15 June 1215: Magna Carta is sealed, curtailing the power of the king

On this day in 1215, King John submitted to the demands of England’s rebel barons and affixed his seal to the Magna Carta, assuring the rights of ‘free men’, and subjecting the king to the law of the land.


King John signs Magna Carta

King John, as anyone familiar with the tales of Robin Hood can tell you, was a very bad egg.

His brother and predecessor, Richard, was keen on war, and spent most of his time abroad fighting. That was expensive. But at least he tended to win.

John, on the other hand, was a terrible military chief. But he still foughtmany wars in France. To pay for them, he taxed his nobles heavily he was king, after all. And what he said went. The barons just had to pay up.

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Add tothat his generally outrageous attitude to justice imposing hefty charges, taking hostages, and carrying out ruthless punishments plushis battles with the Church, and things eventually came to a head. You can't keep squeezing your lemons without expecting the pips to squeak.

The barons had had enough. They rebelled. Led by Robert fitz Walter, himself hardly a saint, they renounced their fealty to the king and captured London on 17 May 1215. And on 15 June, 1215, they met the king at Runnymede, by the Thames in Surrey, and demanded he sign a peace treaty Magna Carta.

John agreed, and for the first time the principle was established that the king was subject to the laws of the land. The agreement also guaranteed certain rights to nobles and free men'. (Your average serf, however the vast majority of England's population still had virtually no rights, and the principles contained in Magna Carta did not apply to them.)

The document was rewritten within ten years, and most of its original 63 clauses are now irrelevant. But some, including the right to a fair trial by one's peers, and the principle that taxes will not be levied without the "consent of the realm", have formed the foundations of many a constitution and important document, including the United States Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

Ben joined MoneyWeek as website editor in 2008, just as the Great Financial Crisis was brewing. He has written extensively for the website and magazine, with a particular emphasis on alternative finance and fintech, including blockchain and bitcoin. 

As an early adopter of bitcoin, Ben bought when the price was under $200, but went on to spend it all on foolish fripperies.