Magna Carta

The Original Charter

The original charter, in Latin, is a relatively brief and somewhat vague document of some 63 clauses, many of which were of only transient significance. The charter was in most respects a reactionary document; its purpose was to insure feudal rights and dues and to guarantee that the king would not encroach upon baronial privileges. There were provisions guaranteeing the freedom of the church and the customs of the towns, special privileges being conferred upon London.

The charter definitely implies that there are laws protecting the rights of subjects and communities that the king is bound to observe or, if he fails to do so, will be compelled to observe. Historically most important were the vaguely worded statements against oppression of all subjects, which later generations interpreted as guarantees of trial by jury and of habeas corpus. Such interpretations, however, were the work of later scholars and are not explicit in the charter itself. The fact that many of the early interpretations of its provisions were based upon bad historical scholarship or false reasoning, however, does not vitiate the importance of the Magna Carta in the development of the British constitution.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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