It was nearly 800 years ago this week that King John of England, under pressure from a group of barons, agreed to put his seal on a document that, for the very first time in English history, limited the king’s powers by law.
King John was one of Britain’s most unpopular monarchs. He devised numerous ways to extract more money from his subjects, including the country’s first income tax. By 1215 many of the most important barons in England had had enough. They entered London in force on June 10, 1215. The citizens of the city showed their sympathy with the barons by throwing open the gates to the city and cheering them as they entered.
Five days later, on June 15, 1215, King John acquiesced to the barons’ demands. He agreed to meet them at Runnymede where he placed his Great Seal on the document they presented. It became known as the Magna Carta Libertatum, or the Great Charter of Freedom.
After King John’s death the Magna Carta would be revised numerous times, including three times during the rule of his successor, Henry III. It is the version approved in 1297 that remains in force in England and Wales to this day.
The Magna Carta is generally accepted as the most significant early influence that led to the rule of constitutional law today. So, thanks, barons.