You won't likely get a lot of enthusiasm from kids if you want to discuss the history of human rights, but the Magna Carta is all about fairness, and that's something most kids are interested in. When kids understand that the Magna Carta is simply a tale of how the English stood up to a royal bully, it becomes much more relevant to their experience. The facts of the Magna Carta help your child understand what a watershed document it was in influencing the protection of human rights in modern law and government.
After the death of Richard the Lionheart, the English throne and the taxation that paid for the wars in France and the Middle East passed to his brother John. But unlike King Richard I, King John I repeatedly lost land to France, which angered the English nobles. To make matters worse, King John I repeatedly demanded more taxes to pay for the unsuccessful wars. He also arrested people without cause or trial, bickered with the pope to the point of excommunication, seized church land and wealth, and the nobles' lands without permitting them any defense. In 1215, the noble landowners got fed up with the king's oppression and led a rebellion to takeover London and force King John I to accede to their demands.
The English nobles composed the Magna Carta to curb the power of the king and protect themselves from abuse of power. They derived ideas from Roman and early medieval law to push back against kings who crossed the line in their bids for power. They felt that without definite action on their part, the king would strip them of all their rights under the law.
Limiting the King's Power
The Magna Carta spelled out the people's guaranteed rights. At first, it only applied to the aristocracy, but eventually expanded to include commoners. It formally required the king to follow the established laws rather than ruling according to his desires. It gave the nobles the right to seize the king's castles if he did not abide by the law and respect their rights. Of course, the king was not favorably inclined to agree to such terms, but on June 19, 1215, at Runnymede, the nobles forced his hand and King John I signed the Magna Carta. However, he did not abide by the agreement.
Many of the rights listed in the Magna Carta were just a reiteration of what was already in the law, although the nobles did add some new ones. These rights influenced the development of democratic law through time and still hold sway today as part of due process. For example, the Magna Carta established the right of habeas corpus, meaning that the authorities have to prove to a judge that they have just cause to detain a person. It guarantees that prisoners will have their day in court and cannot be held secretly or indefinitely without being informed of the charges against them. The Magna Carta said that the king did not have the right to take away other people's rights, so he could not arrest them, imprison them or seize their land or possessions without a trial by jury. It set the rule of law over the personal preferences of the king and guaranteed individual civil rights.