unsuccessful invasion of France and taxed the English nobility again to pay for his war, sparking a revolt of the barons in 1215.
To resolve the civil unrest and end the king’s abuse of power, Langton and a group of rebel barons drafted the Articles of the Barons, which became the Magna Carta. In fear that the rebellion would escalate to full-scale civil war and endanger his throne, King John affixed his seal on the document at Runnymede on June 15, 1215, making it Europe’s first written constitution. After only a few weeks, however, Pope Innocent III, who by then had reconciled with King John, voided the Magna Carta at the king’s urging. This reignited the violence between the monarchy and the barons, but after King John’s sudden death in 1216, the Magna Carta was reinstated under 9-year-old King Henry III. (It was revised in 1216, 1217 and 1225.)
Ironically, the Magna Carta would inspire American colonists a few hundred years later to declare independence from the British themselves. Around one-third of the provisions in the United States’ Bill of Rights draw from the Magna Carta, particularly from its 39th clause: “No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.”
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The four remaining copies of the original Magna Carta are housed at Salisbury Cathedral, Lincoln Cathedral and the British Museum.