Birth of Liberty



Illustration of the signing of the magna carta


Historian and author Dan Jones says the genetics of the Magna Carta are embedded in the Declaration of Independence and other great founding documents.

By Mark Wolf

It was 16 years ago when Dan Jones walked into his supervisor’s office at the University of Cambridge to begin work on his history degree. He was to receive an essay question each week, the first one being, “What was the issue between King John and the barons?” 

“I thought it was going to be three days’ work and I’ll never have to think about the Magna Carta again,” Jones says.

Well, not quite. Jones, a London-based journalist, historian and author, wrote the recent book “Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty” (Vi-king, $27.95) to coincide with the 800th anniversary of the document known as the “Great Charter.” 

The Magna Carta was a peace treaty brokered in 1215 between England’s King John and rebellious barons. It was in force for about two months, then was reissued several times over the next few years. It stands as one of history’s most influential documents. Why does it endure?

The afterlife of the Magna Carta is the key, the constant reinvention and transformation of a symbol of values and ideas that has trans-cended those 800 years of history. It asks questions that had been thought about before the Magna Carta and that we’re thinking about today: How much tax do we want to pay? What is the power of government agents to arrest certain groups of citizens? Do we want to pay for costs of fighting foreign wars? All these questions have remained relevant, and we find them all in one place in the Magna Carta.

Magna Carta

The Magna Carta, often called the “Great Charter,” is considered the foundation of the American constitutional system.


Reluctantly ratified by England’s King John on June 15, 1215, it was written to appease barons unhappy with the king’s rule and disproportionate share of power—much like the Declaration of Independence did with King George III more than 500 years later.


The 3,600-word Latin document was the first official contract between government and the governed and introduced the concept of equal rights under the law—that no one, not even the king, is above the law. It is the basis for several current constitutional liberties and legal procedures, such as trial by jury, due process, right of rebellion and the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.


—Duranya Freeman

When it was first issued, the Magna Carta applied to only about 20 percent of the population. Did it have any impact on the lives of regular people in 1215?

It applied only to free men; it didn’t apply to women, although women are mentioned, mostly as widows. It didn’t apply to the unfree. People would have felt the practical effects of the Magna Carta very powerfully in the back half of 1215, but not as if they were emancipat-ed or granted a long schedule of rights. Its failure in late August 1215 produced a vicious civil war with foreign nationals that, through no fault of their own, saw their property destroyed and their families murdered by mercenaries. As a result the barons invited a new king to come over from France the following year. 

What was the role of the Church of England in Magna Carta?

One of the reasons King John had built up so much hostility in the country was his treatment of the church in an age when the politics of the church were very close to the politics of the state. John was able to divert 100,000 pounds of church wealth into his own war chest. He didn’t seem to be worried about excommunication until the point that it looked as if the pope was working with the French king to de-pose John as an excommunicate, as a heretic. John decided for entirely pragmatic reasons that excommunication had to end.

What were John’s motives for agreeing to the Magna Carta?

I have no doubt that he was just stalling for time. He had to come to the negotiating table because the barons had managed to take London, and he was cut off from his treasuries at the Tower of London and Westminster. He needed time to gather his forces against his enemies. It would have represented the most astonishing change in character to have granted the Magna Carta and really to have meant it. That was not his style, and I don’t believe anyone believed he had any intention of honoring his oath.

You chronicle a particularly brutal battle, John’s defeat in the Battle of Bouvines in northern France in 1215. What was the nature of warfare then?

Battles were very rare. They were extremely uncertain affairs and no one wanted to fight them. The risk of commanders and leaders dy-ing was great. Siegecraft was the way things proceeded. It was a much more stable way of fighting in which rules could be laid down. It was effectively a war of attrition. They were rarely able to knock the castle down. It was just a waiting game. Either the attackers would go away, or the inhabitants of the castle would surrender. The siege of Rochester castle [in southeastern England, also in 1215] proceeded differently because John, to his credit, managed to actually bring down part of the castle by tunneling underneath and burning it out with pig fat. That was a pretty extraordinary thing to do. One of the reasons I enjoyed writing about this particular year was its extraordinary military action. Rochester castle was stunning as a siege, and provides a great means of getting inside the business of warfare: What actually happens in a siege? What are you really throwing in those catapults? Bee hives? Dead animals? Messages? 

Why have so many founding historical documents explicitly paraphrased the language of the Magna Carta?

The Declaration of Independence followed near-identical complaints made against King John in the Magna Carta 561 years earlier. The text, which is so sort of technical in many instances suddenly burns bright. There are those incredible clauses— that no man will be exiled or outlawed, except by the law of the land or judgment of his peers, and that no man will be denied the right of justice. My sense is that, at the time, these were kind of vague fumblings for an underlying principle. Partly because of the vagueness of those clauses, they’ve come to be timeless and they’ve done a good job enduring as the guiding ethos of the government: It should proceed by the rule of law and should provide justice equally and impartially. The Magna Carta is a good place to start in searching for historical examples of subjects standing up to a king who was in their view a tyrant. The American founders looked upon the example and drew upon the language.

What is the Magna Carta’s legacy?

In terms of its broader legacy, it is amazing how many different directions the Magna Carta has shot off in, how many times it has been invoked over the years, from the Founding Fathers to Nelson Mandela [in his 1964 trial] to Eleanor Roosevelt in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II. Personally, I find the language of the founding documents of the U.S. to be much more moving, ele-gant, beautiful and poetic, possibly because they were written in English, and possibly because we are closer in time and in mindset to the Founding Fathers than we are to the rebel barons of the 13th century. It’s almost like the genetic code of the Magna Carta exists in the fragments that you see embedded in these great documents that brought the United States into existence. 

Mark Wolf is an NCSL publications editor.

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