In 1212, a small protest led by Lord Robert Fitzwalter against King John of England mushroomed into a rebellion that would change how rulers governed around the world.
Fitzwalter and a group of English barons were disgruntled about King John’s rule and spread stories about the king’s cruelty. Although some of the stories were exaggerated, King John often was cruel and unfair. He had complete power over his people and used it as he pleased. He imposed heavy taxes to finance his wars, which he often lost, and punished people who didn’t pay. He even made an enemy of the pope by seizing papal property after a disagreement. The pope was so furious he excommunicated King John (barred him from the Catholic Church) in 1209.
By 1214, King John had lost all the French territories England had once owned and was forced to return them to France. The loss of these lands further damaged King John’s power and prestige.
The rebels were now ready to strike. Led by Fitzwalter, they attacked London. King John’s forces couldn’t repel them. By May 17, 1215, London fell to the rebels.
The barons immediately insisted on more rights, fairer laws and fewer taxes. King John refused to listen to their
demands. But the rebels would not back down. They forced the king to flee from London. His advisors begged him to make peace and agree to the rebel demands. Otherwise, they warned, England would be plunged into civil war.
King John finally gave in. On June 15, 1215, at the meadow of Runnymede on the banks of the Thames River, he made a deal with the rebels. They wanted rights and liberties for all freemen. They wanted the king to consult them before he imposed new taxes. They wanted fairer trials. They insisted that the king follow a set of written laws, the Magna Carta (great charter), and they wanted to elect 25 men to make sure he did.
King John had no choice but to sign the Magna Carta.
Although King John had no intention of abiding by his agreement, and civil war did break out, the Magna Carta changed England and much of the world forever. It influenced British law and, later, governments around the world. It inspired people to fight for individual rights and limit the powers of rulers and governments. It continues to be a symbol of justice and freedom.