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Magna Carta - What Happened Next . . .

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What happened next . . .

Although King John had promised to abide by the clauses of the Magna Carta forever, on August 24, 1215, he had the pope issue a document declaring it null and void. That document reached England in late September. Technically, the Magna Carta was valid for only ten weeks. Disputes and confrontations continued between King John and the barons until the king's death from a sudden attack of dysentery (an infection of the lower intestines) in October 1216.

When King John died, his son and heir Henry III (1207–1272) was only nine-years-old. The earl of Pembroke, William Marshal, was appointed to govern until Henry III came of age to assume the throne. Marshal, to restore peace, revised and reissued the Magna Carta on November 12, 1216 and again on November 6, 1917. In 1225 King Henry III further revised and reissued the charter under his own "Great Seal." This version of the Magna Carta maintained the core of the clauses agreed to at Runnymede and, in 1297, it was written onto the first statute (law) roll and officially became part of English law. The Magna Carta was read twice yearly in both county courts and cathedrals as the affairs of government and church were interwoven together. Anyone who broke the laws of the Magna Carta could be excommunicated (forced to leave the church). In the mid-fourteenth century the portion of Clause 39 that read "by the lawful judgement of his equals" evolved into trial by "peers," or trial by jury.

A strong test of the Magna Carta occurred in the 1600s when King James I, who ruled from 1603 to 1625, and Charles I, who ruled from 1625 to 1649, both of the House of Stuart, tried to rule with absolute power. They believed God gave them the right to rule rather than any earthly document. Parliament, a government body made up at the time of various English noblemen, continued to uphold the ideas of the Magna Carta and it came to be seen as a check or safeguard on royal power.

Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634), chief justice under King James I, became a leader in Parliament in opposition to King Charles I and wrote extensively on civil liberties. Key guarantees defended by Parliament were trial by jury and the assurance that individuals would not be unfairly imprisoned or their possessions seized. The most important aspect of the Magna Carta's creation was its impact on the New World. Brought by English settlers in the 1600s to the future United States of America, the Magna Carta planted the seeds for our future justice system.

The Magna Carta impacted the New World from the start; early colonists, echoing Sir Coke's teachings in the first half of the seventeenth century, presumed they had the same rights and liberties of those in England. Leaders of colonies, such as William Penn (1644–1718) who founded Pennsylvania in 1681, developed legal codes that included liberties directly based on guarantees in the Magna Carta.

In the eighteenth century future U.S. presidents John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–08) studied Coke's writings on civil liberties and the Magna Carta. Just before armed conflict broke out between the American colonies and England in 1775, the colony of Massachusetts adopted a seal depicting a soldier holding a sword in one hand and the Magna Carta in the other.

The Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, listed the American colonists' grievances against the British royalty just as the Magna Carta in 1215 addressed grievances of the English land barons against King John. The preamble of the U.S. Constitution makes it clear that government's power comes from the people.

In more modern times, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), American humanitarian and wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) used wording similar to that in the Magna Carta when she authored the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the United Nations. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, echoes of Clauses 39 and 40 were still heard in U.S. court proceedings.


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