The Magna Carta is toasted as one of the great initial documents which have led many societies, especially America, toward a democratic state.  The story behind the Magna Carta is rarely told but is necessary for the understanding of why John signed this revolutionary document.  In reality, political problems led to the signing of the Magna Carta.

First of all, John of England had been fighting Philip II of France.  John was guilty of an indiscretion and refused to be accountable to Philip.  John’s wars in France cost him all of his French holdings and many of his nobles had to choose their French holdings over their English lands.

Secondly, John fought with Pope Innocent III.  When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, John claimed the right of lay investiture.  Innocent hated lay investiture and demanded that John accepted Stephen Langton as Archbishop.  John refused to let Langton into the country so Innocent placed an interdict on England.  The interdict stated that no one could be baptized, married, or buried by the Roman Catholic Church.  The nobles did not really care because of how far England was from Rome.  The English priests followed their own beliefs.  Innocent then excommunicated John.  John view his excommunication as an idle threat because it could not possibly affect his reign.  Out of exasperation, Innocent told Philip II of France that he would be blessed if he attacked England.  Philip immediately started preparing for the invasion.  John realized the danger of France and begged forgiveness of Innocent.  John offered England to the pope who then made John his vassal.  Philip was furious, because now he could not attack a protected nation.

Thirdly, the barons grew angry at John for giving homage to the pope.  They drafted the Magna Carta and demanded that John sign it.  The document reinstated the laws of Henry II, granted privileges and rights to the church, and gave rights to the nobles.  It also dealt with other specific and immediate problems.  However, the general ramifications were much greater.  For the first time in history, the king had laws above him which he had to follow.  A council of twenty-four was created to make sure John obeyed the Magna Carta.  He could not pigeon-hole it like so many other documents which had been signed in the past.

The Magna Carta angered Innocent III who then excommunicated the nobles who had forced it upon John.  The nobles turned against John and had Philip II attack England.  These are the circumstance which revolve around one of the greatest documents of rights which would go on to influence future documents like the English Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the American Constitution.

– Hannah S. Bowers

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