Magna Carta and Man’s Quest for Freedom


THROUGH the picturesque landscape of the English county of Surrey flows the river Thames. In one of the meadows lining its banks stands a monument with an inscription that commemorates a 13th-century event. Here, at Runnymede, English King John (reigned 1199-1216) met with opposing barons, powerful landowners disgruntled by royal excesses. The barons demanded that the king appease their grievances by conceding certain rights. Under tremendous pressure the king finally affixed his seal to a document that later became known as Magna Carta (the Great Charter).

Why has this document been described as “the single most significant legal document in the history of the West”? The answer reveals much about man’s quest for freedom.

The Articles of the Barons

King John was in trouble with the Roman Catholic Church. He defied Pope Innocent III by refusing to recognize Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. As a result, the church withdrew its support and, in effect, excommunicated the king. John, however, attempted a reconciliation. He agreed to hand over to the pope his kingdoms of England and Ireland. The pope then returned these to John on the basis of the king’s profession of loyalty to the church and his payment of an annual tribute. John was now the pope’s vassal.

Financial difficulties compounded the king’s problems. During his 17-year reign, John levied extra taxes on the landowners 11 times. All the strife over church and financial matters led to a widespread belief that the king was untrustworthy. John’s character evidently did little to allay such concerns.

Finally, unrest boiled over when barons from the north of the country refused to pay further taxes. They marched on London and renounced their allegiance to the king. Much haggling between the parties ensued, with the king in his palace at Windsor and the barons camped to the east in the nearby town of Staines. Behind-the-scenes negotiations brought them face-to-face between the two towns, at Runnymede. Here on Monday, June 15, 1215, John sealed a document listing 49 articles. It begins: ‘These are the articles that the barons seek and the king concedes.’

Freedom Under Law

Mistrust of John’s intentions, however, surfaced quickly. Amid much antiroyal and antipapal feeling, the king dispatched envoys to meet with the pope in Rome. The pontiff promptly issued papal bulls declaring the Runnymede agreement null and void. Back in England civil war quickly erupted. The next year, though, John died suddenly, and his nine-year-old son, Henry, acceded to the throne.

Young Henry’s supporters arranged for the Runnymede agreement to be reissued. According to the booklet Magna Carta, this revised edition had been “hastily converted from an instrument for the suppression of tyranny into a manifesto by which men of moderate views might be rallied to his [the king’s] cause.” The agreement was reissued several more times during Henry’s reign. When his successor, Edward I, confirmed Magna Carta once again on October 12, 1297, a copy was finally placed on the statute roll, a listing of documents of special public significance.

The charter curbed the monarch’s powers. It stipulated that he, like all his subjects, was now subject to the rule of law. According to Winston Churchill, a renowned 20th-century historian and prime minister of England, Magna Carta provided “a system of checks and balances which would accord the monarchy its necessary strength, but would prevent its perversion by a tyrant or a fool.” Noble sentiments, indeed! But what did this document mean to the average man? At the time, very little. Magna Carta detailed only the rights of “free men”—actually, a somewhat exclusive group, who were then in the minority.*

“Quite early in its history,” observes the Encyclopædia Britannica, Magna Carta “became a symbol and a battle cry against oppression, each successive generation reading into it a protection of its own threatened liberties.” Reflecting this significance, each session of England’s Parliament opened with a reaffirmation of Magna Carta.

Lawyers in 17th-century England used articles from Magna Carta as the basis for such privileges as trial by jury, habeas corpus,* equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and parliamentary control of taxation. Thus, in the eyes of British statesman William Pitt, Magna Carta was part of the ‘Bible of the English Constitution.’

The Quest Continues

“Historically, the constitutional significance of Magna Carta has depended much less on what the charter said, than on what it was thought to have said,” acknowledged Lord Bingham, who was lord chief justice of England and Wales from 1996 to 2000. Nevertheless, the ideals of freedom associated with the charter later spread throughout the English-speaking world.

The Pilgrims, who left England in 1620 bound for America, took with them a copy of Magna Carta. In 1775, when British colonies in America rebelled against taxation without representation, the assembly of what is now the state of Massachusetts declared that such taxes contravened Magna Carta. Indeed, the official Massachusetts seal in use at that time depicted a man holding a sword in one hand and Magna Carta in the other.

When representatives of the fledgling nation met to draft a constitution for the United States of America, they upheld the principle of freedom under the law. The U.S. Bill of Rights descends from this acceptance. Thus, in 1957 and in recognition of Magna Carta, the American Bar Association erected at Runnymede a monument bearing the inscription, “To Commemorate Magna Carta—Symbol of Freedom Under Law.”

In 1948, American stateswoman Eleanor Roosevelt helped to draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, hoping that it would become “the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.” Indeed, the history of Magna Carta shows just how profoundly the human family yearns for freedom. Despite noble aspirations, today basic human rights remain under threat in many countries. Human governments have repeatedly shown themselves unable to guarantee freedom for all. That is one reason why millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses now cherish an even higher form of freedom under the law of a different government, God’s Kingdom.

The Bible says something remarkable about God: “Where the spirit of Jehovah is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17) If you are interested in knowing about the kind of freedom God’s Kingdom offers mankind, why not ask Jehovah’s Witnesses about it the next time they visit you? You may well find the answer fascinating and liberating.


“While in 1215 the word ‘freeman’ had a limited meaning, by the seventeenth century it signified almost everyone.”—History of Western Civilization.

From the Latin “you should have the body,” a writ of habeas corpus is a legal document that orders inquiry into the lawfulness of a person’s detention in custody.

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  Magna Carta (Latin for “the great charter”) began as “The Articles of the Barons.” King John affixed his seal to this 49-article document. During the next few days, the agreement expanded to 63 articles, and the king again sealed the document. The reissue in 1217 accompanied a second, smaller charter that dealt with forest law. Henceforth, the articles assumed the description Magna Carta.

  The 63 articles fall into nine groups, among which are those that deal with the barons’ grievances, the reform of law and justice, and the freedom of the church. Article 39, the historical basis for English civil liberties, reads: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”


Background: Third revision of Magna Carta

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By permission of the British Library, 46144 Exemplification of King Henry III’s reissue of Magna Carta 1225

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King John

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From the book Illustrated Notes on English Church History (Vols. I and II)

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King John surrenders his crown to the pope’s legate

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From the book The History of Protestantism (Vol. I)

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King John meets with his barons and agrees to seal the Magna Carta, 1215

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From the book The Story of Liberty, 1878

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Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede, England

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ABAJ/Stephen Hyde

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Top background: By permission of the British Library, Cotton Augustus II 106 Exemplification of King John’s Magna Carta 1215; King John’s Seal: Public Record Office, London