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Magna Carta

Revisions and Reinterpretations

As an actual instrument of government the charter was, at first, a failure. The clumsy machinery set up to prevent the king's violation of the charter never had an opportunity to function, and civil war broke out the same year. On John's death in 1216, the charter was reissued in the name of young King Henry III, but with a number of significant omissions relative to safeguards of national liberties and restrictions on taxation. It was reissued with further changes in 1217 and again in 1225, the latter reissue being the one that was incorporated into British statute law.

In later centuries it became a symbol of the supremacy of the constitution over the king, as opponents of arbitrary royal power extracted from it various "democratic" interpretations. This movement reached its height in the 17th cent. in the work of such apologists for Parliament as Sir Edward Coke. It came to be thought that the charter forbade taxation without representation, that it guaranteed trial by jury, even that it invested the House of Commons (nonexistent in 1215) with great powers. These ideas persisted until the 19th cent., when certain scholars came to maintain that the Magna Carta was a completely reactionary, not a progressive, document—that it was merely a guarantee of feudal rights. It is generally recognized now, however, that the charter definitely did show the viability of opposition to excessive use of royal power and that this constitutes its chief significance.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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