The Middle Ages for Kids - King John and the Magna Carta Illustration

Middle Ages for Kids - The Magna Carta

For Kids: By the year 1215 CE, England had experienced many kings, some good, some not so good, and some really terrible.

King John was a terrible king. He put innocent people in prison so he could steal their belongings. But if you paid King John enough money, he would find you innocent even though he knew you were guilty.

King John was also a liar. He lied to get his own way. He was also very domineering. He expected to get everything that he wanted just because he was king. Promises meant nothing to King John. He would promise anything to anybody if there was money in it for him, but as soon as he saw an advantage for himself, he broke his word.

King John didn't even care for the church. He seized the monastery at Canterbury when the archbishop died. He banished all the monks and took all the wealth for himself. This made the new archbishop of Canterbury furious. His monastery had been taken away by the king.

This went on for six years.

The archbishop decided to do something about King John. The archbishop called all the nobles of England together and read them the law about what they could do. The nobles were awed to learn that they had the legal right to do something about the king's bad behavior. But they did not do anything, not quite yet.

Shortly after this, King John raised the taxes without asking the nobles. The nobles knew this was against the law of England. The nobles got angry and went to King John. The King promised he would never do that again since it was against the law. Now remember how King John kept his promises. A small amount of time later, King John raised the taxes again. When two of his nobles refused to pay, King John had them arrested.

The rest of the nobles were angry. They put on their armor and gathered a huge force of nobles together at the town of Runnymede. Armed and ready, they brought the king there. The archbishop read aloud to the king from a parchment he held, a parchment called the Magna Carta, the Great Charter. This document stated the rights of the nobles and what they could do to the King if he violated those rights.

King John did not want to sign this paper. If he did, there was no way he would be able to go back on his word. But there was nothing else he could do. Without the nobles and their knights, he did not have anyone to protect him or the kingdom. So he signed.

One of the rights in the Magna Carta was that the nobles could keep watch over the king, and sieze his castles if he did not keep his word. The king knew if he broke his word and his nobles caught him, they would do just that. Some historians say that after signing the Magna Carta, King John went home in a huff, and screamed, and rolled around on the floor like a madman. But it did not matter. From that day on, things changed in England forever.

The Magna Carta is a list of the rights of the nobles, a list of rights signed by the king in the year 1215 CE. From that point on, the Kings and Queens of England could only do so much without the help of the nobles, and later on, without the help of the people themselves. It was not democracy, but it was a very important step in that direction. In the Magna Carta, "we" refers to the king and "ours" refers to the king. For example: among those rights is this one: "To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right to justice."

The Magna Carta put many new laws into place Two very important new laws were:

  • Law #1:  No king could collect taxes without the consent of the Grand Council. This meant the king could not raise taxes or lower taxes or even collect taxes unless the Grand Council agreed. That was huge. This effectively stopped current and future kings from increasing taxes for the sole purpose of lining their own pockets. No one expected the king to live like a pauper, but now there were limits, where there were no limited before.

  • Law #2:  All freemen were assured the right of trial by jury. The Magna Carta says" No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or exiled or in any way harmed save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land."

Over time, the rights in the Magna Carta were extended to all English people.

The signing of the Magna Carta was the beginning of the English Parliament, government by representation. First came the House of Lords made up of nobles who reviewed and made laws. About fifty years later, a second house was created, the House of Commons. This house had representatives from the towns.

The Magna Carta was a very important document. It was written over 800 years ago. In the United States, we thank the Magna Carta for giving us many of the ideas that can be found in two of our very important documents - our Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution of the United States.

Magna Carta and the Worst King in History (cartoon video, British Library)

Comparison: Magna Carta (1215) and the American Declaration of Independence (1776)