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The Magna Carta or Magna Carta was a document that guaranteed certain limitations of the king's power in relation to the English nobles.

It is considered the first constitutional document of the Western world and precursor of Human Rights.

Historical context

During the Late Middle Ages, kings were considered as “primus inter pares” that is: the first among their equals. They were undoubtedly more important than the nobles, but they needed to negotiate their support through marriages and military alliances.

Thus, the king exercised effective power only in his domains and the nobles, in their respective fiefs. There was royal taxation and oaths of allegiance and vassalage, but that was no guarantee that the nobility would always be faithful to the sovereign.

A strategy used by medieval kings to avoid wars between nobles was to engage them in combat against a common enemy. King João sem Terra, who reigned in England from 1199 to 1216, used this device in numerous wars against the French. However, the plan did not work out.

The wars in northern France proved disastrous, costly and did not bring the lands that the English nobles had hoped for. Far from looking for another objective, King João sem Terra demanded more and more money, men and weapons from the English nobility, in order to continue the war against the French. If they refused, he confiscated their property and wealth.

Also the king's character did not make him very popular among his allies. He sent his ex-wife to prison, starved his opponents and was accused of murdering his own nephew.

Thus, several barons united against the king demanding that he respect laws drawn up by a group of nobles. King João sem Terra denied this, claiming that a king should not submit to human laws, only to divine ones. In this way, the barons besieged London and forced the king to negotiate.

In June 1215 the king reluctantly signs the document called Magna Carta. It was the first time in the history of the West that the king had his power limited by the laws of men and not of God.

In fact, the Magna Carta did not bring the desired peace. On the contrary: it triggered the civil war between the barons and King João Sem Terra. Only after the death of the king and the Magna Carta being reissued three times throughout the 13th century was it possible for it to be accepted by English society.

Main points of the Magna Carta

The main points of the Magna Carta, for the Modern Era, are:

★ no “free man” could be imprisoned without trial;

★ the institution of habeas corpus;

★ the principle of the presumption of innocence;

★ to pay taxes it was necessary to have representation (no taxation without representation).

The first item must be read according to the society of the time, as only the nobility were considered free. Rural workers were subject to the law of the local lord. In this way, freedom was only for a small portion of the population.

The last example served as an argument, in the 18th century, for American colonists to ask for more rights to the Thirteen Colonies. After all, the colonists paid taxes but were not represented in the British Parliament.


The Magna Carta was not enforced at the time it was written. Despite this, it inspired different thinkers in later centuries to fight against abuses of political authority.

The Magna Carta, for example, inspired Americans to write the United States Constitution. It is also invoked as the first attempt to stop abuses of authority by constitutionalists around the world. 

Magna Carta


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