In 1215, rebellious noblemen forced King John of England to approve the Magna Carta (Great Charter). Although commoners gained little, the document guaranteed feudal rights to the aristocracy — a small but important move toward equality — and fostered the concept of the freedom to “speak truth to power.”
King John applied his seal to the Magna Carta on June 15. The document included access to swift justice, the protection of church rights, protection from illegal imprisonment and limitations on feudal payments. Notably, one clause said that “no freeman shall be … imprisoned or exiled … except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” That was a crucial limitation on the king’s power.
Subsequent redrafting of the Magna Carta over centuries provided a basis for the development of individual rights in England and for the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.
A 1542 English translation of the original Magna Carta from 1215 is on display in the Newseum’s Pulliam Family Great Books Gallery — part of a world-class collection of original and rare books and documents that contain some of the most significant influences on American and world political thought.