On June 15th of 1215, King John set his seal on the Magna Carta, which would inspire leaders across the world for centuries.
This charter was one of the most influential documents ever written. But if you ask an adult about it, most probably don’t know the history behind it. So, how exactly do we teach our kids the purpose of the Magna Carta in a way they’ll understand and remember?
Well, for starters, we have a hands-on project in our Project Passport: Middle Ages that breaks down the Magna Carta in a fun, realistic way. We’ll also give you a quick summary of the Magna Carta, its significance, and how it still impacts us today, over 800 years later!
Why Was the Magna Carta Created?
In the year of 1215, during medieval England, King John was ruling with a heavy hand – wrongly imprisoning people without a proper trial, disobeying the Catholic Church, and imposing heavy taxes to pay for his expenses.
His father before him, Henry II, worked hard to introduce the justice system and feudal laws of England, which his son John would later abuse. Unlike his father and his predecessors, King John didn’t issue a general charter to his barons, which caused a tremendous amount of chaos during his reign.
In short, it wasn’t long before the barons of England rebelled against the king’s behavior and forced him to sign a charter of liberties. This charter – the Magna Carta, or the Great Charter – would assure that King John, as well as all of England’s future monarchs, would have to rule under the law.
The king placed a royal red seal on the charter in June of 1215 with the promise that he would govern England according to the law. This charter was significant as it would ultimately protect the people of England and their individual rights against an unruly king.
What Was the Purpose of the Magna Carta?
On a deeper level, you might be wondering why an all-powerful king like John would sign the charter in the first place. After all, the barons didn’t have authority over him since he was the king, right?
The answer to this question goes back to the king’s abuse of power, and the fact that he had dug himself into a hole that only the charter could help him get out of.
England owned land in France for a number of years. And since the barons provided the king with money and men to defend this territory, it was kept safe. However, when King John disobeyed orders to consult with the barons before raising taxes (which the barons had to collect), the barons lost control of power, and England ended up losing that land in 1204.
As a result, John increased taxes even more, upsetting the people greatly and causing even more disaster. Just when the barons and the people of England thought they couldn’t get any more upset, the king got on the wrong side of the Roman Catholic church, which led the pope to ban all church services in 1207.
At this point, the barons refused to listen to the king. They even managed to get the entire country of England to rise against him by capturing London. By the spring of 1215, King John was hated by more than just his own people.
Defeated and powerless, King John was willing to negotiate with the people by creating a charter that would hold him accountable to England’s legal system.
Looking for a video to help explain all of this to your kids? Below is a quick video called “What is the Magna Carta” by the British Library. This video readily illustrates the significance of the Magna Carta, plus it has great visuals!
What Is the Significance of the Magna Carta?
Although the Magna Carta was not initially successful and needed to be reissued with alterations in 1216, 1217, and 1225, it still served as the foundation for English law.
Today, the Magna Carta is celebrated as a symbol of freedom and the battle against oppression by unjust rulers. This charter even helped many other countries as they began to make their own law systems.
American founding fathers like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson looked to the Magna Carta as inspiration when helping create the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Other political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi looked to the Magna Carta as a cornerstone of liberty and justice.
Where is the original Magna Carta document today, you ask? The charter has been copied and can be found in four places across the world for the public to view – one at the Lincoln Cathedral, one at the Salisbury Cathedral, and two at the British Museum.
More Resources on the Magna Carta and King John
Without the Magna Carta, it is doubtful America could have avoided the troubles that England had in 1215! We hope this article helped give you a better understanding of how this document limited the rights of many powerful leaders in place today.
Now that you, as a parent, know the definition of the Magna Carta and why it was created – it’s time to add it to your kids’ history curriculum. As stated earlier, we have an instructive project found in our Project Passport: Middle Ages study that can serve as a great help. We also have a timeline figure for King John, as well as the Magna Carta and other related events, in our Timeline Collection.