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Magna Carta
Magna Carta
Magna Carta
Created 1215
Location Various copies

Magna Carta, also called Magna Carta Libertatum (the Great Charter of Freedoms), is an English legal charter, originally issued in the year 1215. It was written in Latin and is known by its Latin name. The usual English translation of Magna Carta is Great Charter.

Magna Carta required King John of England to proclaim certain rights (pertaining to freemen), respect certain legal procedures, and accept that his will could be bound by the law. It explicitly protected certain rights of the King's subjects, whether free or fettered — and implicitly supported what became the writ of habeas corpus, allowing appeal against unlawful imprisonment.

Magna Carta was arguably the most significant early influence on the extensive historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law today in the English speaking world. Magna Carta influenced the development of the common law and many constitutional documents, including the United States Constitution.[1] Many clauses were renewed throughout the Middle Ages, and continued to be renewed as late as the 18th century. By the second half of the 19th century, however, most clauses in their original form had been repealed from English law.

Magna Carta was the first document forced onto an English King by a group of his subjects (the barons) in an attempt to limit his powers by law and protect their privileges. It was preceded by the 1100 Charter of Liberties in which King Henry I voluntarily stated that his own powers were under the law.

In practice, Magna Carta in the medieval period mostly did not limit the power of Kings; but by the time of the English Civil War it had become an important symbol for those who wished to show that the King was bound by the law.

Magna Carta is normally understood to refer to a single document, that of 1215. Various amended versions of Magna Carta appeared in subsequent years however, and it is the 1297 version which remains on the statute books of England and Wales.



After the Norman conquest of England in 1066 and advances in the 12th century, the English King had by 1199 become a powerful and influential monarch in Europe. Factors contributing to this include the sophisticated centralised government created by the procedures of the new Norman systems of governance and extensive Anglo-Norman land holdings within Normandy.

But after King John of England was crowned in the early 13th century, a series of failures at home and abroad, combined with perceived abuses of the king's power, led the English barons to revolt and attempt to restrain what the king could legally do.



King John's actions in France were a major cause of discontent in the realm. At the time of his accession to the throne after Richard's death, there were no set rules to define the line of succession. King John, as Richard's younger brother, was crowned over Richard's nephew, Arthur of Brittany. Since Arthur still had a claim over the Anjou empire, however, John needed the approval of the French king, Philip Augustus. To get it, John gave to Philip large tracts of the French-speaking Anjou territories.

When John later married Isabella of Angoulême, her previous fiancé (Hugh IX of Lusignan, one of John's vassals) appealed to Philip, who then declared forfeit all of John's French lands, including the rich Normandy. Philip declared Arthur as the true ruler of the Anjou throne and invaded John's French holdings in mid-1202 to give it to him. John had to act to save face, but his eventual actions did not achieve this—Arthur disappeared in suspicious circumstances, and John was widely believed to have murdered him, thus losing the little support he had from his French barons.

After the defeat of John's allies at the Battle of Bouvines,[2] Philip retained all of John's northern French territories, including Normandy (although Aquitaine remained in English hands for a time). These serious military defeats, which lost to the English a major source of income, made John unpopular at home. Worse, to recoup his expenses, he had to further tax the already unhappy barons.

The Church

At the time of John's reign there was still a great deal of controversy as to how the Archbishop of Canterbury was to be elected, although it had become traditional that the monarch would appoint a candidate with the approval of the monks of Canterbury.

But in the early 13th century, the bishops began to want a say. To retain control, the monks elected one of their numbers to the role. But John, incensed at his lack of involvement in the proceedings, sent John de Gray, the Bishop of Norwich, to Rome as his choice. Pope Innocent III declared both choices invalid and persuaded the monks to elect Stephen Langton. Nevertheless, John refused to accept this choice and exiled the monks from the realm. Infuriated, Innocent ordered an interdict (prevention of public worship — mass, marriages, the ringing of church bells, etc.) in England in 1208, excommunicated John in 1209, and encouraged Philip to invade England in 1212.

John finally relented, and agreed to endorse Langton and allow the exiles to return. To placate the Pope, he gave England and Ireland as papal territories and rented them back as a fiefdom for 1,000 marks per annum. This surrender of autonomy to a foreign power further enraged the barons.


King John I needed money for armies, but the loss of the French territories, especially Normandy, greatly reduced the state income, and a huge tax would need to be raised to reclaim these territories. Yet, it was difficult to raise taxes because of the tradition of keeping them unchanged.

John relied on clever manipulation of pre-existing rights, including those of forest law, which regulated the king's hunting preserves, which were easily violated and severely punished. John also increased the pre-existing scutage (feudal payment to an overlord replacing direct military service) eleven times in his seventeen years as king, as compared to eleven times during the reign of the preceding three monarchs. The last two of these increases were double the increase of their predecessors. He also imposed the first income tax, raising the (then) extortionate sum of £70,000.

Rebellion and signing of the document

John of England signs Magna Carta. Illustration from Cassell's History of England (1902)

By 1215, some of the most important barons in England had had enough, and with the support of Prince Louis the French Dauphin and King Alexander II of the Scots, they entered London in force on 10 June 1215,[3] with the city showing its sympathy with their cause by opening its gates to them. They, and many of the moderates not in overt rebellion, forced King John to agree to the "Articles of the Barons", to which his Great Seal was attached in the meadow at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. In return, the barons renewed their oaths of fealty to King John on 19 June 1215. The contemporary chronicler, Roger of Wendover, recorded the events in his Flores Historiarum.[4] A formal document to record the agreement was created by the royal chancery on 15 July: this was the original Magna Carta. An unknown number of copies of it were sent out to officials, such as royal sheriffs and bishops.

The most significant clause for King John at the time was clause 61, known as the "security clause", the longest portion of the document. This established a committee of 25 barons who could at any time meet and overrule the will of the King, through force by seizing his castles and possessions if needed.[5] This was based on a medieval legal practice known as distraint, but it was the first time it had been applied to a monarch. In addition, the King was to take an oath of loyalty to the committee.

Clause 61 essentially neutered John's power as a monarch, making him King in name only. He renounced it as soon as the barons left London, plunging England into a civil war, called the First Barons' War. Pope Innocent III also annulled the "shameful and demeaning agreement, forced upon the King by violence and fear." He rejected any call for restraints on the King, saying it impaired John's dignity. He saw it as an affront to the Church's authority over the King and the 'papal territories' of England and Ireland, and he released John from his oath to obey it.

Magna Carta re-issued

Prince Louis invaded England in 1216, and was proclaimed king in London in May of that year with the support of the barons. However, John died from dysentery on 18 October 1216, and this quickly changed the nature of the war. His nine-year-old son Henry was next in line for the throne. The royalists believed the rebel barons would find the idea of loyalty to the child Henry more palatable, so the boy was swiftly crowned Henry III in late October 1216, Louis's support for the English throne collapsed (he would go on to reign in France as Louis VIII), and the war ended.

Henry's regent, William Marshal reissued Magna Carta in his name on 12 November 1216, omitting some clauses, such as clause 61, and again in 1217. When he turned 18 in 1225, Henry III reissued Magna Carta, this time in a shorter version with only 37 articles.

Henry III ruled for 56 years (the longest reign of an English Monarch in the Medieval period) so that by the time of his death in 1272, Magna Carta had become a settled part of English legal precedent.

The Parliament of Henry III's son and heir, Edward I, reissued Magna Carta for the final time on 12 October 1297, as part of a statute called Confirmatio cartarum, reconfirming Henry III's shorter version of Magna Carta from 1225.


Magna Carta was originally written in Latin. A large part of Magna Carta was copied, nearly word for word, from the Charter of Liberties of Henry I, issued when Henry I ascended to the throne in 1100, which bound the king to certain laws regarding the treatment of church officials and nobles, effectively granting certain civil liberties to the church and the English nobility.

Magna carta cum statutis angliae, (Great Charter with English Statutes) page 1 of manuscript, fourteenth century.

The document commonly known as Magna Carta today is not the 1215 charter but a later charter of 1225, and is usually shown in the form of The Charter of 1297 when it was confirmed by Edward I. At the time of the 1215 charter, many of the provisions were not meant to make long term changes but simply to right the immediate wrongs, and therefore The Charter was reissued three times in the reign of Henry III (1216, 1217 and 1225) in order to provide for an updated version. After this, each individual king for the next two hundred years (until Henry V in 1416) personally confirmed the 1225 charter in his own charter.

Rights still in force today

For modern times, the most enduring legacy of Magna Carta is considered the right of habeas corpus. This right arises from what are now known as clauses 36, 38, 39, and 40 of the 1215 Magna Carta.

As the most recent version, it is the 1297 Charter which remains in legal force in England and Wales. Using the clauses in the 1297 charter (the content and numbering are somewhat different from the 1215 Charter): Clause 1 guarantees the freedom of the English Church. Although this originally meant freedom from the King, later in history it was used for different purposes (see below). Clause 9 guarantees the "ancient liberties" of the City of London. Clause 29 guarantees a right to due process.

  • I. FIRST, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable. We have granted also, and given to all the Freemen of our Realm, for Us and our Heirs for ever, these Liberties under-written, to have and to hold to them and their Heirs, of Us and our Heirs for ever.
  • IX. THE City of London shall have all the old Liberties and Customs which it hath been used to have. Moreover We will and grant, that all other Cities, Boroughs, Towns, and the Barons of the Five Ports, as with all other Ports, shall have all their Liberties and free Customs.
  • XXIX. NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.[6]

The repeal of clause 26 in 1829[7] was the first time a clause of Magna Carta was repealed. With the document's perceived protected status broken, in 150 years nearly the whole charter was repealed, leaving just Clauses 1, 9, and 29 still in force after 1969. Most of it was repealed in England and Wales by the Statute Law Revision Act 1863, and in Ireland by the Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872.[6]

Clause Repealing Act[6]
II Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
III Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
IV Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
V Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
VI Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
VII Administration of Estates Act 1925, Administration of Estates Act (Northern Ireland) 1955 and Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1969
VIII Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1969
X Statute Law Revision Act 1948
XI Civil Procedure Acts Repeal Act 1879
XII Civil Procedure Acts Repeal Act 1879
XIII Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
XIV Criminal Law Act 1967 and Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967
XV Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1969
XVI Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1969
XVII Statute Law Revision Act 1892
XVIII Crown Proceedings Act 1947
XIX Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
XX Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
XXI Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
XXII Statute Law Revision Act 1948
XXIII Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1969
XXIV Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
XXV Statute Law Revision Act 1948
XXVI Offences against the Person Act 1828 and Offences Against the Person (Ireland) Act 1829
XXVII Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
XXVIII Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
XXX Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1969
XXXI Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
XXXII Statute Law Revision Act 1887
XXXIII Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
XXXIV Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
XXXV Sheriffs Act 1887
XXXVI Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872
XXXVII Statute Law Revision Act 1863 and Statute Law (Ireland) Revision Act 1872

Feudal rights still in place in 1225

Several clauses were present in the 1225 charter but are no longer in force and would have no real place in the post-feudal world. Clauses 2 to 7 refer to the feudal death duties, defining the amounts and what to do if an heir to a fiefdom is underage or is a widow. Clause 23 provides no town or person should be forced to build a bridge across a river. Clause 33 demands the removal of all fish weirs. Clause 43 gives special provision for tax on reverted estates and Clause 44 states that forest law should only apply to those in the king's forest.

Feudal rights not in the 1225 charter

Some provisions have no bearing in the world today, since they are feudal rights and were not even included in the 1225 charter. Clauses 9 to 12, 14 to 16, and 25 to 26 deal with debt and taxes and Clause 27 with intestacy.

The other clauses state that no one may seize land in debt except as a last resort; that underage heirs and widows should not pay interest on inherited loans; that county rents will stay at their ancient amounts; and that the crown may only seize the value owed in payment of a debt, that aid (taxes for warfare or other emergency) must be reasonable, and that scutage (literally "shield[-payment]", payment in lieu of actual military service used to finance warfare) may only be sought with the consent of the kingdom.

Clause 14 states that the common consent of the kingdom was to be sought from a council of the archbishops, bishops, earls and greater Barons. This later became the great council, which led to the first parliament.

Judicial rights

Clauses 17 to 22 allowed for a fixed law court, which became the chancellery, and defines the scope and frequency of county assizes. They also state that fines should be proportionate to the offence, that they should not be influenced by ecclesiastical property in clergy trials, and that their peers should try people. Many think that this gave rise to jury and magistrate trial, but its only manifestation in the modern world was the right of a lord to a criminal trial in the House of Lords at first instance (abolished in 1948).

Clause 24 states that crown officials (such as sheriffs) may not try a crime in place of a judge. Clause 34 forbids repossession without a writ precipe. Clauses 36 to 38 state that writs for loss of life or limb are to be free, that someone may use reasonable force to secure their own land, and that no one can be tried on their own testimony alone.

Clauses 36, 38, 39 and 40 collectively define the right of Habeas Corpus. Clause 36 requires courts to make inquiries as to the whereabouts of a prisoner, and to do so without charging any fee. Clause 38 requires more than the mere word of an official, before any person could be put on trial. Clause 39 gives the courts exclusive rights to punish anyone. Clause 40 disallows the selling or the delay of justice. Clauses 36 and 38 were removed from the 1225 version, but were reinstated in later versions. The right of Habeas Corpus as such was first invoked in court in the year 1305.

Clause 54 says that no man may be imprisoned on the testimony of a woman except on the death of her husband.

Anti-corruption and fair trade

Clauses 28 to 32 state that no royal officer may take any commodity such as grain, wood or transport without payment or consent or force a knight to pay for something the knight could do himself, and that the king must return any lands confiscated from a felon within a year and a day.

Clause 35 sets out a list of standard measures, and Clauses 41 and 42 guarantee the safety and right of entry and exit of foreign merchants.

Clause 45 says that the King should only appoint royal officers where they are suitable for the post. In the United States, the Supreme Court of California interpreted clause 45 in 1974 as establishing a requirement at common law that a defendant faced with the potential of incarceration is entitled to a trial overseen by a law-trained judge.[8]

Clause 46 provides for the guardianship of monasteries.

Temporary provisions

Some provisions were for immediate effect and were not in any later charter. Clauses 47 and 48 abolish most of Forest Law (these were later taken out of Magna Carta and formed into a separate charter, the Charter of the Forests).[9] Clauses 49, 52 to 53 and 55 to 59 provide for the return of hostages, land and fines taken in John's reign.

Article 50 states that no member of the d'Athée family may be a royal officer. Article 51 calls for all foreign knights and mercenaries to leave the realm.

Articles 60, 62 and 63 provide for the application and observation of the Charter and say that the Charter is binding on the King and his heirs forever, but this was soon deemed dependent on each succeeding king reaffirming the Charter under his own seal.

Great Council

The first long-term constitutional effect arose from Clauses 14 and 61, which permitted a council composed of the most powerful men in the country to exist for the benefit of the state rather than in allegiance to the monarch. Members of the council were also allowed to renounce their oath of allegiance to the King in pressing circumstances and to pledge allegiance to the council and not to the King in certain instances. The common council was responsible for taxation, and although it was not representative, its members were bound by decisions made in their absence. The common council, later called the Great Council, was England's proto-parliament.

The Great Council only existed to give input on the opinion of the kingdom as a whole, and it only had power to control scutage until 1258 when Henry III got into debt fighting in Sicily for the pope. The barons agreed to a tax in exchange for reform, leading to the Provisions of Oxford. But Henry got a papal bull allowing him to set aside the provisions and in 1262 told royal officers to ignore the provisions and only to obey Magna Carta. The barons revolted and seized the Tower of London, the Cinque ports and Gloucester. Initially the King surrendered, but when Louis IX of France arbitrated in favour of Henry, Henry crushed the rebellion. Later he ceded somewhat, passing the Statute of Marlborough in 1267, which allowed writs for breaches of Magna Carta to be free of charge, enabling anyone to have standing to apply the Charter.

This secured the position of the Great Council forever, but its powers were still very limited. The council originally only met three times per year and so was subservient to the King's council, Curiae Regis, who, unlike the Great Council, followed the king wherever he went.

Still, in some senses the council was an early form of parliament. It had the power to meet outside the authority of the King and was not appointed by him. While executive government descends from the Curiae Regis, parliament descends from the Great Council, which was later called the parliamentum. However, the Great Council was very different from modern parliament. There were no knights, let alone commons, and it was composed of the most powerful men, rather than elected citizens.

Magna Carta had little effect on subsequent development of parliament until the Tudor period. Knights and county representatives attended the Great Council (Simon de Montfort's Parliament), and the council became far more representative under the model parliament of Edward I which included two knights from each county, two burgesses from each borough and two citizens from each city. The Commons separated from the Lords in 1341. The right of the Commons to exclusively sanction taxes (based on a withdrawn provision of Magna Carta) was re-asserted in 1407, although it was not in force in this period. The power vested in the Great Council by, albeit withdrawn, Clause 14 of Magna Carta became vested in the House of Commons but Magna Carta was all but forgotten for about a century, until the Tudors.

Tudor dynasty (1485 - 1603)

Magna Carta was the first entry on the statute books, but after 1472, it was not mentioned for a period of nearly 100 years. There was much ignorance about the document. The few who did know about the document spoke of a good king being forced by an unstable pope and rebellious barons "to attaine the shadow of seeming liberties" and that it was a product of a wrongful rebellion against the one true authority, the king. The original Magna Carta was seen as an ancient document with shadowy origins and as having no bearing on the Tudor world. Shakespeare's King John makes no mention of the Charter at all but focuses on the murder of Arthur. The Charter in the statute books was correctly thought to have arisen from the reign of Henry III.

First uses of the charter as a bill of rights

This statute was used widely in the reign of Henry VIII (1509 - 1547) but was seen as no more special than any other statute and could be amended and removed. But later in the reign, the Lord Treasurer stated in the Star Chamber that many had lost their lives in the Baronial wars fighting for the liberties which were guaranteed by the Charter, and therefore it should not so easily be overlooked as a simple and regular statute.

The church often attempted to invoke the first clause of the Charter to protect itself from the attacks by Henry, but this claim was given no credence. Francis Bacon was the first to try to use Clause 39 to guarantee due process in a trial.

Although there was a re-awakening of the use of Magna Carta in common law, it was not seen (as it was later) as an entrenched set of liberties guaranteed for the people against the Crown and Government. Rather, it was a normal statute, which gave a certain level of liberties, most of which could not be relied on, least of all against the king. Therefore, the Charter had little effect on the governance of the early Tudor period. Although lay parliament evolved from the Charter, by this stage the powers of parliament had managed to exceed those humble beginnings. The Charter had no real effect until the Elizabethan age. (1558 - 1603)

Reinterpretation of the charter

In the Elizabethan age, England was becoming a powerful force in Europe. In academia, earnest but futile attempts were made to prove that Parliament had Roman origins. The events at Runnymede in 1215 were "re-discovered", allowing a possibility to show the antiquity of Parliament, and Magna Carta became synonymous with the idea of an ancient house with origins in Roman government.

The Charter was interpreted as an attempt to return to a pre-Norman state of things. The Tudors saw the Charter as proof that their state of governance had existed since time immemorial and the Normans had been a brief break from this liberty and democracy. This claim is disputed in certain circles but explains how Magna Carta came to be regarded as such an important document.

Magna Carta again occupied legal minds, and it again began to shape how that government was run. Soon the Charter was seen as an immutable entity. In the trial of Arthur Hall for questioning the antiquity of the House, one of his alleged crimes was an attack on Magna Carta.

Edward Coke's opinions

Jurist Edward Coke interpreted Magna Carta to apply not only to the protection of nobles but to all subjects of the crown equally. He famously asserted: "Magna Carta is such a fellow, that he will have no sovereign."

One of the first respected jurists to write seriously about the great charter was Edward Coke, who had a great deal to say on the subject and was influential in the way Magna Carta was perceived throughout the Tudor and Stuart periods, although his opinions changed across time and his writing in the Stuart period was more influential. In the Elizabethan period, Coke wrote of Parliament evolving alongside the monarchy and not existing by any allowance on the part of the monarch. However he was still fiercely loyal to Elizabeth, and the monarchy still judged the Charter in the same light it always had: an evil document forced out of their forefathers by brute force. He therefore prevented a re-affirmation of the charter from passing the House, and although he spoke highly of the charter, he did not speak out against imprisonments without due process. This came back to haunt him later when he moved for a reaffirmation of the charter.

Role in the lead-up to the Civil War

By the time of the Stuarts (1603), Magna Carta had attained an almost mythical status for its admirers and was seen as representing a 'golden age' of English liberties extant prior to the Norman invasion. Whether or not this 'golden age' ever truly existed is open to debate; regardless, proponents of its application to English law saw themselves as leading England back to a pre-Norman state of affairs. What is true, however is that this age existed in the hearts and minds of people of the time. Magna Carta was not important because of the liberties it bestowed, but simply as 'proof' of what had come before; many great minds influentially exalted the Charter; by the seventeenth century, Coke was talking of the Charter as an indispensable method of limiting the powers of the Crown, a popular principle in the Stuart period where the kings were proclaiming their divine right and were looking, in the minds of some of their subjects, towards becoming absolute monarchs.

It was not the content of the Charter which has made it so important in the history of England, but more how it has been perceived in the popular mind. This is something that certainly started in the Stuart period, as the Charter represented many things, which are not to be found in the Charter itself. Firstly it was used to claim liberties against the Government in general rather than just the Crown and the officers of the crown, secondly that it represented that the laws and liberties of England, specifically Parliament, dated back to a time immemorial and thirdly, that it was not only just but right to usurp a king who disobeyed the law.

For the last of these reasons Magna Carta began to represent a danger to the monarchy; Elizabeth ordered that John Coke stop a bill from going through Parliament which would have reaffirmed the validity of the Charter, and Charles I ordered the suppression of a book which Coke intended to write on Magna Carta. The powers of Parliament were growing, and on Coke's death, parliament ordered his house to be searched; the manuscripts were recovered, and the book was published in 1642 (at the end of Charles I's Personal Rule). Parliament began to see Magna Carta as its best way of claiming supremacy over the crown and began to state that they were the sworn defenders of the liberties — fundamental and immemorial — which were to be found in the Charter.

In the four centuries since the Charter had originally catered for their creation, Parliament's power had increased greatly from their original level where they existed only for the purpose that the king had to seek their permission in order to raise scutage. They had become the only body allowed to raise tax, a right which although descended from the 1215 Great Charter was not guaranteed by it, since it was removed from the 1225 edition. Parliament had become so powerful that the Charter was being used both by those wishing to limit Parliament's power (as a new organ of the Crown), and by those who wished Parliament to rival the king's power (as a set of principles Parliament was sworn to defend against the king). When it became obvious that some people wished to limit the power of Parliament by claiming it to be tantamount to the crown, Parliament claimed they had the sole right of interpretation of the Charter.

This was an important step; for the first time Parliament was claiming itself a body as above the law; whereas one of the fundamental principles in English law was that the law, Parliament, the monarch, and the church held all, albeit to different extents. Parliament was claiming exactly what Magna Carta wanted to prevent the king from claiming, a claim of not being subject to any higher form of power. This was not claimed until ten years after the death of Lord Coke, but he would not have agreed with this, because he claimed in the English Constitution the law was supreme and all bodies of government were subservient to the supreme law, which is to say the common law, as embodied in the Great Charter. These early discussions of Parliament sovereignty seemed to only involve the Charter as the entrenched law, and the discussions were simply about whether Parliament had enough power to repeal the document.

Although it was important for Parliament to be able to claim themselves more powerful than the King in the forthcoming struggle, the Charter provided for this very provision. Clause 61 of the Charter enables people to swear allegiance to what became the Great Council and later Parliament and therefore to renounce allegiance to the king. Moreover, Clause 61 allowed for the seizing of the kingdom by the body which later became Parliament if Magna Carta was not respected by the king or Lord Chief Justice. So there was no need to show any novel level of power in order to overthrow the king; it had already been set out in Magna Carta nearly half a millennium before. Parliament was not ready to repeal the Charter yet however, and in fact, it was cited as the reason why ship money was illegal (the first time Parliament overruled the king).

Trial of Archbishop Laud

Further proof of the significance of Magna Carta is shown in the trial of Archbishop Laud in 1645. Laud was tried with attempting to subvert the laws of England including writing a condemnation of Magna Carta claiming that as the Charter came about due to rebellion it was not valid (a widely held opinion less than a century before, when the 'true' Magna Carta was thought to be the 1225 edition, with the 1215 edition being considered less valid for this very reason). However, Laud was not trying to say that Magna Carta was evil, and he actually used the document in his defence. He claimed his trial was against the right of the freedom of the church (as the Bishops were voted out of Parliament in order to allow for parliamentary condemnation of him) and, that he was not given the benefit of due process contrary to Clauses 1 and 39 of the Charter. By this stage, Magna Carta had passed a great distance beyond the original intentions for the document, and the Great Council had evolved beyond a body merely ensuring the application of the Charter. It had gotten to the stage where the Great Council or Parliament was inseparable from the ideas of the Crown as described in the Charter and therefore it was potentially not just the King that was bound by the Charter, but Parliament also.

Civil War and interregnum

After the seven years of the civil war (1642 - 1649), after the king had surrendered and had been executed, it seemed Magna Carta no longer applied, as there was no King. Oliver Cromwell was accused of destroying Magna Carta, and many thought he should be crowned just so that it would apply.[citation needed] Cromwell had much disdain for Magna Carta, at one point describing it as "Magna Farta" to a defendant who sought to rely on it.[10]

In this time of foment, there were many revolutionary theorists, and many based their theories at least initially on Magna Carta, in the misguided belief that Magna Carta guaranteed liberty and equality for all.


The Levellers believed that all should be equal and free without distinction of class or status. They believed that Magna Carta was the 'political bible', which should be prized above any other law and that it could not be repealed. They prized it so highly that they believed all (such as Archbishop Laud) who "trod Magna Carta…under their feet" deserved to be attacked at all levels. The original idea was to achieve this through Parliament but there was little support, because at the time the Parliament was seeking to impose itself as above Magna Carta. The Levellers claimed Magna Carta was above any branch of government, and this led to the upper echelons of the Leveller movement denouncing Parliament. They claimed that Parliament's primary purpose was not to rule the people directly but to protect the people from the extremes of the King; they claimed that Magna Carta adequately did this and therefore Parliament should be subservient to it.

After the Civil War, Cromwell refused to support the Levellers and was denounced as a traitor to Magna Carta. The importance of Magna Carta was greatly magnified in the eyes of the Levellers. John Lilburne, one of the leaders of the movement, was known for his great advocacy of the Charter and was often known to explain its purpose to lay people and to expose the misspeaking against it in the popular press of the time. He was quoted as saying the ground and foundation of my freedome I build upon the grand charter of England. However, as it became apparent that Magna Carta did not grant the level of liberty demanded by the Levellers, the movement reduced its advocacy of it. William Walwyn, another leader of the movement, advocated natural law and other doctrines as the primary principles of the movement. This was mainly because the obvious intention of Magna Carta was to grant rights only to the barons and the episcopacy, and not the general and egalitarian rights the Levellers were claiming. Also influential, however, was Spelman's rediscovery of the existence of the feudal system at the time of Magna Carta, which seemed to have less and less effect on the world of the time. The only right, which the Levellers could trace back to 1215, possibly prized over all others, was the right to due process granted by Clause 39. One thing the Levellers did agree on with the popular beliefs of the time was that Magna Carta was an attempt to return to the fabled pre-Norman 'golden age'.


However, not all such groups advocated Magna Carta. The Diggers were a very early socialistic group who called for all land to be available to all for farming and the like. Gerrard Winstanley, a leader of the group, despised Magna Carta as a show of the hypocrisy of the post-Norman law, since Parliament and the courts advocated Magna Carta and yet did not even follow it themselves. The Diggers did, however, believe in the pre-Norman golden age and wished to return to it, and they called for the abolition of all Norman and post-Norman law.

Charles II

The Commonwealth was relatively short lived however, and when Charles II took the throne in 1660, he vowed to respect both the common law and the Charter. Parliament was established as the everyday government of Britain, independent of the King but not more powerful.[citation needed] However, the struggles based on the Charter were far from over and took on the form of the struggle for supremacy between the two Houses of Parliament.

Within Parliament

In 1664, the British navy seized Dutch lands in both Africa and America leading to full-scale war with the Netherlands in 1665. The Lord Chancellor Edward Lord Clarendon, resisted an alliance with the Spanish and Swedes in favour of maintaining a relationship with the French, who were the allies of the Dutch. This lack of a coherent policy led to the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67), with the Dutch burning ships in the docks at Chatham, and the blame was placed on Clarendon. The Commons demanded that Clarendon be indicted before the Lords, but the Lords refused, citing the due process requirements of the Charter, giving Clarendon the time to escape to Europe.

A very similar set of events followed in 1678 when the Commons asked the Lords to indict Thomas Lord Danby on a charge of fraternising with the French. As with Clarendon the Lords refused, again citing Magna Carta and their own supremacy as the upper house. Before the quarrel could be resolved, Charles dissolved the Parliament. When Parliament was re-seated in 1681, again the Commons attempted to force an indictment in the Lords. This time Edward Fitzharris who was accused of writing libellously that the King was involved in a papist plot with the French (including the overthrowing of Magna Carta). However, the Lords doubted the veracity of the claim and refused to try Fitzharris saying Magna Carta stated that everyone must be subject to due process and therefore he must be tried in a lower court first. This time the Commons retorted that it was the Lords who were denying justice under Clause 39 and that the Commons were right to cite the Charter as their precedent. Again, before any true conclusions could be drawn Charles dissolved the Parliament, although more to serve his own ends and to rid himself of a predominantly Whig Parliament, and Fitzharris was tried in a regular court (the King's Bench) and executed for treason. Here the Charter, once again, was used far beyond the content of its provisions, and simply being used as a representation of justice. Each house was claiming the Charter under Clause 39 supported its supremacy, but the power of the King was still too great for either house to come out fully as the more powerful.

Outside Parliament

The squabble also continued outside the Palace of Westminster. In 1667 the Lord Chief Justice and important member of the House of Lords, Lord Keeling, forced a grand jury of Somersetshire to return a verdict of murder when they wanted to return one of manslaughter.[11] However, his biggest crime in the eyes of the Commons was that, when the jury objected on the grounds of Magna Carta, he scoffed and exclaimed "Magna Farta, [sic] what ado with this have we?"[12] The Commons were incensed at this abuse of the Charter and accused him of endangering the liberties of the people.[11] However, the Lords claimed he was just referring to the inappropriateness of the Charter in this context, but Keeling apologised anyway. In 1681 the next Lord Chief Justice, Lord Scroggs, was condemned by the Commons first for being too severe in the so-called 'papist plot trials' and second for dismissing another Middlesex grand jury in order to secure against the indictment of the Duke of York, the Catholic younger brother of the King later to become James II. Charles again dissolved Parliament before the Commons could impeach Scroggs, and removed him from office on a good pension. Just as it seemed that the Commons might be able to impose their supremacy over the Lords, the King intervened and proved he was still the most powerful force in the government. However, it was certainly beginning to become established that the Commons were the primary branch of Government, and they used the Charter as much as they could in order to achieve this end.

Supremacy of the Commons

This was not the end of the struggle however, and in 1679 the Commons passed the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, which greatly reduced the powers of the Crown. The act passed through the Lords by a small majority, arguably establishing the Commons as the more powerful House. This was the first time since the importance of the Charter had been so magnified that the Government had admitted that the liberties granted by the Charter were inadequate. However, this did not completely oust the position of the Charter as a symbol of the law of the 'golden age' and the basis of common law.

It did not take long before the questioning of the Charter really took off and Sir Matthew Hale soon afterwards introduced a new doctrine of common law based on the principle that the Crown (including the government cabinet in that definition) made all law and could only be bound by the law of God, and showed that the 1215 charter was effectively overruled by the 1225 charter, further undermining the idea that the charter was unassailable, adding credence to the idea that the Commons were a supreme branch of Government. Some completely denied the relevance of the 1215 Charter as it was forced upon the King by rebellion (although the fact that the 1225 charter was forced on a boy by his guardians was overlooked). It was similarly argued against the Charter that it was nothing more than a relaxation of the rigid feudal laws and therefore had no meaning outside of that application.

Glorious Revolution

The danger posed by the fact that Charles II had no legitimate child was becoming more and more real, as this meant that the heir apparent was the Duke of York, a Catholic and firm believer in the divine right of kings, threatening the establishment of the Commons as the most powerful arm of government. Parliament did all it could to prevent James's succession but was prevented when Charles dissolved the Parliament. In February 1685, Charles died of a stroke and James II assumed the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland. Almost straight away James attempted to impose Catholicism as the religion of the country and to regain the royal prerogative now vested in the Parliament. Parliament was slightly placated when James's four-year-old son died in 1677 and it seemed his Protestant daughter Mary would take his throne. However when James' second wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a male heir in 1688 Parliament could not take the risk that another Catholic monarch would assume the throne and take away their power.

Forces of the Dutch Republic commanded by Stadtholder William III of Orange invaded the country in November 1688 to pre-empt the threat of an Anglo-French Catholic alliance. A special Convention Parliament was called and declared that James had broken the contract of Magna Carta by fleeing the capital and throwing the Great Seal of the Realm in the River Thames, thereby nullifying his claim to the throne.

This proved that Parliament had become the major power in the British Government. William III of Orange and Mary, James II's eldest daughter were made joint sovereigns in February 1689. The Declaration of Rights, 23 Heads of Grievances formulated by a special commission, was read aloud before William and Mary accepted the throne. They were crowned on April 11, swearing an oath to uphold the laws made by Parliament.

The Bill of Rights was passed by Parliament in December 1689 and was a re-statement in statutory form of the Declaration of Rights. It went far beyond what Magna Carta had ever set out to achieve. It stated that the Crown could not make law without Parliament. Although the raising of taxes was specifically mentioned, it did not limit itself to such, as Magna Carta did. However, one important thing to note is that the writers of the Bill did not seem to think that the Bill included any new provisions of law; all the powers it 'removes' from the crown it refers to as 'pretended' powers, insinuating that the rights of Parliament listed in the Bill already existed under a different authority, presumably Magna Carta. So the importance of Magna Carta was not completely extinguished at this point, although it was somewhat diminished.

Eighteenth century

The power of the Magna Carta myth still existed in the 18th century; in 1700 Samuel Johnson talked of Magna Carta being "born with a grey beard" referring to the belief that the liberties set out in the Charter harked back to the Golden Age and time immemorial. However, ideas about the nature of law in general were beginning to change. In 1716 the Septennial Act was passed, which had a number of consequences. Firstly, it showed that Parliament no longer considered its previous statutes unassailable, as this act provided that the parliamentary term was to be seven years, whereas fewer than twenty-five years had passed since the Triennial Act (1694), which provided that a parliamentary term was to be three years. It also greatly extended the powers of Parliament. Previously, all legislation that passed in a parliamentary session had to be listed in the election manifesto, so in effect the electorate was consulted on all issues that were to be brought before Parliament. However, with a seven-year term, it was unlikely, if not impossible, that all the legislation passed would be discussed at the election. This gave Parliament the freedom to legislate as it liked during its term. This was not Parliamentary sovereignty as understood today however, as although Parliament could overrule its own statutes, it was still considered itself bound by the higher law, such as Magna Carta. Arguments for Parliamentary sovereignty were not new; however, even its proponents would not have expected Parliament to be as powerful as it is today. For example, in the previous century, Coke had discussed how Parliament might well have the power to repeal the common law and Magna Carta, but they were, in practice, prohibited from doing so, as the common law and Magna Carta were so important in the constitution that it would be dangerous to the continuing existence of the constitution to ever repeal them.

Extent of the Commons' powers

In 1722 the Bishop of Rochester (Francis Atterbury (a Stuart Jacobite)), a member of the House of Lords, was accused of treason. The Commons locked him in the Tower of London, and introduced a bill intending to remove him from his post and send him into exile. This, once again, brought up the subject of which was the more powerful house, and exactly how far that power went. Atterbury claimed, and many agreed, that the Commons had no dominion over the Lords. Other influential people disagreed however; for example, the Bishop of Salisbury (also a Lord) was of the strong opinion that the powers of Parliament, mainly vested in the Commons, were sovereign and unlimited and therefore there could be no limit on those powers at all, implying the dominion of the lower house over the upper house. Many intellectuals agreed; Jonathan Swift went so far as to say that Parliament's powers extended to altering or repealing Magna Carta. This claim was still controversial, and the argument incensed the Tories. Bolingbroke spoke of the day when "liberty is restored and the radiant volume of Magna Carta is returned to its former position of Glory". This belief was anchored in the relatively new theory that when William the Conqueror invaded England he only conquered the throne, not the land, and he therefore assumed the same position in law as the Saxon rulers before him. The Charter was therefore a recapitulation or codification of these laws rather than (as previously believed) an attempt to reinstate these laws after the tyrannical Norman Kings. This implied that these rights had existed constantly from the 'golden age immemorial' and could never be removed by any government. The Whigs on the other hand claimed that the Charter only benefited the nobility and the church and granted nowhere near the liberty they had come to expect. However although the Whigs attacked the content of the Charter, they did not actually attack the myth of the 'golden age' or attempt to say that the Charter could be repealed, and the myth remained as immutable as ever.


The 1765 Stamp Act extended the stamp duty, which had been in force on home territory since 1694 to cover the American colonies as well. However, colonists of the Thirteen Colonies despised this since they were not represented in Parliament and refused to accept that an external body, which did not represent them, could tax them in what they saw was a denial of their rights as Englishmen. The cry "no taxation without representation" rang throughout the colonies.

The influence of Magna Carta can be clearly seen in the United States Bill of Rights, which enumerates various rights of the people and restrictions on government power, such as:

No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

Article 21 from the Declaration of Rights in the Maryland Constitution of 1776 reads:

That no freeman ought to be taken, or imprisoned, or disseized of his freehold, liberties, or privileges, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any manner destroyed, or deprived of his life, liberty, or property, but by the judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.

The Ninth Amendment to the United States Constitution states that, "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." The framers of the United States Constitution wished to ensure that rights they already held, such as those provided by the Magna Carta, were not lost unless explicitly curtailed in the new United States Constitution.[13][14]

Parliamentary Sovereignty

The doctrine of parliamentary supremacy if not parliamentary sovereignty had all but emerged by the regency; William Blackstone argued strongly for sovereignty in his Commentaries on the English Law in 1765. He essentially argued that absolute supremacy must exist in one of the arms of Government and he certainly thought it resided in Parliament as Parliament could legislate on anything and potentially could even legislate the impossible as valid law if not practical policy. The debate over whether of not Parliament could limit or overrule the supposed rights granted by Magna Carta was to prove to be the basis for the discussion over parliamentary sovereignty; however Blackstone preached that Parliament should respect Magna Carta as a show of law from time immemorial, and the other great legal mind of the time, Jeremy Bentham used The Charter to attack the legal abuses of his time.

In 1763 an MP, John Wilkes was arrested for writing an inflammatory pamphlet, No. 45, 23rd of April 1763: however he cited Magna Carta incessantly, and the weight that Magna Carta held at the time meant Parliament was reluctant to continue the charge, and he was released and awarded damages for the wrongful seizing of his papers as the general warrant under which he was arrested was deemed illegal. However, he was still expelled from Parliament after spending a week in the Tower of London. He was abroad for a number of years until 1768 when he returned and failed to be elected as the MP for London; unperturbed, however, he stood again for Middlesex but he was expelled again, on the basis of the earlier offence, the following year. He stood again, however, and was elected yet again, but the Commons ruled that he was ineligible to sit. At the next three re-elections Wilkes again was the champion, but the house did not relent and his opponent, Lutteral, was declared the winner. The treatment of Wilkes caused a furore in Parliament, with Lord Camden denouncing the action as a contravention of Magna Carta. Wilkes made the issue a national one and the issue was taken up by the populace, and there were very popular prints of him being arrested while teaching his son about Magna Carta all over the country. He had the support of the Corporation of London, long seeking to establish its supremacy over Parliament based on The Charter itself. The fight for the charter was misplaced and it was merely the idea of the liberties which were supposedly enshrined in The Charter that people were fighting for. It is no coincidence that those who supported Wilkes would have little or no knowledge of the actual content of The Charter, or, if they did, were looking to protect their own position based on The Charter. Wilkes re-entered the house in 1774. He had talked of Magna Carta as he knew it would capture public support to achieve his aims, but he had started the ball rolling for a reform movement to 'restore the constitution' through a more representative, less powerful, and shorter-termed Parliament.

One of the principal reformists was a man called Granville Sharp who was a philanthropist who had on his list of causes the Society for the Abolition of Slavery and The Society for the Conversion of the Jews. Sharp called for the reformation of Parliament based on Magna Carta, and devised a doctrine to back this up, the doctrine of accumulative authority. This theory stated that almost innumerable parliaments had approved of Magna Carta, and therefore it would take the same amount of Parliaments to repeal The Charter. As with many, he accepted the supremacy of Parliament as an institution, but he did not believe that this power was without restraint, namely that they could not repeal Magna Carta. Many reformists agreed that The Charter was a statement of the liberties of the mythical and immemorial golden age, but there was a popular movement to have a holiday to commemorate the signing of The Charter in a similar way to the American 4th of July holiday; however, very few went as far as Sharp.

Although there was a popular movement to resist the sovereignty of Parliament based on The Charter, there were still a great number of people who thought that The Charter was over-rated. John Cartwright pointed out in 1774 that Magna Carta could not possibly have existed unless there was a firm constitution beforehand to facilitate its use. He went even further, later, and claimed that The Charter was not even part of the constitution but merely a codification of what the constitution was at the time. Cartwright suggested that there should be a new Magna Carta based on equality and rights for all, not just for landed persons.

The work of people like Cartwright was fast showing that the rights granted by The Charter were out of pace with the developments which followed in the next six centuries. However there were certain provisions, such as Clauses 23 and 39, which were not only still valid then but which still form the basis of important rights in the present English law. Undeniably, though, Magna Carta was diminishing in importance, and the arguments for having a fully sovereign Parliament were becoming more and more accepted. Many in the house still supported The Charter, however, such as Sir Francis Burdett who called for a return to the constitution of Magna Carta in 1809 and denounced the house for taking proceedings against the radical John Gale Jones, for denouncing the house as acting in contravention of Magna Carta. Burdett was largely ignored, as by this stage Magna Carta had largely lost its appeal, but he continued, claiming that the Long Parliament had usurped all the power then enjoyed by the Parliament of the time; he stated that Parliament was constantly acting against Magna Carta (although he was referring to their judicial rather than their legislative practice) which they did not have the right to do; he achieved popular support and there were riots across London when he was arrested for these claims, and again a popular print circulated of him being arrested whilst teaching his son about Magna Carta

With the popular movements being in favour of the liberties of The Charter, and Parliament trying to establish their own sovereignty there needed to be some sort of action in order to swing the balance in favour of one or the other. However, all that occurred was the Reform Act 1832 which was such a compromise that it ended up pleasing no one. Due to their disappointment in the Reform Act a group was founded calling itself the Chartists; they called for a return to the constitution of Magna Carta and eventually culminated in a codification of what they saw as the existing rights of the People; the People's Charter. At a rally for the Chartists in 1838 the Reverend Raynor demanded a return to the constitution of The Charter; freedom of speech, of worship, and of congress. This is a perfect example of how the idea of The Charter went so far beyond the actual content of The Charter: it depicted for many people the idea of total liberty whereas the actual liberties granted by The Charter were very limited and by no means intended to be applied to all. It was this over-exaggeration of The Charter that eventually led to its downfall. The more people expected to get from The Charter, the less Parliament was willing to attempt to cater to this expectation, and eventually writers such as Tom Paine rebutted the claims of those such as the Chartists. This meant that the educated were no longer supporting any of these claims, and therefore the Myth gradually faded into obscurity, and the final claim against sovereignty of Parliament was erased, and the road was open to the establishment of this doctrine.


The major breakthrough occurred in 1828 with the passing of the Offences against the Person Act 1828, which for the first time repealed a clause of Magna Carta, namely Clause 36. With the myth broken, in one hundred and fifty years nearly the whole charter was repealed.

The Reform Act 1832 fixed some of the most glaring problems in the political system, but did not go nearly far enough for a group that called itself the Chartists, who called for a return to the constitution of Magna Carta[citation needed], and eventually created a codification of what they saw as the existing rights of the People, the People's Charter. At a rally for the Chartists in 1838 the Reverend Raynor demanded a return to the constitution of the Charter; freedom of speech, worship and congress. This is a perfect example of how the idea of the Charter went so far beyond its actual content: it depicted for many people the idea of total liberty. It was this exaggeration of the Charter that eventually led to its downfall. The more people expected to get from the Charter, the less Parliament was willing to attempt to cater to this expectation, and eventually writers such as Tom Paine refuted the claims about the Charter made by those such as the Chartists. This meant that the educated no longer supported these claims, and the power of Magna Carta as a symbol of freedom gradually faded into obscurity.

Influences on later constitutions

Many later attempts to draft constitutional forms of government, including the United States Constitution, trace their lineage back to this source document. The United States Supreme Court has explicitly referenced Lord Coke's analysis of Magna Carta as an antecedent of the Sixth Amendment's right to a speedy trial.[15]

Magna Carta has influenced international law as well: Eleanor Roosevelt referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as "a Magna Carta for all mankind". Magna Carta is thought to be the crucial turning point in the struggle to establish freedom and a key element in the transformation of constitutional thinking throughout the world. When Englishmen left their homeland to establish colonies in the new world, they brought with them charters that guaranteed they and their heirs would "have and enjoy all liberties and immunities of free and natural subjects." (qtd. from wall of National Archives). In 1606, Sir Edward Coke, who drafted the Virginia Charter, had highly praised Magna Carta, which reflected many of its values and themes into the Virginia Charter (Howard 28). Colonists were also aware of their rights that came from Magna Carta. When American colonists raised arms against England, they were fighting not so much for new freedom, but to preserve liberties, many of which dated back to the 13th century Magna Carta. In 1787 when the representatives of America gathered to draft a constitution, they built upon the legal system they knew and admired: English common law that had evolved from Magna Carta (National Archives).

The ideas addressed in the great charter that are found today are particularly obvious. The American Constitution is the "supreme law of the land," recalling the manner in which Magna Carta had come to be regarded as fundamental law. This heritage is quite apparent. In comparing Magna Carta with the Bill of Rights: the Fifth Amendment guarantees: "No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law." In addition, the United States Constitution included a similar writ in the Suspension Clause, article 1, section 9: "The privilege of the writ habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it." Written 575 years earlier, Magna Carta states, "No free man shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, not will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land." (qtd. in Howard pg VI: Foreword). Each of these proclaim no man may be imprisoned or detained without proof that they did wrong.

Jews in England

Magna Carta contained two articles related to money lending and Jews in England. Jewish involvement with money lending caused Christian resentment, because the Church forbade usury; it was seen as vice and was punishable by excommunication, although Jews, as non-Christians, could not be excommunicated and were thus in a legal grey area. Secular leaders, unlike the Church, tolerated the practice of Jewish usury because it gave the leaders opportunity for personal enrichment. This resulted in a complicated legal situation: debtors were frequently trying to bring their Jewish creditors before Church courts, where debts would be absolved as illegal, while the Jews were trying to get their debtors tried in secular courts, where they would be able to collect plus interest. The relations between the debtors and creditors would often become very nasty. There were many attempts over centuries to resolve this problem, and Magna Carta contains one example of the legal code of the time on this issue:

If one who has borrowed from the Jews any sum, great or small, die before that loan be repaid, the debt shall not bear interest while the heir is under age, of whomsoever he may hold; and if the debt fall into our hands, we will not take anything except the principal sum contained in the bond. And if anyone die indebted to the Jews, his wife shall have her dower and pay nothing of that debt; and if any children of the deceased are left under age, necessaries shall be provided for them in keeping with the holding of the deceased; and out of the residue the debt shall be paid, reserving, however, service due to feudal lords; in like manner let it be done touching debts due to others than Jews.[16]

After the Pope annulled Magna Carta, future versions contained no mention of Jews. The Church saw Jews as a threat to their authority, and the welfare of Christians, because of their special relationship to Kings as moneylenders. "Jews are the sponges of kings," wrote the theologian William de Montibus, "they are bloodsuckers of Christian purses, by whose robbery kings dispoil and deprive poor men of their goods." Thus the specific singling out of Jewish moneylenders seen in Magna Carta originated in part because of Christian nobles who permitted the otherwise illegal activity of usury, a symptom of the larger ongoing power struggle between Church and State during the Middle Ages.

Popular perceptions

In 1957 the American Bar Association acknowledged the debt American law and constitutionalism had to Magna Carta by erecting a monument at Runnymede.

Symbol and practice

Magna Carta is often a symbol for the first time the citizens of England were granted rights against an absolute king. However, in practice the Commons could not enforce Magna Carta in the few situations where it applied to them, so its reach was limited. Also, a large part of Magna Carta was copied, nearly word for word, from the Charter of Liberties of Henry I, issued when Henry I rose to the throne in 1100, which bound the king to laws which effectively granted certain civil liberties to the church and the English nobility.

Many documents form Magna Carta

The document commonly known as Magna Carta today is not the 1215 charter, but a later charter of 1225, and is usually shown in the form of the Charter of 1297 when it was confirmed by Edward I. At the time of the 1215 charter, many of the provisions were not meant to make long-term changes but simply to right some immediate wrongs; therefore, the Charter was reissued three times in the reign of Henry III (1216, 1217 and 1225). After this, each king for the next two hundred years (until Henry V in 1416) personally confirmed the 1225 charter in his own charter. It is not thought of as one document but rather a variety of documents coming together to form one Magna Carta.

The document was unsigned

Popular perception is that King John and the barons signed Magna Carta. There were no signatures on the original document, however, only a single seal placed by the king. The words of the charter--Data per manum nostram--signify that the document was personally given by the king's hand. By placing his seal on the document, the King and the barons followed common law that a seal was sufficient to authenticate a deed, though it had to be done in front of witnesses. John's seal was the only one, and he did not sign it. The barons neither signed nor attached their seals to it.[17]


The document is also honoured in America, where it is an antecedent of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. In 1957, the American Bar Association erected the Runnymede Memorial.[18] In 1976, the UK lent an original 1215 Magna Carta to the U.S. for its bicentennial celebrations, and also donated an ornate case to display it, which included a gold replica of Magna Carta. The case and gold replica are still on display in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.[19]

21st Century Britain

In 2006, BBC History held a poll to recommend a date for a proposed "Britain Day". 15 June, as the date of the signing of the original 1215 Magna Carta, received most votes, above other suggestions such as D-Day, VE Day, and Remembrance Day. The outcome was not binding, although the then Chancellor Gordon Brown had previously given his support to the idea of a new national day to celebrate British identity.[20] It was used as the name for an anti-surveillance movement in the 2008 BBC series The Last Enemy. According to a poll carried out by YouGov in 2008, 45% of the British public do not know what Magna Carta is.[21] However, its perceived guarantee of trial by jury and other civil liberties led to Tony Benn to refer to the debate over whether to increase the maximum time terrorist suspects could be held without charge from 28 to 42 days as "the day Magna Carta was repealed".[22]

Usage of the definite article, spelling "Magna Charta"

Since there is no direct, consistent correlate of the English definite article in Latin, the usual academic convention is to refer to the document in English without the article as "Magna Carta" rather than "the Magna Carta". According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first written appearance of the term was in 1218: "Concesserimus libertates quasdam scriptas in magna carta nostra de libertatibus" (Latin: "We concede the certain liberties here written in our great charter of liberties"). However, "the Magna Carta" is frequently used in both academic and non-academic speech.

Especially in the past, the document has also been referred to as "Magna Charta", but the pronunciation was the same. "Magna Charta" is still an acceptable variant spelling recorded in many dictionaries due to continued use in some reputable sources. From the 13th to the 17th centuries, only the spelling "Magna Carta" was used. The spelling "Magna Charta" began to be used in the 18th century but never became more common despite also being used by some reputable writers.[23][24]


1297 copy of the Magna Carta, owned by the Australian Government and on display in the Members' Hall of Parliament House, Canberra.

Numerous copies were made each time it was issued, so all of the participants would each have one — in the case of the 1215 copy, one for the royal archives, one for the Cinque Ports, and one for each of the 40 counties of the time. Several of those copies still exist and some are on permanent display. If there ever was one single 'master copy' of Magna Carta sealed by King John in 1215, it has not survived. Four contemporaneous copies (known as "exemplifications") remain, all of which are located in England:

  • The 'burnt copy', which was found in the records of Dover Castle in the 17th century and so is assumed to be the copy that was sent to the Cinque Ports. It was subsequently involved at a house fire at its owner's property, making it all but illegible. It is the only one of the four to have its seal surviving, although this too was melted out of shape in the fire. It is currently held by the British Library.
  • Another supposedly original, but possibly amended version of Magna Carta is on show just outside of the chamber of the House of Lords situated in Westminster Palace.
  • One owned by Lincoln Cathedral, normally on display at Lincoln Castle. It has an unbroken attested history at Lincoln since 1216. We hear of it in 1800 when the Chapter Clerk of the Cathedral reported that he held it in the Common Chamber, and then nothing until 1846 when the Chapter Clerk of that time moved it from within the Cathedral to a property just outside. In 1848, Magna Carta was shown to a visiting group who reported it as "hanging on the wall in an oak frame in beautiful preservation". It went to the New York World Fair in 1939. In 1941, after war broke out with Japan, Magna Carta was sent to Fort Knox, along with the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, until 1944, when it was deemed safe to return them.[25] Having returned to Lincoln, it has been back to America on various occasions since then.[26] It was taken out of display for a time to undergo conservation in preparation for its visit to America, where it was exhibited at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia from 30 March to 18 June 2007 in recognition of the Jamestown quadricentennial.[27][28] From 4 July to 25 July 2007, the document was displayed at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia,[29] returning to Lincoln Castle afterwards. The document returned to New York to be displayed at the Fraunces Tavern Museum from 15 September to 15 December 2009.[30] [31]
  • One owned by and displayed at Salisbury Cathedral. It is the best preserved of the four.[32]

Other early versions of Magna Carta survive. Durham Cathedral possesses 1216, 1217, and 1225 copies.[33]

A near perfect 1217 copy is held by Hereford Cathedral and is occasionally displayed alongside the Mappa Mundi in the cathedral's chained library. Remarkably, the Hereford Magna Carta is the only one known to survive along with an early version of a Magna Carta 'users manual', a small document that was sent along with Magna Carta telling the Sheriff of the county to observe the conditions outlined in the document.[34]

Four copies are held by the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Three of these are 1217 issues and one a 1225 issue. On 10 December 2007, these were put on public display for the first time.[35]

Magna Carta Place, within Canberra, Australia's Parliamentary Triangle opened on 24 May 2003.

In 1952 the Australian Government purchased a 1297 copy of Magna Carta for £12,500 from King's School, Bruton, England.[36] This copy is now on display in the Members' Hall of Parliament House, Canberra. In January 2006, it was announced by the Department of Parliamentary Services that the document had been revalued down from A$40m to A$15m.

Only one copy (a 1297 copy with the royal seal of Edward I) is in private hands; it was held by the Brudenell family, earls of Cardigan, who had owned it for five centuries, before being sold to the Perot Foundation in 1984. This copy, having been on long-term loan to the US National Archives, was auctioned at Sotheby's New York on 18 December 2007; The Perot Foundation sold it in order to "have funds available for medical research, for improving public education and for assisting wounded soldiers and their families."[37] It fetched US$21.3 million,[38] It was bought by David Rubenstein of The Carlyle Group,[39] who after the auction said, "I thought it was very important that the Magna Carta stay in the United States and I was concerned that the only copy in the United States might escape as a result of this auction." Rubenstein's copy is on permanent loan to the National Archives in Washington, DC.[40]

Participant list

Barons, Bishops and Abbots who were party to Magna Carta.[41]


Surety Barons for the enforcement of Magna Carta:


These bishops being witnesses (mentioned by the King as his advisers in the decision to sign the Charter):


These abbots being witnesses:


See also


  1. ^ "United States Constitution Q + A". The Charters of Freedom. Retrieved 16 February 2009. 
  2. ^ Josephus Nelson Larned and Donald Eugene Smith. The new Larned History for ready reference, reading and research, 1923. pg 1103.
  3. ^ Within this article dates before 14 September 1752 are in the Julian calendar, later dates are in the Gregorian calendar.
  4. ^ Signing of Magna Carta, Runneymede, 1215
  5. ^ Leeming, John Robert (1915). Stephen Langton : hero of Magna charta (1215 A.D.), septingentenary (700th anniversary), 1915 A.D.. London: Skeffington & Son. Retrieved 1 November 2009. 
  6. ^ a b c "(Magna Carta) (1297) (c. 9)". UK Statute Law Database. Retrieved 2 September 2007. 
  7. ^ by 9 Geo. 4 c. 31 s. 1
  8. ^ Gordon v. Justice Court, 12 Cal. 3d 323 (1974).
  9. ^  "Magna Carta". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  10. ^ Department for Constitutional Affairs - Speeches - Speech by The Lord Chief Justice - Magna Carta: a Precedent For Recent Constitutional Change
  11. ^ a b Grey, Anchitell (1769). Debates of 1667: December. Grey's Debates of the House of Commons. volume 1. pp. 54–70. Retrieved 4 November 2008. 
  12. ^ Volcansek, Mary L.; De Franciscis, Maria Elisabetta; Lafon, Jacqueline Lucienne (1996). Judicial Misconduct: A Cross-national Comparison. University Press of Florida. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-8130-1421-0. 
  13. ^ Frederic Jesup Stimson, The Law of the Federal and State Constitutions of the United States; Book One, Origin and Growth of the American Constitutions, 2004, Introductory, Lawbook Exchange Ltd, ISBN 1-58477-369-3
  14. ^ Charles Lund Black, A New Birth of Freedom, 1999, p. 10, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-07734-3
  15. ^ KLOPFER v. NORTH CAROLINA, 386 U.S. 213 (1967)
  16. ^ Introduction to contemporary civilization in the West. Columbia University, 1960. pg 419.
  17. ^ Browning, Charles Henry (1898). "The Magna Charta Described". The Magna Charta Barons and Their American Descendants .... Philadelphia. p. 50. OCLC 9378577.,M1. 
  18. ^ "National Archives Featured Documents: Magna Carta"
  19. ^ Sarasin, Ronald A."Remarks on the Magna Carta", United States Capitol Historical Society, 12 September 2003.
  20. ^ "Magna Carta tops British day poll". BBC News. 30 May 2006. Retrieved 2 September 2007. 
  21. ^ "Magna Carta what? English charter 'a mystery to 45pc of population'". Daily Telegraph. 13 March 2008. Retrieved 13 March 2008. 
  22. ^ "So will the revolution start in Haltemprice and Howden?". The Independent. 14 June 2008. Retrieved 16 June 2008. 
  23. ^ Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, Bryan A. Garner
  24. ^ Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage
  25. ^ "Fort Knox Bullion Depository"
  26. ^ Knight, Alec (17 April 2004). "Magna Charta Our Heritage and Yours". National Society Magna Charta Dames and Barons. Retrieved 2 September 2007. 
  27. ^ "Magna Carta & Four Foundations of Freedom". Contemporary Art Center of Virginia. 2007. Retrieved 2 September 2007. 
  28. ^ "By Our Heirs Forever". Contemporary Art Center of Virginia. 2007. Retrieved 2 September 2007. 
  29. ^ National Constitution Center (30 May 2007). "Magna Carta on Display Beginning 4 July". Press release. Retrieved 2 September 2007. 
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^ "Magna Carta: Where Can I See A Copy?". Icons: A Portrait of England. Culture Online. Retrieved 2 September 2007. 
  34. ^ "Magna Carta at Hereford Cathedral". 
  35. ^ "Magna Carta on display at the Bodleian". 10 December 2007. Retrieved 12 December 2007. 
  36. ^ Harry Evans, Bad King John and the Australian Constitution
  37. ^ "Magna Carta Is Going on the Auction Block". The New York Times. 25 September 2007. Retrieved 19 December 2007. 
  38. ^ "Magna Carta copy fetches $24m". The Sydney Morning Herald. 19 December 2007. Retrieved 19 December 2007. 
  39. ^ ( – Scholar search) Magna Carta Sells for $21.3M in New York, Washington Post, 19 December 2007,, retrieved 19 December 2007 
  40. ^ Ruane, Michael E. (4 March 2008), To Magna Excitement, Magna Carta Returns, The Washington Post,, retrieved 11 May 2008 
  41. ^ Magna Charta translation, Magna Charta Surety Baron Listing, Magna Charta Period Feudal Estates


  • "Magna Carta". In Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
  • Article from Australia's Parliament House about the relevance of Magna Carta
  • J. C. Holt (1992). Magna Carta. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-27778-7. 
  • I. Jennings: Magna Carta and its influence in the world today
  • H. Butterfield; Magna Carta in the Historiography of the 16th and 17th Centuries
  • G.R.C. Davis; Magna Carta
  • J. C. Dickinson; The Great Charter
  • G. B. Adams; Constitutional History of England
  • W. S. McKechnie; Magna Carta: A Commentary (2d ed. 1914, repr. 1960)
  • A. Pallister; Magna Carta the Legacy of Liberty
  • A. Lyon; Constitutional History of the United Kingdom
  • G. Williams and J. Ramsden; Ruling Britannia, A Political History of Britain 1688-1988
  • Royal letter promulgating the text of Magna Carta (1215), treasure 3 of the British Library displayed via The European Library

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

The Magna Carta, Latin for "Great Charter", literally "Great Paper"), also known as 'Magna Carta Libertatum, is an English 1215 charter which limited the power of English Monarchs, specifically King John, from absolute rule. Magna Carta was the result of disagreements between the Pope and King John and his barons over the rights of the king: Magna Carta required the king to renounce certain rights and respect certain legal procedures, and to accept that the will of the king could be bound by law. Magna Carta is widely considered to be the first step in a long historical process leading to the rule of constitutional law.

  • Neither we nor our officials will seize any land or rent in payment of a debt, so long as the debtor has movable goods sufficient to discharge the debt.
    • Clause 9
  • No man shall be forced to perform more service for a knight's 'fee', or other free holding of land, than is due from it.
    • Clause 16
  • For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood.
    • Clause 20
  • No constable or other royal official shall take corn or other movable goods from any man without immediate payment, unless the seller voluntarily offers postponement of this.
    • Clause 28
  • No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall take horses or carts for transport from any free man, without his consent.
    • Clause 30
  • In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.
    • Clause 38
  • No freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way harmed, nor will we go upon him nor will we send upon him, except by the legal judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.
    • Clause 39
  • To none will we sell, to none deny or delay, right or justice.
    • Clause 40
  • All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear, and may stay or travel within it, by land or water, for purposes of trade, free from all illegal exactions, in accordance with ancient and lawful customs. This, however, does not apply in time of war to merchants from a country that is at war with us. Any such merchants found in our country at the outbreak of war shall be detained without injury to their persons or property, until we or our chief justice have discovered how our own merchants are being treated in the country at war with us. If our own merchants are safe they shall be safe too.
    • Clause 41
  • To any man whom we have deprived or dispossessed of lands, castles, liberties, or rights, without the lawful judgement of his equals, we will at once restore these.
    • Clause 52
  • IT IS ACCORDINGLY OUR WISH AND COMMAND that the English Church shall be free, and that men in our kingdom shall have and keep all these liberties, rights, and concessions, well and peaceably in their fulness and entirety for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs, in all things and all places for ever.
    • Clause 63

External links

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Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

Magna Carta
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Magna Carta
"The Great Charter"

Please see the notes on the source and the acknowledgements after the text. This version has been entirely repealed, but clauses 1, 13, and 39 still survive in the 1297 reissue.

John, by the grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, to the archbishop, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justiciaries, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and to all his bailiffs and liege subjects, greetings. Know that, having regard to God and for the salvation of our soul, and those of all our ancestors and heirs, and unto the honour of God and the advancement of his holy Church and for the rectifying of our realm, we have granted as underwritten by advice of our venerable fathers, Stephen, archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England and cardinal of the holy Roman Church, Henry, archbishop of Dublin, William of London, Peter of Winchester, Jocelyn of Bath and Glastonbury, Hugh of Lincoln, Walter of Worcester, William of Coventry, Benedict of Rochester, bishops; of Master Pandulf, subdeacon and member of the household of our lord the Pope, of brother Aymeric (master of the Knights of the Temple in England), and of the illustrious men William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, William, earl of Salisbury, William, earl of Warenne, William, earl of Arundel, Alan of Galloway (constable of Scotland), Waren Fitz Gerold, Peter Fitz Herbert, Hubert De Burgh (seneschal of Poitou), Hugh de Neville, Matthew Fitz Herbert, Thomas Basset, Alan Basset, Philip d'Aubigny, Robert of Roppesley, John Marshal, John Fitz Hugh, and others, our liegemen.

  1. In the first place we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs forever that the English Church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed; which is apparent from this that the freedom of elections, which is reckoned most important and very essential to the English Church, we, of our pure and unconstrained will, did grant, and did by our charter confirm and did obtain the ratification of the same from our lord, Pope Innocent III, before the quarrel arose between us and our barons: and this we will observe, and our will is that it be observed in good faith by our heirs forever. We have also granted to all freemen of our kingdom, for us and our heirs forever, all the underwritten liberties, to be had and held by them and their heirs, of us and our heirs forever.
  2. If any of our earls or barons, or others holding of us in chief by military service shall have died, and at the time of his death his heir shall be full of age and owe "relief", he shall have his inheritance by the old relief, to wit, the heir or heirs of an earl, for the whole baroncy of an earl by £100; the heir or heirs of a baron, £100 for a whole barony; the heir or heirs of a knight, 100 shillings, at most, and whoever owes less let him give less, according to the ancient custom of fees.
  3. If, however, the heir of any one of the aforesaid has been under age and in wardship, let him have his inheritance without relief and without fine when he comes of age.
  4. The guardian of the land of an heir who is thus under age, shall take from the land of the heir nothing but reasonable produce, reasonable customs, and reasonable services, and that without destruction or waste of men or goods; and if we have committed the wardship of the lands of any such minor to the sheriff, or to any other who is responsible to us for its issues, and he has made destruction or waster of what he holds in wardship, we will take of him amends, and the land shall be committed to two lawful and discreet men of that fee, who shall be responsible for the issues to us or to him to whom we shall assign them; and if we have given or sold the wardship of any such land to anyone and he has therein made destruction or waste, he shall lose that wardship, and it shall be transferred to two lawful and discreet men of that fief, who shall be responsible to us in like manner as aforesaid.
  5. The guardian, moreover, so long as he has the wardship of the land, shall keep up the houses, parks, fishponds, stanks, mills, and other things pertaining to the land, out of the issues of the same land; and he shall restore to the heir, when he has come to full age, all his land, stocked with ploughs and wainage, according as the season of husbandry shall require, and the issues of the land can reasonable bear.
  6. Heirs shall be married without disparagement, yet so that before the marriage takes place the nearest in blood to that heir shall have notice.
  7. A widow, after the death of her husband, shall forthwith and without difficulty have her marriage portion and inheritance; nor shall she give anything for her dower, or for her marriage portion, or for the inheritance which her husband and she held on the day of the death of that husband; and she may remain in the house of her husband for forty days after his death, within which time her dower shall be assigned to her.
  8. No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she prefers to live without a husband; provided always that she gives security not to marry without our consent, if she holds of us, or without the consent of the lord of whom she holds, if she holds of another.
  9. Neither we nor our bailiffs will seize any land or rent for any debt, as long as the chattels of the debtor are sufficient to repay the debt; nor shall the sureties of the debtor be distrained so long as the principal debtor is able to satisfy the debt; and if the principal debtor shall fail to pay the debt, having nothing wherewith to pay it, then the sureties shall answer for the debt; and let them have the lands and rents of the debtor, if they desire them, until they are indemnified for the debt which they have paid for him, unless the principal debtor can show proof that he is discharged thereof as against the said sureties.
  10. If one who has borrowed from the Jews any sum, great or small, die before that loan be repaid, the debt shall not bear interest while the heir is under age, of whomsoever he may hold; and if the debt fall into our hands, we will not take anything except the principal sum contained in the bond.
  11. And if anyone die indebted to the Jews, his wife shall have her dower and pay nothing of that debt; and if any children of the deceased are left under age, necessaries shall be provided for them in keeping with the holding of the deceased; and out of the residue the debt shall be paid, reserving, however, service due to feudal lords; in like manner let it be done touching debts due to others than Jews.
  12. Neither scutage nor aid shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom, except for ransoming our person, for making our eldest son a knight, and for once marrying our eldest daughter; and for these there shall not be levied more than a reasonable aid. In like manner it shall be done concerning aids from the city of London.
  13. And the city of London shall have all its ancient liberties and free customs, as well by land as by water; furthermore, we decree and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports shall have all their liberties and free customs.
  14. And for obtaining the common counsel of the kingdom and the assessing of an aid (except in the three cases aforesaid) or of a scutage, we will cause to be summoned the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons, severally by our letters; and we will moveover cause to be summoned generally, through our sheriffs and bailiffs, and others who hold of us in chief, for a fixed date, namely, after the expiry of at least forty days, and at a fixed place; and in all letters of such summons we will specify the reason of the summons. And when the summons has thus been made, the business shall proceed on the day appointed, according to the counsel of such as are present, even if not all who were summoned have come.
  15. We will not for the future grant to anyone license to take an aid from his own free tenants, except to ransom his person, to make his eldest son a knight, and once to marry his eldest daughter; and on each of these occasions there shall be levied only a reasonable aid.
  16. No one shall be distrained for performance of greater service for a knight's fee, or for any other free tenement, than is due therefrom.
  17. Common pleas shall not follow our court, but shall be held in some fixed place.
  18. Inquests of novel disseisin, of mort d'ancestor, and of darrein presentment shall not be held elsewhere than in their own county courts, and that in manner following; We, or, if we should be out of the realm, our chief justiciar, will send two justiciaries through every county four times a year, who shall alone with four knights of the county chosen by the county, hold the said assizes in the county court, on the day and in the place of meeting of that court.
  19. And if any of the said assizes cannot be taken on the day of the county court, let there remain of the knights and freeholders, who were present at the county court on that day, as many as may be required for the efficient making of judgments, according as the business be more or less.
  20. A freeman shall not be amerced for a slight offense, except in accordance with the degree of the offense; and for a grave offense he shall be amerced in accordance with the gravity of the offense, yet saving always his "contentment"; and a merchant in the same way, saving his "merchandise"; and a villein shall be amerced in the same way, saving his "wainage" if they have fallen into our mercy: and none of the aforesaid amercements shall be imposed except by the oath of honest men of the neighborhood.
  21. Earls and barons shall not be amerced except through their peers, and only in accordance with the degree of the offense.
  22. A clerk shall not be amerced in respect of his lay holding except after the manner of the others aforesaid; further, he shall not be amerced in accordance with the extent of his ecclesiastical benefice.
  23. No village or individual shall be compelled to make bridges at river banks, except those who from of old were legally bound to do so.
  24. No sheriff, constable, coroners, or others of our bailiffs, shall hold pleas of our Crown.
  25. All counties, hundred, wapentakes, and trithings (except our demesne manors) shall remain at the old rents, and without any additional payment.
  26. If anyone holding of us a lay fief shall die, and our sheriff or bailiff shall exhibit our letters patent of summons for a debt which the deceased owed us, it shall be lawful for our sheriff or bailiff to attach and enroll the chattels of the deceased, found upon the lay fief, to the value of that debt, at the sight of law worthy men, provided always that nothing whatever be thence removed until the debt which is evident shall be fully paid to us; and the residue shall be left to the executors to fulfill the will of the deceased; and if there be nothing due from him to us, all the chattels shall go to the deceased, saving to his wife and children their reasonable shares.
  27. If any freeman shall die intestate, his chattels shall be distributed by the hands of his nearest kinsfolk and friends, under supervision of the Church, saving to every one the debts which the deceased owed to him.
  28. No constable or other bailiff of ours shall take corn or other provisions from anyone without immediately tendering money therefor, unless he can have postponement thereof by permission of the seller.
  29. No constable shall compel any knight to give money in lieu of castle-guard, when he is willing to perform it in his own person, or (if he himself cannot do it from any reasonable cause) then by another responsible man. Further, if we have led or sent him upon military service, he shall be relieved from guard in proportion to the time during which he has been on service because of us.
  30. No sheriff or bailiff of ours, or other person, shall take the horses or carts of any freeman for transport duty, against the will of the said freeman.
  31. Neither we nor our bailiffs shall take, for our castles or for any other work of ours, wood which is not ours, against the will of the owner of that wood.
  32. We will not retain beyond one year and one day, the lands those who have been convicted of felony, and the lands shall thereafter be handed over to the lords of the fiefs.
  33. All kydells for the future shall be removed altogether from Thames and Medway, and throughout all England, except upon the seashore.
  34. The writ which is called praecipe shall not for the future be issued to anyone, regarding any tenement whereby a freeman may lose his court.
  35. Let there be one measure of wine throughout our whole realm; and one measure of ale; and one measure of corn, to wit, "the London quarter"; and one width of cloth (whether dyed, or russet, or "halberget"), to wit, two ells within the selvedges; of weights also let it be as of measures.
  36. Nothing in future shall be given or taken for a writ of inquisition of life or limbs, but freely it shall be granted, and never denied.
  37. If anyone holds of us by fee-farm, either by socage or by burgage, or of any other land by knight's service, we will not (by reason of that fee-farm, socage, or burgage), have the wardship of the heir, or of such land of his as if of the fief of that other; nor shall we have wardship of that fee-farm, socage, or burgage, unless such fee-farm owes knight's service. We will not by reason of any small serjeancy which anyone may hold of us by the service of rendering to us knives, arrows, or the like, have wardship of his heir or of the land which he holds of another lord by knight's service.
  38. No bailiff for the future shall, upon his own unsupported complaint, put anyone to his "law" without credible witnesses brought for this purposes.
  39. No freeman shall be taken captive or imprisoned, or deprived of his lands, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go with force against him nor send forces against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
  40. We will not sell, nor will we deny or delay, right or justice.
  41. All merchants shall have safe and secure exit from England, and entry to England, with the right to tarry there and to move about as well by land as by water, for buying and selling by the ancient and right customs, quit from all evil tolls, except (in time of war) such merchants as are of the land at war with us. And if such are found in our land at the beginning of the war, they shall be detained, without injury to their bodies or goods, until information be received by us, or by our chief justiciar, how the merchants of our land found in the land at war with us are treated; and if our men are safe there, the others shall be safe in our land.
  42. It shall be lawful in future for anyone (excepting always those imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the kingdom, and natives of any country at war with us, and merchants, who shall be treated as if above provided) to leave our kingdom and to return, safe and secure by land and water, except for a short period in time of war, on grounds of public policy- reserving always the allegiance due to us.
  43. If anyone holding of some escheat (such as the honor of Wallingford, Nottingham, Boulogne, Lancaster, or of other escheats which are in our hands and are baronies) shall die, his heir shall give no other relief, and perform no other service to us than he would have done to the baron if that barony had been in the baron's hand; and we shall hold it in the same manner in which the baron held it.
  44. Men who dwell without the forest need not henceforth come before our justiciaries of the forest upon a general summons, unless they are in plea, or sureties of one or more, who are attached for the forest.
  45. We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or bailiffs only such as know the law of the realm and mean to observe it well.
  46. All barons who have founded abbeys, concerning which they hold charters from the kings of England, or of which they have long continued possession, shall have the wardship of them, when vacant, as they ought to have.
  47. All forests that have been made such in our time shall forthwith be disafforsted; and a similar course shall be followed with regard to river banks that have been placed "in defense" by us in our time.
  48. All evil customs connected with forests and warrens, foresters and warreners, sheriffs and their officers, river banks and their wardens, shall immediately by inquired into in each county by twelve sworn knights of the same county chosen by the honest men of the same county, and shall, within forty days of the said inquest, be utterly abolished, so as never to be restored, provided always that we previously have intimation thereof, or our justiciar, if we should not be in England.
  49. We will immediately restore all hostages and charters delivered to us by Englishmen, as sureties of the peace of faithful service.
  50. We will entirely remove from their bailiwicks, the relations of Gerard of Athee (so that in future they shall have no bailiwick in England); namely, Engelard of Cigogne, Peter, Guy, and Andrew of Chanceaux, Guy of Cigogne, Geoffrey of Martigny with his brothers, Philip Mark with his brothers and his nephew Geoffrey, and the whole brood of the same.
  51. As soon as peace is restored, we will banish from the kingdom all foreign born knights, crossbowmen, serjeants, and mercenary soldiers who have come with horses and arms to the kingdom's hurt.
  52. If anyone has been dispossessed or removed by us, without the legal judgment of his peers, from his lands, castles, franchises, or from his right, we will immediately restore them to him; and if a dispute arise over this, then let it be decided by the five and twenty barons of whom mention is made below in the clause for securing the peace. Moreover, for all those possessions, from which anyone has, without the lawful judgment of his peers, been disseised or removed, by our father, King Henry, or by our brother, King Richard, and which we retain in our hand (or which as possessed by others, to whom we are bound to warrant them) we shall have respite until the usual term of crusaders; excepting those things about which a plea has been raised, or an inquest made by our order, before our taking of the cross; but as soon as we return from the expedition, we will immediately grant full justice therein.
  53. We shall have, moreover, the same respite and in the same manner in rendering justice concerning the disafforestation or retention of those forests which Henry our father and Richard our brother afforested, and concerning the wardship of lands which are of the fief of another (namely, such wardships as we have hitherto had by reason of a fief which anyone held of us by knight's service), and concerning abbeys founded on other fiefs than our own, in which the lord of the fee claims to have right; and when we have returned, or if we desist from our expedition, we will immediately grant full justice to all who complain of such things.
  54. No one shall be arrested or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman, for the death of any other than her husband.
  55. All fines made with us unjustly and against the law of the land, and all amercements, imposed unjustly and against the law of the land, shall be entirely remitted, or else it shall be done concerning them according to the decision of the five and twenty barons whom mention is made below in the clause for securing the pease, or according to the judgment of the majority of the same, along with the aforesaid Stephen, archbishop of Canterbury, if he can be present, and such others as he may wish to bring with him for this purpose, and if he cannot be present the business shall nevertheless proceed without him, provided always that if any one or more of the aforesaid five and twenty barons are in a similar suit, they shall be removed as far as concerns this particular judgment, others being substituted in their places after having been selected by the rest of the same five and twenty for this purpose only, and after having been sworn.
  56. If we have disseised or removed Welshmen from lands or liberties, or other things, without the legal judgment of their peers in England or in Wales, they shall be immediately restored to them; and if a dispute arise over this, then let it be decided in the marches by the judgment of their peers; for the tenements in England according to the law of England, for tenements in Wales according to the law of Wales, and for tenements in the marches according to the law of the marches. Welshmen shall do the same to us and ours.
  57. Further, for all those possessions from which any Welshman has, without the lawful judgment of his peers, been disseised or removed by King Henry our father, or King Richard our brother, and which we retain in our hand (or which are possessed by others, and which we ought to warrant), we will have respite until the usual term of crusaders; excepting those things about which a plea has been raised or an inquest made by our order before we took the cross; but as soon as we return (or if perchance we desist from our expedition), we will immediately grant full justice in accordance with the laws of the Welsh and in relation to the foresaid regions.
  58. We will immediately give up the son of Llywelyn and all the hostages of Wales, and the charters delivered to us as security for the peace.
  59. We will do towards Alexander, king of Scots, concerning the return of his sisters and his hostages, and concerning his franchises, and his right, in the same manner as we shall do towards our owher barons of England, unless it ought to be otherwise according to the charters which we hold from William his father, formerly king of Scots; and this shall be according to the judgment of his peers in our court.
  60. Moreover, all these aforesaid customs and liberties, the observances of which we have granted in our kingdom as far as pertains to us towards our men, shall be observed by all of our kingdom, as well clergy as laymen, as far as pertains to them towards their men.
  61. Since, moreover, for God and the amendment of our kingdom and for the better allaying of the quarrel that has arisen between us and our barons, we have granted all these concessions, desirous that they should enjoy them in complete and firm endurance forever, we give and grant to them the underwritten security, namely, that the barons choose five and twenty barons of the kingdom, whomsoever they will, who shall be bound with all their might, to observe and hold, and cause to be observed, the peace and liberties we have granted and confirmed to them by this our present Charter, so that if we, or our justiciar, or our bailiffs or any one of our officers, shall in anything be at fault towards anyone, or shall have broken any one of the articles of this peace or of this security, and the offense be notified to four barons of the foresaid five and twenty, the said four barons shall repair to us (or our justiciar, if we are out of the realm) and, laying the transgression before us, petition to have that transgression redressed without delay. And if we shall not have corrected the transgression (or, in the event of our being out of the realm, if our justiciar shall not have corrected it) within forty days, reckoning from the time it has been intimated to us (or to our justiciar, if we should be out of the realm), the four barons aforesaid shall refer that matter to the rest of the five and twenty barons, and those five and twenty barons shall, together with the community of the whole realm, distrain and distress us in all possible ways, namely, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, and in any other way they can, until redress has been obtained as they deem fit, saving harmless our own person, and the persons of our queen and children; and when redress has been obtained, they shall resume their old relations towards us. And let whoever in the country desires it, swear to obey the orders of the said five and twenty barons for the execution of all the aforesaid matters, and along with them, to molest us to the utmost of his power; and we publicly and freely grant leave to everyone who wishes to swear, and we shall never forbid anyone to swear. All those, moveover, in the land who of themselves and of their own accord are unwilling to swear to the twenty five to help them in constraining and molesting us, we shall by our command compel the same to swear to the effect foresaid. And if any one of the five and twenty barons shall have died or departed from the land, or be incapacitated in any other manner which would prevent the foresaid provisions being carried out, those of the said twenty five barons who are left shall choose another in his place according to their own judgment, and he shall be sworn in the same way as the others. Further, in all matters, the execution of which is entrusted, to these twenty five barons, if perchance these twenty five are present and disagree about anything, or if some of them, after being summoned, are unwilling or unable to be present, that which the majority of those present ordain or command shall be held as fixed and established, exactly as if the whole twenty five had concurred in this; and the said twenty five shall swear that they will faithfully observe all that is aforesaid, and cause it to be observed with all their might. And we shall procure nothing from anyone, directly or indirectly, whereby any part of these concessions and liberties might be revoked or diminished; and if any such things has been procured, let it be void and null, and we shall never use it personally or by another.
  62. And all the will, hatreds, and bitterness that have arisen between us and our men, clergy and lay, from the date of the quarrel, we have completely remitted and pardoned to everyone. Moreover, all trespasses occasioned by the said quarrel, from Easter in the sixteenth year of our reign till the restoration of peace, we have fully remitted to all, both clergy and laymen, and completely forgiven, as far as pertains to us. And on this head, we have caused to be made for them letters testimonial patent of the lord Stephen, archbishop of Canterbury, of the lord Henry, archbishop of Dublin, of the bishops aforesaid, and of Master Pandulf as touching this security and the concessions aforesaid.
  63. Wherefore we will and firmly order that the English Church be free, and that the men in our kingdom have and hold all the aforesaid liberties, rights, and concessions, well and peaceably, freely and quietly, fully and wholly, for themselves and their heirs, of us and our heirs, in all respects and in all places forever, as is aforesaid. An oath, moreover, has been taken, as well on our part as on the part of the barons, that all these conditions aforesaid shall be kept in good faith and without evil intent. Given under our hand - the above named and many others being witnesses - in the meadow which is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June, in the seventeenth year of our reign.


Source for this Translation

This is but one of three different translations I found of the Magna Carta; it was originally done in Latin, probably by the Archbishop, Stephen Langton. It was in force for only a few months, when it was violated by the king. Just over a year later, with no resolution to the war, the king died, being succeeded by his 9-year old son, Henry III. The Charter (Carta) was reissued again, with some revisions, in 1216, 1217 and 1225. As near as I can tell, the version presented here is the one that preceded all of the others; nearly all of its provisions were soon superseded by other laws, and none of it is effective today. The two other versions I found each professed to be the original, as well. The basic intent of each is the same.

Gerald Murphy (The Cleveland Free-Net - aa300)


Prepared by Nancy Troutman (The Cleveland Free-Net - aa345) Distributed by the Cybercasting Services Division of the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN). Permission is hereby given to download, reprint, and/or otherwise redistribute this file, provided appropriate point of origin credit is given to the preparer(s) and the National Public Telecomputing Network.

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

MAGNA CARTA, or the Great Charter, the name of the famous charter of liberties granted at Runnimede in June 1215 by King John to the English people. Although in later ages its importance was enormously magnified, it differs only in degree, not in kind, from other charters granted by the Norman and early Plantagenet kings. Its greater length, however, still more the exceptional circumstances attending its birth, gave to it a position absolutely unique in the minds of later generations of Englishmen. This feeling was fostered by its many confirmations, and in subsequent ages, especially during the time of the struggle between the Stewart kings and the parliament, it was regarded as something sacrosanct, embodying the very ideal of English liberties, which to some extent had been lost, but which must be regained. Its provisions, real and imaginary, formed the standard towards which Englishmen must strive.

The causes which led to the grant of Magna Carta are described in the article on English History. Briefly, they are to be found in the conditions of the time; the increasing insularity of the English barons, now no longer the holders of estates in Normandy; the substitution of an unpopular for a popular king, an active spur to the rising forces of discontent; and the unprecedented demands for money - demands followed, not by honour, but by dishonour, to the arms of England abroad. So much for the general causes. The actual crisis may be said to begin with the quarrel between John and Pope Innocent III. regarding the appointment of a new archbishop to the see of Canterbury. This was settled in May 1213, and in the new prelate, the papal nominee, Stephen Langton, who landed in England and absolved the king in the following July, the baronial party found an able and powerful ally. But before this event John had instituted a great inquiry, the inquest of service of June 1212, for the purpose of finding out how much he could exact from each of his vassals, a measure which naturally excited some alarm; and then, fearing a baronial rising, he had abandoned his proposed expedition into Wales, had taken hostages from the most prominent of his foes, and had sought safety in London.

His absolution followed, and then he took courage. Turning once more his attention to the recovery of Normandy, he asked the barons for assistance for this undertaking; in reply they, or a section of them, refused, and instead of crossing the seas the king marched northwards with the intention of taking vengeance on his disobedient vassals, who were chiefly barons of the north of England. Langton followed his sovereign to Northampton and persuaded him, at least for the present, to refrain from any serious measures of revenge. Before this interview a national council had met at St Albans at the beginning of August 1213, and this was followed by another council, held in St Paul's church, London, later in the same month; it was doubtless summoned by the archbishop, and was attended by many of the higher clergy and a certain number of the barons. Addressing the gathering, Langton referred to the laws of Edward the Confessor as "good laws," which the king ought to observe, and then mentioned the charter granted by Henry I. on his accession as a standard of good government. This event has such an important bearing on the issue of Magna Carta that it is not inappropriate to quote the actual words used by Matthew Paris in describing the incident. The chronicler represents the archbishop as saying "Inventa est quoque nunc carta quaedam Henrici primi regis Angliae per quam, si volueritis, libertates diu amissas poteritis ad statum pristinum revocare." Those present decided to contend to the death for their "long-lost liberties," and with this the meeting came to an end. Nothing, however, was done during the remainder of the year, and John, feeling his position had grown stronger, went abroad early in 1214, and remained for some months in France. With his mercenaries behind him he met with some small successes in his fight for Normandy, but on the 27th of July he and his ally, the emperor Otto IV., met with a crushing defeat at Bouvines at the hands of Philip Augustus, and even the king himself was compelled to recognise that his hopes of recovering Normandy were at an end.

Meanwhile in England, which was ruled by Peter des Roches as justiciar, the discontent had been increasing rather than diminishing, and its volume became much larger owing to an event of May 1214. Greatly needing money for his campaign, John ordered another scutage to be taken from his tenants; this, moreover, was to be at the unprecedented rate of three marks on the knight's fee, not as on previous occasions of two marks, although this latter sum had hitherto been regarded as a very high rate. The northern barons refused to pay, and the gathering forces of resistance received a powerful stimulus when a little later came the news of the king's humiliation at Bouvines. Then in October the beaten monarch returned to England, no course open to him but to bow before the storm. In November he met some of his nobles at Bury St Edmunds, but as they still refused to pay the scutage no agreement was reached. At once they took another step towards the goal. With due solemnity (super majus altare) they swore to withdraw their allegiance from the king and to make war upon him, unless within a stated time he restored to them their rightful laws and liberties. While they were collecting troops in order to enforce their threats, John on his part tried to divide his enemies by a concession to the clerical section. By a charter, dated the 21st of November 1214, he granted freedom of election to the church. However, this did not prevent the prelates from continuing to act to some extent with the barons, and early in January 1215 the malcontents asked the king to confirm the laws of Edward the Confessor and the other liberties of the kingdom. He evaded the request and secured a truce until Easter was passed. Energetically making use of this period of respite, he again issued the charter to the church, ordered his subjects to take a fresh oath of allegiance to him, and sent to the pope for aid; but neither these precautions, nor his expedient of taking the cross, deterred the barons from returning to the attack. In April they met in arms at Stamford, and as soon as the truce had expired they marched to Brackley, where they met the royal ministers and again presented their demands. These were carried to the king at Oxford, but angrily he refused to consider them. Then the storm burst. On the 5th of May the barons formally renounced their allegiance to John, and appointed Robert Fitzwalter as their leader. They marched towards London, while John made another attempt to delay the crisis, or to divide his foes, by granting a charter to the citizens of London (May 9, 1215), and then by offering to submit the quarrel to a court of arbitrators under the presidency of the pope. But neither the one nor the other expedient availed him. Arbitration under such conditions was contemptuously rejected, and after the king had ordered the sheriffs to seize the lands and goods of the revolting nobles, London opened its gates and peacefully welcomed the baronial army. Other towns showed also that their sympathies were with the insurgents, and John was forced to his knees. Promising to assent to their demands, he agreed to meet the barons, and the gathering was fixed for the 15th of June, and was to take place in a meadow between Staines and Windsor, called Runnimede.

At the famous conference, which lasted from Monday the 15th to Tuesday the 23rd of June, the hostile barons were present in large numbers; on the other hand John, who rode over each day from Windsor, was only attended by a few followers. At once the malcontents presented their demands in a document known popularly as the Articles of the Barons, more strictly as Capitula quae barones petunt et dominus rex concedit. Doubtless this had been drawn up beforehand, and was brought by the baronial leaders to Runnimede; possibly it was identical with the document presented to the royal ministers at Brackley a few weeks before. John accepted the Articles on the same day and at once the great seal was affixed to them. They are forty-eight in number, and on them Magna Carta was based, the work of converting them into a charter, which was regarded as a much more binding form of engagement, being taken in hand immediately. This duty occupied three days, negotiations between the two parties taking place over several disputed points, and it was completed by Friday the 19th, when several copies of the charter were sealed. All then took an oath to keep its terms, and orders were sent to the sheriffs to publish it, and to see that its provisions were observed, two or three days being taken up with making and sending out copies for this purpose. It should be mentioned that, although the charter was evidently not sealed until the 19th, the four existing copies of it are dated the 15th, the day on which John accepted the articles.

The days between Friday the 19th and the following Tuesday, when the conference came to an end, were occupied in providing, as far as possible, for the due execution of the reforms promised by the king in Magna Carta. The document itself provided for an elected committee of twenty-five barons, whose duty was to compel John, by force if necessary, to keep his promises; but this was evidently regarded as insufficient, and the matter was dealt with in a supplementary treaty (Conventio facia inter regem Angliae et barones ejusdum regni). As a guarantee of his good faith the king surrendered the city of London to his foes, while the Tower was entrusted to the neutral keeping of the archbishop of Canterbury. John then asked the barons for a charter that they on their part would keep the peace. This was refused, and although some of the bishops entered a mild protest, the question was allowed to drop. Regarding another matter also, the extent of the royal forests, the prelates made a protest. John and his friends feared lest the inquiry promised into the extent of the hated forest areas would be carried out too rigorously, and that these would be seriously curtailed, if not abolished altogether. Consequently, the two archbishops and their colleagues declared that the articles in the charter which provided for this inquiry, and for a remedy against abuses of the forest laws by the king, must not be interpreted in too harsh a spirit. The customs necessary for the preservation of the forests must remain in force.

No securities, however, could bind John. Even before Magna Carta was signed he had set to work to destroy it, and he now turned to this task with renewed vigour. He appealed to the pope, and hoped to crush his enemies by the aid of foreign troops, while the barons prepared for war, and the prelates strove to keep the peace. Help came first from the spiritual arm. On the 24th of August 121 5 Innocent III. published a bull which declared Magna Carta null and void. It had been extorted from the king by force (per vim et metum), and in the words of the bull the pope said "compositionem hujusmodi reprobamus penitus et damnamus." He followed this up by excommunicating the barons who had obtained it, and in the autumn of 1215 the inevitable war began. Capturing Rochester castle, John met with some other successes, and the disheartened barons invited Louis, son of Philip Augustus of France and afterwards king as Louis VIII., to take the English crown. In spite of the veto of the pope Louis accepted the invitation, landed in England in May 1216, and occupied London and Winchester, the fortune of war having in the meantime turned against John. The "ablest and most ruthless of the Angevins," as J. R. Green calls this king, had not, however, given up the struggle, and he was still in the field when he was taken ill, dying in Newark castle on the 19th of October 1216.

In its original form the text of Magna Carta was not divided into chapters, but in later times a division of this kind was adopted. This has since been retained by all commentators, the number of chapters being 63.

The preamble states that the king has granted the charter on the advice of various prelates and barons, some of whom, including the archbishop of Canterbury, the papal legate Pandulf, and William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, are mentioned by name.

Chapter I. declares that the English church shall be free and shall enjoy freedom of election. This follows the precedent set in the accession charter of Henry I. and in other early charters, although it had no place in the Articles of the Barons. On the present occasion it was evidently regarded as quite a formal and introductory matter, and the same remark applies to the general grant of liberties to all freemen and their heirs, with which the chapter concludes.

Then follows a series of chapters intended to restrain the king from raising money by the harsh and arbitrary methods adopted in the past. These chapters, however, only afforded protection to the tenants-in-chief of the crown, and it is clear from their prominent position that the framers of the charter regarded them as of paramount importance.

I Chapter II. fixes the amount of the relief to be paid to the king by the heir of any of his vassals. Previously John, disregarding the custom of the past, had taken as much as he could extort. Henceforward he who inherits a barony must pay r¦o, he who inherits a knight's fee too shillings or less, and for smaller holdings less "according to the ancient custom of fiefs." Chapters III. to VI. deal with the abuses of the king's privilege of acting as guardian of minors and their lands. Money must not be extorted from a ward when he receives his inheritance. The guardian or his servant must not take from the ward's property more than a reasonable amount for his expenses and the like; on the contrary he must maintain the houses, estates and other belongings in a proper state of efficiency. A ward must be allowed a reasonable liberty in the matter of marriage. He or she must not, as had been so often the case in the past, be forced to marry some royal favourite, or some one who had paid a sum of money for the privilege.

Chapters VII. and VIII. are for the protection of the widows of tenants-in-chief. On the death of her husband a widow must receive her rightful inheritance, without delay or hindrance. Moreover she must not be compelled to marry, a proceeding sometimes adopted to get her lands into the possession of a royal minion.

Chapter IX. is intended to prevent the king from collecting the money owing to him in an oppressive manner.

Now for a short time the document leaves the great questions at issue between the king and the barons, and two chapters are devoted to protecting the people generally against the exactions of the Jews.

Chapter X. declares that money borrowed from the Jews shall not bear interest during a minority.

Chapter XI. provides for the repayment of borrowed money to the Jews, and also to other creditors. This, however, is only to be done after certain liabilities have been met out of the estate, including the services due to the lord of the land.

Having thus disposed of this matter, the grievances of the barons are again considered, the vexed question of scutage being dealt with.

Chapter XII. says that in future no scutage or aid, beyond the three recognized feudal aids, shall be levied except by the consent of the general council of the nation (commune concilium regni nostri), while the three recognized aids shall only be levied at a reasonable rate. In dealing with this matter the Articles of the Barons had declared that aids and tallages must not be taken from the citizens of London and of other places without the consent of the council. This provision was omitted from Magna Carta, except so far as it related to aids from the citizens of London. This chapter does not give the people the right to control taxation. It gives to the men interested a certain control over one form of taxation, and protects one class only from arbitrary exactions, and that class the most powerful and the most wealthy.

Chapter XIII. gives to the citizens of London all their ancient liberties and free customs.

Chapter XIV. provides for the assembly of the council when its consent is necessary for raising an aid or a scutage. Individual summonses must be sent to the prelates and greater barons, while the lesser barons hill be called together through the sheriffs and bailiffs. At least forty days' notice of the meeting must be given, and the cause thereof specified. No chapter corresponding to this is found in the Articles and none was inserted in the reissues of Magna Carta. It is very interesting, but it does not constitute any marked advance in the history of parliament, as it merely expresses the customary method of summoning a council. It does not, as has been sometimes asserted, in any way establish a representative system, as this is understood to-day.

Chapter XV. extends the concessions obtained by the greater barons for themselves to the lesser landholders, the tenants of the tenants-in-chief.

Chapter XVI. declares that those who owe military service for their lands shall not be called upon to perform more than the due amount of such service.

We now come to an important series of articles which deal with abuses in the administration of justice. Henry II. made the royal courts of law a lucrative source of revenue, but he gave protection to suitors. Under his sons justice was equally, perhaps more, costly, while adequate protection was much harder to obtain. Here were many grievances, and the barons set to work to redress them.

Chapter XVII. declares that common pleas must henceforward be heard in a fixed place. This had already been to some extent the practice when this class of cases was heard; it was now made the rule. From this time suitors in this court were not put to the expense and inconvenience of following the king from place to place.

Chapters XVIII. and XIX. deal with the three petty assizes, three kinds of cases regarding disputes about the possession of land. These must be heard in the county courts before two visiting justices and four knights of the shire. The hardship of attendance at the county courts was to some extent obviated.

Chapters XX. to XXII. regulate the amount of fines imposed for offences against the law. Property necessary for one's livelihood must not be taken. The fines must only be imposed by the oath of honest men of the neighbourhood. In the same way earls and barons must only be fined by their peers, and a similar privilege is extended to the clergy, who, moreover, were not to be fined in accordance with the value of their benefices, but only of their other property. It should be noticed that trial by one's peers, as understood in Magna Carta, is not confined to the nobility; in every class of society an accused man is punished in accordance with the verdict of his peers, or equals.

Chapter XXIII. asserts that persons shall not be compelled to make bridges, unless they are bound to do so by ancient custom. John had oppressed his subjects in this way before he visited a district for purposes of sport, and the hardship was a real one.

Chapter XXIV. declared that the sheriffs and other officers of the king must not hold the pleas of the crown. This was intended to remove an old and serious evil, as the sheriffs had earned a very bad reputation by their methods of administering justice.

Chapter XXV. also concerns the sheriffs. It prevents the king from increasing by their agency the amount of money annually due to him from the various counties and hundreds. The custom was for the king to get a fixed sum from the sheriff of each county, this being called the firma comitatus, and for the sheriff to collect this as best he could. Henceforward this amount must not be raised.

Chapters XXVI. and XXVI I. were intended to protect the property of deceased persons, and also to secure the full payment of debts due therefrom to the crown. Other creditors were also protected, and the property of an intestate must be distributed to his heirs under the supervision of the church.

Chapter XXVIII. strikes a blow at the custom of purveyance. Royal officials must pay for the corn and provisions which they take on behalf of the king.

Chapter XXIX. says knights must not be compelled to give money instead of performing castle-guard, if they are willing to perform this service. Castle-guard was the liability incumbent on the holders of some estates to serve in the garrison of the royal castles. The constables of these castles had adopted the custom of compelling these landholders to give money and not service, mercenaries being then hired to perform this.

Chapters XXX. and XXXI. forbid the royal officials to seize the horses or carts of freemen for transport duty, or to take wood for the king's buildings.

Chapter XXXII. says that the lands of convicted felons shall be handed over to the lords of such lands and not kept by the king beyond a year and a day. In cases of treason the king had a right to the forfeited lands, but he was not allowed to establish a similar right in cases of felony.

Chapter XXXIII. provided for the removal' of kydells, or weirs, from all English rivers. This was intended to give greater freedom to inland navigation, the rivers being the main highways of trade.

Chapter XXXIV. limits the use of the writ known as Praecipe. This writ was one transferring cases concerning the ownership of property from the courts of the feudal lords to those of the king. This custom, which owes its origin to Henry II., meant a loss of revenue to the lords, whose victory in this matter, however, was a step backwards. It checked temporarily the process of centralizing the administration of justice.

Chapter XXXV. provides for the uniformity of weights and measures throughout the kingdom.

Chapter XXXVI. promises that in future writs of inquisition shall be granted freely without payment of any kind. This kind of writ allowed a man to refer the question of his guilt or innocence to the verdict of his neighbours instead of proving his innocence by the duel.

Chapter XXXVII. prevents the king from administering certain kinds of land when these fall into the possession of minors. In the past John had evidently stretched his authority and seized lands over which others had really the right of wardship.

Chapter XXXVIII. prevents a bailiff from compelling an accused man to submit to the ordeal without the approval of credible witnesses.

Chapter XXXIX. is more important and the English rendering of it may be given in full. "No freeman shall be arrested, or detained in prison, or deprived of his freehold, or outlawed, or banished, or in any way molested; and we will not set forth against him, nor send against him, unless by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land." The object of this was clearly to restrain John from arbitrary proceedings against his free subjects. The principle of judgment by one's peers is asserted, and is obviously the privilege of every class of freemen, not of the greater lords alone.

Chapter XL. simply says, "To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice." Chapters XLI. and Xlii. give permission to merchants, both English and foreign, to enter and leave the kingdom, except in time of war. They are not to pay "evil tolls." The privilege is extended to all travellers, except the prisoner and the outlaw, and natives of a country with which England is at war.

Chapter XLIII. is intended to compel the king to refrain from exacting greater dues from an escheated barony than were previously due from such barony.

Chapter Xliv. deals with the hated and oppressive forest laws. In future attendance at the forest courts is only obligatory on those who have business thereat.

Chapter XLV. says that the royal officials must know something of the law and must be desirous of keeping it.

Chapter Xlvi. gives to the founders of religious houses the right of acting as guardians of such houses when they are without heads. Chapters Xlvi I. and XlviII. deal again with the great grievance of the royal forests. John undertakes to disforest all forests which have been made in his time, and also to give up such river banks as he has seized for his own use when engaged in sport. Twelve knights in each county are to make a thorough inquiry into all evil customs connected with the forests, and these are to be utterly abolished.

Chapter Xlix. provides for the restoration of hostages. John had been in the habit of taking the children of powerful subjects as pledges for the good behaviour of their parents.

Chapter L. says that certain royal minions, who are mentioned by name, are to be removed from their offices.

Chapter LI. says that as soon as peace is made all foreign mercenaries are to be banished.

Chapters LII. and LIII. are those in which the king promises to make amends for the injuries he has done to his barons in the past. He will restore lands and castles to those who have been deprived of them without the judgment of their peers; he will do the same concerning property unlawfully seized by Henry II. or Richard I. and now in his hands. In the latter case, however, he was allowed a respite until he returned from the projected crusade. He promises also to do right concerning forests, abbeys and the wardship of lands which belong lawfully to others.

Chapter LIV. prevents any one from being arrested on the appeal of a woman, except on a charge of causing the death of her husband. As a woman could not prove her case in the judicial combat, it was felt that the earlier practice gave her an unfair advantage.

Chapter LV. provides for the remission of unjust fines. The decision on these matters is to rest with the archbishop of Canterbury and the twenty-five barons appointed to see that the terms of the charter are carried out.

Chapters LVI. and Lvii. deal with the grievances of Welshmen. Restoration of property is promised to them practically in the same way as to Englishmen. Welsh law is to be used in Wales, and in the marches the law of the marches is to be employed.

Chapter LVIII. promises that his hostages and his charters shall be restored to Llewellyn, prince of Wales.

Chapter LIX. promises a restoration of hostages to Alexander I. king of Scotland. Right is also to be done to him concerning the lands which he holds in England.

Chapter LX. is a general statement that the aforesaid customs and liberties are to be observed by all classes.

Chapter LXI. provides for the execution of the royal promises. A committee is to be formed of twenty-five barons. Then if the king or any of his servants do wrong and complaint is made to four of the twenty-five, they are to ask for redress. In the event of this not being granted within forty days the matter is to be referred to the twenty-five, who are empowered to seize the lands and property of the king, or to obtain justice in any other way possible. They must, however, spare the persons of the king, the queen and their children. Vacancies in the committee are to be filled by the barons themselves. The twenty-five barons were duly appointed, their names being given by Matthew Paris. This chronicler also reports that another committee of thirty-eight members was appointed to assist and control the twenty-five. S. R. Gardiner calls the scheme "a permanent organization for making war against the king." Chapter Lxii. is an expression of general forgiveness.

Chapter LXIII. repeats the promise of freedom to the English church and of their rights and liberties to all.

Magna Carta is an elaboration of the accession charter of Henry I., and is based upon the Articles of the Barons. It is, however, very much longer than the former charter and somewhat longer than the Articles. Moreover, it differs in several particulars from the Articles, these differences being doubtless the outcome of deliberation and of compromise. For instance, the provisions in Magna Carta concerning the freedom of the church find no place in the Articles, while a comparison between the two documents suggests that in other ways also influences favourable to the church and the clergy were at work while the famous charter was being framed. When one reflects how active and prominent Langton and other prelates were at Runnim.ede the change is not surprising. Another difference between the two documents concerns the towns and the trading classes. Certain privileges granted to them in the Articles are not found in Magna Carta, although, it must be noted, this document bestows exceptionally favoured treatment on the citizens of London. The conclusion is that the friends of the towns and the traders were less in evidence at Runnimede than they were at the earlier meetings of the barons, but that the neighbouring Londoners were strong enough to secure a good price for their support.

Magna Carta throws much light on the condition of England in the early 13th century. By denouncing the evil deeds of John and the innovations practised by him, it shows what these were and how they were hated; how money had been raised, how forest areas had been extended, how minors and widows had been cheated and oppressed. By declaring, as it does, what were the laws and customs of a past age wherein justice prevailed, it shows what was the ideal of good government formed by John's prelates and barons. Magna Carta can hardly be said to have introduced any new ideas. As Pollock and Maitland (History of English Law) say "on the whole the charter contains little that is absolutely new. It is restorative." But although mature study has established the truth of this proposition it was not always so. Statesmen and commentators alike professed to find in Magna Carta a number of political ideas which belonged to a later age, and which had no place in the minds of its framers. It was regarded as having conferred upon the nation nothing less than the English constitution in its perfect and completed form. Sir Edward Coke finds in Magna Carta a full and proper legal answer to every exaction of the Stuart kings, and a remedy for every evil suffered at the time. Sir William Blackstone is almost equally admiring. Edmund Burke says "Magna Carta, if it did not give us originally the House of Commons, gave us at least a House of Commons of weight and consequence." Lord Chatham used words equally superlative. "Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights and the Bill of Rights form that code, which I call the Bible of the English Constitution." Modern historians, although less rhetorical, speak in the highest terms of the importance of Magna Carta, the view of most of them being summed up in the words of Dr Stubbs: "The whole of the constitutional history of England is a commentary on this charter." Many regard Magna Carta as giving equal rights to all Englishmen. J. R. Green says "The rights which the barons claimed for themselves they claimed for the nation at large." As a matter of fact this statement is only true with large limitations. The villains, who formed the majority of the population, got very little from it; in fact the only clauses which protect them do so because they are property - the property of their lords - and therefore valuable. They get neither political nor civil rights under Magna Carta. The traders, too, get little, while preferential treatment is meted out to the clergy and the barons. Its benefits are confined to freemen, and of the benefits the lion's share fell to the larger landholders; the smaller landholders getting, it is true, some crumbs from the table. It did not establish freedom from arbitrary arrest, or the right of the representatives of the people to control taxation, or trial by jury, or other conceptions of a later generation.

The story of Magna Carta after the death of John is soon told. On the 12th of November 12 t 6 the regent William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, reissued the charter in the name of the young king Henry III. But important alterations were made. War was being waged against Louis of France, and the executive must not be hampered in the work of raising money; moreover the personal equation had disappeared, the barons did not need to protect themselves against John. Consequently the chapter limiting the power of the crown to raise scutages and aids without the consent of the council vanished, and with it the complementary one which determined the method of calling a council. Other provisions, the object of which had been to restrain John from demanding more money from various classes of his subjects, were also deleted, and the same fate befell such chapters as dealt with mere temporary matters. The most important of these was Chapter LXI., which provided for the appointment of 25 executors to compel John to observe the charter. The next year peace was made at Lambeth (Sept. II, 1217) between Henry III. and Louis and another reissue of the charter was promised. This promise was carried out, but two charters appeared, one being a revised issue of Magna Carta proper, and the other a separate charter dealing with the forests, all references to which were omitted from the more important document. The date of this issue appears to have been the 6th of November 1217. The issue of a separate forest charter at this time led subsequently to some confusion. Roger of Wendover asserts that John issued a separate charter of this kind when Magna Carta appeared. This statement was believed by subsequent writers until the time of Blackstone, who was the first to discover the mistake.

As issued in 1217 Magna Carta consists of 47 chapters only. It declares that henceforward scutages shall be taken according to the precedents of Henry II.'s reign. New provisions were introduced for the preservation of the peace - unlawful castles were to be destroyed - while others were directed towards making the administration of justice by the visiting justices less burdensome. With regard to the land and the services due therefrom a beginning was made of the policy which culminated in the statutes of Mortmain and of Quia Emptores. The sheriffs were ordered to publish the revised charter on the 22nd of February 1218. Then in February 1225 Henry III. again issued the two charters with only two slight alterations, and this is the final form taken by Magna Carta, this text being the one referred to by Coke and the other early commentators. Subsequently the charters were confirmed several times by Henry III. and by Edward I., the most important occasion being their confirmation by Edward at Ghent in November 1297. On this occasion some supplementary articles were added to the charter; these were intended to limit the taxing power of the crown.

There are at present in existence four copies of Magna Carta, sealed with the great seal of King John, and several unsealed copies. Of the four two are in the British Museum. Both came into the possession of the Museum with the valuable collection of papers which had belonged to Sir Robert Cotton, who had obtained possession of both. One was found in Dover castle about 1630. This was damaged by fire in 1731; the other is undamaged. The two other sealed copies belong to the cathedrals of Lincoln and of Salisbury. Both were written evidently in a less hurried fashion than those in the British Museum, and the one at Lincoln was regarded as the most perfect by the commissioners who were responsible for the appearance of the Statutes of the Realm in 1810. The British Museum also contains the original parchment of the Articles of the Baron. Magna Carta was first printed by Richard Pynson in 1499. This, however, was not the original text, which was neglected until the time of Blackstone, who printed the various issues of the charter in his book The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest (1759). The earliest commentator of note was Sir Edward Coke, who published his Second Institute, which deals with Magna Carta, by order of the Long Parliament in 1642. Modern commentators, who also print the various texts of the charter, are Richard Thomson, An Historical Essay on the Magna Carta of King John (1829); C. Bemont, in his Charles des libertes anglaises (1892); and W. Stubbs in his Select Charters (1895). A more recent book and one embodying the results of the latest research is W. S. McKechnie, Magna Carta (1905). The text of Magna Carta is also printed in the Statutes of the Realm (1810-1828), and in T. Rymer's Foedera (1816-1869). In addition to Blackstone, Coke and these later writers, the following works may also be consulted: John Reeves, History of English Law (1783-1784); L. O. Pike, A Constitutional History of the House of Lords (1894); W. Stubbs, Constitutional History of England (1897); Sir F. Pollock and F. W. Maitland, The History of English Law (1895); W. S. Holdsworth, A History of English Law (1903), and Kate Norgate, John Lackland (1902). (A. W. H.*)

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




Latin - great charter

Proper noun

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Magna Carta


Magna Carta

  1. A charter, granted by King John to the barons at Runnymede in 1215, that is a basis of English constitutional tradition.


Simple English

[[File:|thumb|right|230px|Magna Carta]] The Magna Carta was a document signed by John of England and his barons after a meeting at Runnymede, Surrey, in 1215.

Magna Carta (Latin for 'Great Charter') is one of the most celebrated documents in English history. It solved, at the time, a conflict between King John and his main men: the barons and bishops. It had great influence on later English law. In the longer term, it is recognised as a cornerstone of the idea of the liberty of citizens.

Magna Carta contains 63 clauses written in Latin on parchment. Only three of the original clauses in Magna Carta are still law today. One defends the freedom and rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns. This clause (translated) is the main reason the Carta is still famous:

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled. Nor will we proceed with force against him except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice".[1]

This clause limits the power of rulers, and introduces the idea of lawful process and the idea of a jury.


The origin is in the mediaeval feudal system, in which the King's word was law. Dispute grew between the barons and bishops and King John over taxes and disputes with the Pope.

The barons chose their time to put John under pressure. John had lost a battle against the French, been excommunicated by the Pope (1209–1213), and feared civil war at home. He met the barons at Runnymede, 20 miles south-west of London, in June 1215. The negotiation was managed by John's half-brother, William Longspeé, and Elias of Dereham, steward to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton.

The content of the Carta was designed to re-balance power between the King and his subjects, but especially between John and the barons. When King John set his seal on Magna Carta he conceded the fundamental principle that even as king he was not above the law. So, when King John put his seal to the Carta on 15 June 1215, that meant kings would not have as much power as before. The Carta also laid down rules of inheritance, and that convictions required some kind of official process. It stated that people rights not to be unlawfully imprisoned. In other words, the king is bound to rule within the law.

Thirteen original copies of the Carta were made, and distributed. Only four survive today. The four copies are in The British Library, Lincoln Castle and Salisbury Cathedral. In 2009 UNESCO recognised it in its Memory of the World register.[1]

The Magna Carta led to the constitutional rule of today. It was also an influence on the American Constitution and to the Bill of Rights. The Magna Carta was sent out again in 1220 by Henry III.



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