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Learn about The Magna Carta and the spirit of 1215 in this Word Power episode from English Plus Podcast and learn 10 new words along the way to add to your active vocabulary bank.


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Magna Carta – The Spirit of 1215

The English barons who met at St. Albans outside London in 1213 cared little for the rights of the commoner. They only sought some redress from the excessive taxation, military service, and other demands King John was making on them. However, the articles they drafted in 1213 and were approved by King John two years later eventually formed the foundation of our constitutional government. The revolutionary notions that all people are equal and that they possess certain inviolable rights beyond the power of ruler or church were born at this meeting.

The feudal society of thirteenth-century England demanded a baron’s loyalty to the king in return for land and a large share of the country’s wealth. When King John came to power in 1199, however, he began making what the barons felt were excessive demands for military service and taxes. Perhaps an even more serious provocation was King John’s refusal to consult his barons before altering accepted feudal laws and customs.

Such behavior might have been allowable in other circumstances, but English war losses to France had weakened the king’s position and therefore emboldened the barons to draft 63 articles guaranteeing them certain rights. Once the articles were drafted, the barons accosted the king, demanding that he issue the articles as a royal charter to be distributed throughout the kingdom. Under the duress of a faltering war abroad and civil strife at home, King John had little choice but to acquiesce to the barons’ demands. So, to mollify his nobility and keep his throne, King John approved the charter, known as the Magna Carta, in June 1215.

One article stated that the church should be free from royal interference. Another stated that the king could not demand additional money from the barons without first consulting them. Yet another said that no one could be denied his property except by the lawful judgment of his equals. So, in his effort to obviate a civil war, King John established democratic principles that the colonists carried to America several hundred years later. In a very real sense, the spirit of 1776 got its start in 1215.

Only four original copies of the Magna Carta are extant today, all in England. Two are in the British Library, one is in Salisbury Cathedral, and one is in Lincoln Cathedral.

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