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Magna Carta

The Magna Carta, or great charter, infrequently spelled "Magna Charta," is a seminal constitutional document — the gift of English history to emerging democracies throughout the world. Medieval England experienced a long-running feud between the monarchy and the nobility, each trying to maintain or increase its rights and powers at the expense of the other. From time to time, various kings attempted to maintain their grip on power by granting limited charters of liberties to the barons. The early 13th century saw an increase in tensions. King John (ruled 1199-1216) was especially unpopular, having repeatedly called upon the barons to support his series of unsuccessful foreign wars. The nobles resented the required financial contributions and service to the Crown. Most importantly, they resented the steady erosion of their traditional privileges, while the king gained power. John refused to heed the barons’ early calls for reform, but in June 1215 he capitulated at Runnymede, an ancient meeting ground along the Thames west of London. The nobles had taken an oath to fight to the death if the king did not restore their rights. John reluctantly affixed his seal to a document negotiated between his advisors, on one side, and a group of barons and clergymen, on the other. This was not a voluntary concession on the part of the Crown. The document was from most perspectives a very conservative one; the barons simply wanted to recover and protect privileges they had enjoyed in the past, but had lost over time. Many of the issues addressed were local and transitory, but it may be fair to summarize that the Magna Carta tended to reduce the kings' unfettered power and ushered in a period of fragile cooperation, a partnership marked by pervasive mistrust on both sides. Much was read into the document in later times. Some scholars have used the exaggerated term Mother of Constitutions to describe its legacy, while others have inaccurately asserted that it guaranteed the rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury, or that the charter forbade taxation without representation. It does not, however, shortchange the Magna Carta's importance to note that it has become a symbol for the ascendancy of constitutional government over the unfettered powers of the monarch.