The Magna Carta (Latin for the ‘Great Charter’) is famous around the world as the foundation stone of constitutional and parliamentary government.
It confirmed the rule of law—the principle that nobody, not even the monarch, is above the law—and, among other freedoms, laid the basis for establishing trial by jury, outlawing arbitrary detention, and ensuring that there should be no taxation without representation.
Over the centuries, its principles have been incorporated into the common law of many nations, and embodied in such momentous documents as the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, of course, Australia’s own Constitution.
Created for a peace that was doomed to fail
The Magna Carta was originally drafted in 1215, as a peace treaty between King John and a group of barons who had rebelled against his feudal and cruel system of demanding excessive taxes and military support.
Following his defeat against the French in 1214, King John was in a weakened position and was forced to come to terms with the barons. Their demands were incorporated into the first Magna Carta.
This first Magna Carta was a failure, though. King John broke his promises after just six weeks.
An idea that wouldn’t die
King John died in October 1216, but the Magna Carta did not die with him. Just one month later, the first revision was issued. Two more revisions, in 1217 and 1225, ensued under the reign of Henry III, King John’s son.
Henry’s successor, Edward I, confirmed the 1225 version and in 1297 issued the Inspeximus Magna Carta (‘Inspeximus’ is Latin for ‘we have inspected’—an inspeximus issue of a charter is one that inspects and confirms a charter made by a former king).
It is this edition of the Magna Carta that was officially placed on the English statutes. One of only four surviving copies of the original manuscript is held at Parliament House.