Study Guide

Magna Carta Main Idea

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

  • Main Idea

    In a last-ditch effort to quash an armed rebellion against him, King John of England signed a document called the Magna Carta. This document basically was him promising to stop being a jerkface all the time—you know, doing things like claiming all the good forests for himself and coming up with new taxes every ten minutes.

    As a peace treaty the Magna Carta failed miserably, mainly due to the fact that King John never had any intention of doing anything that it said. However, it did contain some seriously ahead-of-their-time ideas about fair trials and limited government. And that inspired a lot of other people to create systems where leaders were actually prevented from being jerkfaces.

    So, thanks to King John's attempt to weasel out of a war he couldn't win, the world is a better place.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. What seem to be the most important issues upsetting the nobility during this time period?
    2. Why was the Church involved in the creation of the Magna Carta, and what role did the clergy play?
    3. What elements of the Magna Carta do you recognize in governments of the world today?
    4. How would the daily life of the king change if he followed this agreement? Would these changes be significant? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The ideals of the American Revolution and the creation of the U.S. Constitution both owe a great debt to the contents of the Magna Carta, which was the first document to offer civil liberties.

    The signing of the Magna Carta was the beginning of the end for the divine right of kings and absolute monarchies all over the world because it started a chain reaction that continues to present day.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    A bunch of rich dudes with swords got mad at their king for the super annoying way that he did whatever the heck he wanted to all the time. After a tense meeting in a soggy meadow, they all agreed to a plan that would limit the king's power.

      

    The Text

    First—and most importantly for the people who wrote it—the Magna Carta was designed to get the barons and the king to leave that soggy meadow without slicing each other up with their big, sharp swords. It contains several clauses about the release of prisoners and about everybody going home happy and with all their limbs intact.

    Second, the Magna Carta was a list of grievances that could easily have been titled, "Things We Hate About King John." It's a long list, but most of the complaints come down to the fact that King John was abusing his ability to make up new taxes, claiming pieces of the English countryside for himself, and punishing people without letting them stand trial. A lot of the clauses are King John promising not to pull those sorts of shenanigans anymore in every detailed way that the barons can think of.

    Finally, the Magna Carta ends with some bonus clauses clearly written by an overachieving baron angling for some extra credit. It specifies that to enforce all the other clauses there needs to be a council of 25 barons to basically keep King John (who they still don't trust) in line.

    TL;DR

    An unpopular king accidentally agrees to forever improve the world's governments.

  • Questions

    1. What indications in the Magna Carta suggest that King John was not planning to abide by the agreement?
    2. Who got the best deal and why? Who do you think won the most from the agreement, the king, the barons, the Catholic Church, the freemen of England, someone else?
    3. What advice would you give to the king and to the barons during the negotiations leading up to the Magna Carta?
    4. Do you think King John would make a good politician if he were alive in present day? Why or why not?
    5. Which of the Magna Carta's clauses do you think is the most important to your life, and which one is the least important? Explain.
    6. Suggest a better organizational system for the Magna Carta. How would you have grouped and ordered the clauses?

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