The Magna Carta

King John and the Magna Carta
Many medieval rulers used their power to oppress subjects. In 1215, angry nobles
forced the king of England to agree to a document limiting his powers and
guaranteeing their traditional rights.
King John of England inherited a kingdom that had many problems.
For one thing, his treasury was nearly empty. As king, he tried to
govern well and cared about justice, but he could also be cruel and
bad-tempered. What really got King John into trouble is that he
quarreled with everyone. He fought with his family, with the Church
and finally with his own nobles. It was the nobles who forced King
John to agree to sign the Magna Carta. This is a list of rights and
freedoms that protected the nobles and the Church from the king’s
The story of the Magna Carta begins with King John’s father, Henry II, who ruled
England and much of France from 1154 to 1189. Before Henry, English nobles had
ruled their own lands as much as they pleased. Henry was a strong king, and he
changed that. He made English laws apply to all parts of the kingdom. This new
system gave England’s king more power.
After Henry’s death, John’s older brother, Richard
the Lion-Hearted, came to the throne. Richard
spent most of his reign fighting overseas. In the
process, he also used up much of England’s
treasury. While Richard was away, John ruled. He
wanted to be the real king. He tried to conspire
with King Philip II of France to overthrow his
brother, but that failed. In 1199, Richard died of
an arrow wound he received in battle, and John
became king.
As king, John quickly ran into problems. England ruled a large part of France, and
John’s nephew, Arthur of Brittany, was in charge there. Arthur was popular with his
subjects. When he was murdered in 1203, some thought that John might be behind
it, but nothing was proven. After Arthur’s death, John ruled the French lands
By the spring of 1205, some of the French noblemen, urged
on by the French king, started to rebel against John. King
John fought these French nobles, but was defeated, and soon
lost all his lands in France. John raised taxes to pay for
another war. When that war failed too, he raised taxes again.
King John was determined to regain his French lands, but his
treasury had very little money in it. So he tried to raise
money by placing heavy taxes on the nobles and the towns.
He also charged fees and fines whenever he could. In doing this, he ignored many
of the traditions that governed the relationship between kings and their subjects.
King John gave his subjects other reasons to be angry. He had quarreled with the
pope, the head of the Church. The pope responded that no one in England could be
baptized, married or buried within the Church. Some nobles hoped to regain the
power that they had lost to King Henry, John’s father. With the country outraged
over high taxes and problems with the Church, they thought it was a good time to
get their power back.
In early May, 1215, the nobles started a revolt. They listed
their demands in a legal document called Magna Carta (
Latin for “Great Charter”). A charter is a written statement
from a king, granting certain rights. The nobles demanded
limits on the king’s power and guarantees of the rights of
his subjects. The nobles gained a lot of support when the
city of London sided with them. King John knew he was in
serious trouble. Most of his men had deserted him, and he
needed time to form a plan. The king sent messengers to
the rebel nobles telling them that was willing to grant their
The nobles asked King John to meet them on June 19 at Runnymede, a meadow
near London. His army was scattered throughout the kingdom. The nobles had their
troops with them. John had little choice but to approve the Magna Carta.
Many of the Magna Carta’s articles deal with specific problems of the time. For
example, one article says that the king cannot take wood for his castle without the
consent of the forest owner. Other articles reflect medieval social attitudes that are
out of date. For example, one article says that, in a murder case, a woman’s word
is not good enough to get a man arrested or jailed unless the victim was her
Despite these limitations, Magna Carta was a political milestone. It expressed the
idea that no one – no government, no king, no political leader – can be above the
law. This was a revolutionary idea in 1215, and remains so today.
The Magna Carta