Magna Carta

or Mag·na Char·ta

[ mag-nuh kahr-tuh ]
/ ˈmæg nə ˈkɑr tə /

noun

the “great charter” of English liberties, forced from King John by the English barons and sealed at Runnymede, June 15, 1215.
any fundamental constitution or law guaranteeing rights and liberties.

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Origin of Magna Carta

1425–75; late Middle English < Medieval Latin
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

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What is the Magna Carta?

The Magna Carta is an English “great charter” that was signed into law by King John on June 15, 1215.


Some of the best-known concepts outlined in the Magna Carta include making the monarch subject to the rule of law, basic rights held by citizens (or “free men”), and the social contract between ruler and subjects.

Why is the Magna Carta important?

In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, King John of England drew the ire of many English nobility with a series of unpopular military decisions and aggressive taxation. Led by Baron Robert Fitzwalter, the barons and other nobles under John’s rule rebelled. In order to avoid civil war, King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, which was written by the barons.

The document mostly dealt with the barons’ property rights and the monarch’s accountability to law, neglecting the poorer population. However, in subsequent centuries, the document was revised to include other clauses that granted more rights to the general populace, including the right of habeas corpus (the right to a trial by judge and jury before being imprisoned) and the right to a speedy trial.

This document and the precedent it set served as the foundation for many forms of law created post-Enlightenment, including the U.S. Constitution and the French post-revolutionary government. Today, the Magna Carta is considered an important milestone in the development of civil rights and the people’s power in a government.

Examples of Magna Carta

“Magna Carta originated as a peace treaty between King John and a group of rebellious barons. Its influence can be seen in other documents across the world including the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.”
—BBC, “Magna Carta changed the world, David Cameron tells anniversary event,”June 15, 2015

“The Magna Carta’s idea that a person should not have his property or liberty taken by the government except by pre-existing law and procedures has become known as the ‘rule of law.’ This means that there must be established procedures and laws in place before someone suffers a loss at the hands of the government. Additionally those laws and procedures are to be administered by an impartial third party.”
—David J. Shestokas, “The Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, Descendant of the Magna Carta,” shestokas.com, April 30, 2015

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

British Dictionary definitions for magna carta

Magna Carta

Magna Charta

/ (ˈmæɡnə ˈkɑːtə) /

noun

English history the charter granted by King John at Runnymede in 1215, recognizing the rights and privileges of the barons, church, and freemen

Word Origin for Magna Carta

Medieval Latin: great charter
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for magna carta

Magna Carta

A list of rights and privileges that King John of England signed under pressure from English noblemen in 1215. It established the principles that the king could not levy taxes without consent of his legislature, or parliament, and that no free man in England could be deprived of liberty or property except through a trial or other legal process.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.