Study Guide

Magna Carta

By King John of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, and various English barons

Magna Carta Introduction

You know all those insane-o conspiracy theories? The ones that claim that the governments of the world are being influenced by secret behind-the-scenes organizations who meet in opulent-yet-dimly-lit rooms where everyone wears robes and whispers about who gets to live and die?

Supposedly there's subtle proof of these conspiracies everywhere you look. Coded doodles on the dollar bill mean that the Masons are picking our presidents, the digital scans of priceless paintings reveal that the Illuminati are guiding the world's economy, and the fact that Spectre from the Bond franchise and Hydra from Captain America are the same exact bad guys proves that they're real and that they're controlling our minds.

Yeah: all those theories are bunk.

But what is lurking behind the world's governments and guiding some of our most fundamental beliefs is an eight-hundred-year-old piece of parchment called the Magna Carta. It doesn't have any invisible ink writing on the back that only Nicolas Cage can decipher…but the proof that it's influencing events is everywhere you look, if you know what to look for.

The Magna Carta is in all the little details of government, like the fact that accused people deserve a fair trial, leaders should have to follow the same rules as the people they represent, and bills shouldn't become laws just because one guy said so.

  

Yeah, these may not be as exciting as breaking into a museum and finding out that aliens built the pyramids, but that's probably because you're not considering what it's like to live under a despot.

The Magna Carta of 1215 was supposed to end a disagreement between King John of England and a group of rebel barons who were basically sick and tired of John abusing his power as monarch. In the agreement they happened to include a bunch of stuff about how citizens should be treated and how governments should function.

And people have been talking about that stuff ever since.

You know how lawyers are always using old cases to win new ones, and telling the judge, "Based on the case of WhoCares vs. Madeitup, we feel that you must rule in favor of our client"? That's called citing precedents…and the Magna Carta is the ultimate legal precedent that pretty much applies to every court case and every law everywhere.

No joke.

And it's especially impressive considering that the Magna Carta was an almost immediate and total failure. The rebel barons still went to war with King John, and none of the promises in the Magna Carta were realized right away. But even though it didn't really work out at first, the thing to remember is that everyone has to start out toddling with baby steps.

The Magna Carta wasn't very popular right away, but over centuries it mysteriously started popping up everywhere and taking bites out of rude monarchs. People kept finding it and essentially saying, "Hey! This super-old paper says I've got rights!"

And some of those people wrote other papers that weren't failures…like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

But they never could have written anything if it weren't for the Magna Carta lurking in the shadows and whispering in their ears about good governance and the limits of kings. It's a conspiracy that continues today.

What is Magna Carta About and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever cheated at Monopoly? You're going along and you're like, "Wait, new rule: if you land on Free Parking you get to grab a handful of cash from the bank." Or, "New rule: I'll just write you an IOU for my stay at Boardwalk." Or, "New rule, I'm breaking out of prison because I almost rolled a double…and that's close enough."

Cheating at Monopoly and getting away with it is what it's like to be an absolute monarch…except that an absolute monarch gets to act like that all the time and no one can really argue with the way he changes the rules.

And—oh yeah—the money and the prison are very real.

So why should you care? You don't live under an absolute monarch.

Love or hate the president, they can't go around making up new taxes just because they want some extra spending money. The president can't send a person to prison without a trial and confiscate all their stuff just because that person happens to have really cool stuff. The president also can't just yell, "New law time!" followed by whatever previously illegal action they feel like committing today (as in, "New law: Everybody has to stop what they're doing, invade Canada, and bring me back some maple syrup").

And you have the Magna Carta to thank for that.

The Magna Carta was the first time that people decided that kings shouldn't be allowed to do literally anything they wanted. Sure, some people had probably been thinking that letting kings run amok wasn't humanity's greatest idea for awhile, but in 1215 they actually put it in writing and got a king to sign it.

They took the "absolute" out of an "absolute monarchy." Basically, somebody finally found the rules hidden in the Monopoly box and let all the other players know that actually you can't sort through all the Community Chest cards until you find one that you like.

Governments, much like board games, can have limits. And those limits make things considerably less fun for the leaders…but noticeably more tolerable for everyone else.

Magna Carta Resources

Websites

The British Library
They own two of the four surviving copies of the original Magna Carta, so it makes sense that they would have some pretty great stuff to say about it.

The Magna Carta Project
Lots of information about the Magna Carta…gathered and blogged about by Magna Carta nerds.

The National Archives
Find out what Americans have to say about the Magna Carta. Hint: it's inspirational.

Movie or TV Productions

Ironclad
A 2011 drama about a group of knights fighting to defend Rochester Castle, which begins with the signing of the Magna Carta. King John is played by Paul Giamatti leading a mostly A-list cast of celebrities who have all made better (or at least better attended) movies.

Articles and Interviews

BBC News Coverage of the 800th Anniversary
King John never could have guessed that 800 years after he was forced to stamp a piece of parchment, it would be happily celebrated with the current leaders of the British government, royal family, and Archbishop of Canterbury.

Video

The Story of the Magna Carta
Really cute animated video about the Magna Carta that includes a surprising amount of detail and information. And King John has never looked so adorable.

Horrible Histories song about the Magna Carta
Set to the tune of I Would Walk 500 Miles. It's horrible (but historically accurate) and it'll probably get stuck in your head.

Images

A Picture of the Real Thing
They're a bit faded and the seals have mostly disintegrated, but original copies of the Magna Carta do exist and this is one of them.

A Picture of the Real King
There aren't many actual surviving pictures of King John, so when you're reading about how terrible he was you're probably going to have to use your imagination. One representation that we do have is his face on coins.

Comic Con King?
In the few drawings of John that still exist he looks young and worried, like a naughty kid in a comic.