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When English barons forced King John to approve Magna Carta (Latin for Great Charter) in 1215, it contained 63 articles, most of which benefited members of the feudal class. Although ordinary freemen and peasants made up most of England's population, they were hardly mentioned in the charter.

It was reissued with slight alterations in 1216, 1217, and 1225. Other kings also agreed to the terms of Magna Carta, and it became recognized as part of the fundamental law of England.

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Some articles served as foundations for modern justice. For example, one article says that no freeman shall be imprisoned, deprived of property, sent out of the country, or destroyed, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. The idea of due process of law, including trial by jury, later developed from this article. In John's time, however, trial by jury in criminal cases did not exist.

Magna Carta influenced legal and constitutional thought in England and English-speaking nations such as the United States and Canada. In the US both the national and the state constitutions show ideas and phrases directly traceable to Magna Carta.

Four originals of the 1215 Magna Carta remain. Two are housed in the British Museum; one is in Lincoln Cathedral and another in Salisbury Cathedral.

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