On This day -15th June

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Magna carta

The 15th of June 1215

Magna Carta is one of the great foundation stones of English law, and by extension of legal systems including that of the USA. Very little of Magna Carta remains in place in English law, but it established principles such as Habeas Corpus, the right to trial before conviction, freedom from torture, and the place of the monarch within rather than above the legal system.

King John was forced to sign Magna Carta after some of the land's most powerful nobles rose against him. John had given away territory in France in an attempt to establish his claim to the English throne and possession in Anjou and Normandy. In spite of this he then had more taken from him by the French king. These lands had been highly profitable, subsidising crown activities in England. John reacted to their loss by levying and increasing taxes at an alarmingly regular rate, partly to fill the gap and partly to finance projects to reconquer them. He also exploited the law to extort fines from the wealthy — for example using arcane and easily infringed forest law to pick the purses of wealthy landowners.

On June 10 1215 a band of barons who had reached the end of their patience with the king entered London , which in sympathy with them opened its gates wide to the rebels. To avert bloodshed John agreed to sign a document to be drawn up listing rights and privileges within his kingdom, a document largely based on one voluntarily created by Henry I in 1100.

John was in a position of weakness, and cynically regarded signing what became known as Magna Carta — the great charter — as merely a method of gaining time. On June 19 the rebel barons swore fealty to the king anew, but by the early autumn of 1215 the parties would indeed come to blows. But when John set his seal on the long and detailed document on June 15 on the island of Runnymede in the River Thames , he set in train forces of constitutional and legal authority that could not be revoked on a monarch's whim. Arguably Magna Carta can be seen as behind the differences that led to the Civil War four centuries later; and as a cornerstone of the American Constitution, making what has been done in Guantanamo Bay since 2001 so fundamentally shocking.

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