The Great Charter
The Magna Carta of 1215 is one of the most significant historical documents in the English speaking world. The Great Charter marked the first instance of a King being compelled to accept a list of terms drafted by his subjects. In 1770, British Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder described the Great Charter as "The Bible of the English Constitution" and the full document remained on the national Statute Book until the passing of the Law Reform Act in 1863.
As Great Britain developed an Empire that spanned across the globe, British common law shaped the development of modern commonwealth nations, including Canada. Magna Carta's guarantee of individual liberties contributed to the development of the American Constitution. Today, three key clauses from Magna Carta remain in force in the United Kingdom: the freedom of the English Church, the "ancient liberties" of the City of London, and the right to due process.
In 1215, however, King John's rebellious barons were not setting out to remake the English political and legal systems. There was a consensus that the King had pushed his traditional prerogatives too far and infringed on the accepted right of the nobility. The Great Charter unified rebels with differing interests. King John's predecessors had all battled rebels who sought to place another member of the royal family on the throne. Magna Carta was the rallying point for the first English rebellion in the name of ideals.
The Making of a Controversial King
John was not born to be King. At the time of his birth at Beaumont Castle in Oxford on Christmas Eve in 1166, his parents, King Henry II of England and Queen Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine already had three surviving sons and three daughters in addition to Eleanor's two daughters from her first marriage, to King Louis VII of France. By 1166, Henry had already made plans to divide the vast Anglo-French Angevin Empire between his three elder sons.
According to Henry Il's vision, the eldest son, known as Young Henry, would inherit England and Normandy from his father. The second son, Richard, would succeed his mother in Aquitaine. The third son, Geoffrey, would receive Brittany by marrying its young heiress. The King's subsequent attempts to provide for his youngest son by giving him lands and castles previously promised to his elder sons became a major source of conflict within the royal family. Young Henry, Richard and Geoffrey all rebelled against Henry II, seeking...