You have probably heard about the Magna Carta, also known as the “Great Charter.” But do you really know what the document was about? What did it guarantee? Officially signed on June 15, 1215, the Magna Carta would become one of the most important documents in history. But why?

First, what was it?

Signed by King John following a revolt by the English nobility against his abuse of feudal law and custom, the Magna Carta established a crucial principle in 1215 that everyone (even King John) was subject to the law. The document guaranteed the rights of individuals, the rights to justice, and the right to a fair trial. King John signed the document as a peace treaty between himself and his rivals—rebel barons of England.

The document stated, “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.” While this sounds like a good idea, King John soon regretted his decision.

Causing a war

Who knew one document could start a war? That’s what happened when King John realized the Magna Carta concerned himself and he asked Pope Innocent III to annul the document. The Pope agreed, calling the document “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people.” But this decision wreaked havoc on King John’s monarchy. A civil war broke out between the king and his barons, lasting until King John’s death in 1216. His son, King Henry III, later issued a revised Magna Carta, which formally entered English statue law in 1225.

Why was it important?

The Magna Carta has been exaggerated greatly as establishing English parliament. That’s not true, according to historians, but the document was one of the necessary steps taken in England to establish parliament—serving as a symbol of the sovereignty of the rule of law. But the document had a widespread influence—even in the United States. In 1791, James Madison penned the Bill of Rights and many of the principles listed in the Magna Carta are found in Madison’s very own important document. The United States isn’t that different from England after all.