The appearance of the Magna Carta of 1215 in England is rightfully considered one of the most significant events in the development of medieval law. This document is a product of the historical development of the English state, a logical result of the political and legal thought of feudal lords. The role of the Magna Carta in the development of English law can hardly be overestimated; it is, undoubtedly, a document far ahead of its time.
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The charter was the first step of medieval society towards democracy, a document for the first time proclaiming the inalienability of natural human rights and an attempt to secure them. For the modern Englishman or American, the Magna Carta is one of the fundamental documents in which, perhaps, ideas such as the rule of law, the equality of all before the court, and the protection of human rights were first reflected.
This document at the moment only nominally retains its significance, is partially recorded in the British Constitution, although only three articles formally protect the rights of the Church of England, granting rights and liberties to the city of London and its environs, and the most famous, 39th article, on the prosecution of legal sentence equal to the accused. Moreover, today, the Magna Carta is almost more respected in the United States than in Great Britain.
It enters American constitutional history in the form that it acquired during the English Revolution and the Civil War, since the English colonists in the New World considered themselves, until the end of the 18th century, subjects of the English king. Nevertheless, in the documents that formalized the formation of the United States – in the Declaration of Independence, in the Constitution – there are no references to the Magna Carta. But the Magna Carta is often mentioned by judges of the US Supreme Court, and its foundational statements are found in the Bill of Rights.
In 1215, King John of England “granted” a charter to his subjects, confirming their ancient rights and liberties. The resonance was caused not so much by the charter itself as by the circumstances of its adoption. Long before the adoption of the charter, John had to tax his subjects with new requisitions in order to finance his unsuccessful wars with King Philip II of France and return the lost possessions to Normandy. The reputation of the English monarch in the eyes of his subjects was also worsened by the fact that in 1213 he declared himself a vassal of Pope Innocent III in order to gain his support. Needing money, John and his officials went to all sorts of violations of established customs.
There was an increase in feudal fees, the announcement of new land plots as royal forests, the groundless deprivation of feuds of their vassals, and arbitrary detention of knights who disagree with this policy. Therefore, barons, together with their vassals, united, enlisted the support of other sections of the population who were dissatisfied with the rule of John — knights, townspeople, merchants, and other free people. They rebelled against the king and forced him to confirm their rights and liberties that already existed in England by the beginning of XIII century. Thus, the Magna Carta as a historical document became a peace treaty, in other words, a truce between the king and the rebels.
The secret to the success of the Magna Carta is hard to explain in a nutshell. Neither John himself nor the barons pressing him in, of course, foresaw the subsequent significance of the king’s declaration made on the Runnymede meadow in June 1215. The charter not only confirms rights and liberties, but also establishes a mechanism for monitoring their compliance. The document contains a number of general formulations that can be rethought depending on the historical context. Such are the provisions on the “trial of equals” or on the inadmissibility of “limited power of executive”. The reading of the document is very pleasant and may be of interest to those who are intrigued in the history of human rights and the development of law in general.
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