Happy birthday, Magna Carta! The 800-year-old document is the foundation of some of the most important rights we enjoy today — including the freedom from being thrown in jail whenever the government feels like it.
But as this charming British Library video narrated by Monty Python's Terry Jones explains, it was written 800 years ago today in a failed attempt to stop a war between the king of England and a handful of upstart barons.
In 1215, England's King John levied burdensome taxes on his nobles to pay for his wars. When they wouldn't pay, John just seized their property, and the barons revolted. The Magna Carta was an attempt to placate the barons by giving them written legal protection of their rights, even against the king.
The document, signed exactly 800 years ago today, failed to stop England's civil war: the Pope declared the Magna Carta invalid, and the fighting started up again. But it did, for the first time, create the principle that no person was above the law — not even kings and their officers. The idea that police officers today should be held accountable when they violate citizens' rights stems from the Magna Carta's notion of the rule of law.
The document's idea of "equality" was hardly modern. "One clause [in the Magna Carta] prevents Jews from charging interest on a debt held by an underage heir. Another limits women's ability to bear witness to certain homicides," University of Chicago law professor Tom Ginsburg writes in the New York Times.
But for its time, it was revolutionary — and it continued to inspire democratic revolutionaries, from Thomas Jefferson to Mahatma Gandhi, for centuries.
Not bad for the outcome of an 800-year-old fight between a king and his fractious nobles.