Of all the documents that make up the ancestry of the Constitution, one of the oldest is the Magna Carta (also
known as the Magna Charta or the Great Charter). It was created in 1215 in
England. It was an agreement between King John and the nobility of the day.
The King's barons were unhappy with recent defeats at the hands of the French,
and an unfavorable peace with the French. To assure the loyalty of the barons,
John agreed to certain civil rights for the barons. These rights were encoded
in the Magna Carta. These rights were not new or unique - most of the text of
the Magna Carta came from the Charter of Liberties, another agreement between
King Henry I and his nobility in 1100.
The Magna Carta is written in Latin, and several copies were made for the
King and for each baron. Several of these copies still exist today. A copy
created in 1297 is found within the United States National Archives.
In the end, John considered the rights granted the nobility in the Magna
Carta to have been made under duress, and he chose to ignore them. After a
threatened invasion of England by France, John fled across the countryside. In
his haste, the crown jewels were lost and he came under intense physical and
emotional stress. He died of dysentery in October of 1216.
The following are links to pages providing more details on the history of
the Magna Carta:
This translation of the Magna Carta was provided by the British Library.
The Library notes that it is not an exact literal translation of the Latin, but
a contextual translation. Clause numbers are not actually in the document, but
are added for clarity. Spellings have been Americanized.
JOHN, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy
and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls,
barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and to all his
officials and loyal subjects, Greeting.
KNOW THAT BEFORE GOD, for the health of our soul and those of our ancestors
and heirs, to the honor of God, the exaltation of the holy Church, and the
better ordering of our kingdom, at the advice of our reverend fathers Stephen,
archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England, and cardinal of the holy
Roman Church, Henry archbishop of Dublin, William bishop of London, Peter
bishop of Winchester, Jocelin bishop of Bath and Glastonbury, Hugh bishop of
Lincoln, Walter Bishop of Worcester, William bishop of Coventry, Benedict
bishop of Rochester, Master Pandulf subdeacon and member of the papal
household, Brother Aymeric master of the knighthood of the Temple in England,
William Marshal earl of Pembroke, William earl of Salisbury, William earl of
Warren, William earl of Arundel, Alan de Galloway constable of Scotland, Warin
Fitz Gerald, Peter Fitz Herbert, Hubert de Burgh seneschal of Poitou, Hugh de
Neville, Matthew Fitz Herbert, Thomas Basset, Alan Basset, Philip Daubeny,
Robert de Roppeley, John Marshal, John Fitz Hugh, and other loyal subjects:
(1) FIRST, THAT WE HAVE GRANTED TO GOD, and by this
present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the
English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its
liberties unimpaired. That we wish this so to be observed, appears from the
fact that of our own free will, before the outbreak of the present dispute
between us and our barons, we granted and confirmed by charter the freedom of
the Church's elections - a right reckoned to be of the greatest necessity and
importance to it - and caused this to be confirmed by Pope Innocent III. This
freedom we shall observe ourselves, and desire to be observed in good faith by
our heirs in perpetuity.
TO ALL FREE MEN OF OUR KINGDOM we have also granted, for us and our heirs
for ever, all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and
their heirs, of us and our heirs:
(2) If any earl, baron, or other person that holds lands
directly of the Crown, for military service, shall die, and at his death his
heir shall be of full age and owe a relief, the heir shall have his inheritance
on payment of the ancient scale of relief. That is to say, the heir or heirs of
an earl shall pay 100 pounds for the entire earl's barony, the heir or heirs of
a knight 100 shillings, at most for the entire knight's fee, and any man that
owes less shall pay less, in accordance with the ancient usage of fees
(3) But if the heir of such a person is under age and a
ward, when he comes of age he shall have his inheritance without relief or
(4) The guardian of the land of an heir who is under age
shall take from it only reasonable revenues, customary dues, and feudal
services. He shall do this without destruction or damage to men or property. If
we have given the guardianship of the land to a sheriff, or to any person
answerable to us for the revenues, and he commits destruction or damage, we
will exact compensation from him, and the land shall be entrusted to two worthy
and prudent men of the same fee, who shall be answerable to us for the
revenues, or to the person to whom we have assigned them. If we have given or
sold to anyone the guardianship of such land, and he causes destruction or
damage, he shall lose the guardianship of it, and it shall be handed over to
two worthy and prudent men of the same fee, who shall be similarly answerable
(5) For so long as a guardian has guardianship of such
land, he shall maintain the houses, parks, fish preserves, ponds, mills, and
everything else pertaining to it, from the revenues of the land itself. When
the heir comes of age, he shall restore the whole land to him, stocked with
plough teams and such implements of husbandry as the season demands and the
revenues from the land can reasonably bear.
(6) Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of
lower social standing. Before a marriage takes place, it shall be made known to
the heir's next-of-kin.
(7) At her husband's death, a widow may have her marriage
portion and inheritance at once and without trouble. She shall pay nothing for
her dower, marriage portion, or any inheritance that she and her husband held
jointly on the day of his death. She may remain in her husband's house for
forty days after his death, and within this period her dower shall be assigned
(8) No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she
wishes to remain without a husband. But she must give security that she will
not marry without royal consent, if she holds her lands of the Crown, or
without the consent of whatever other lord she may hold them of.
(9) 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. A debtor's sureties shall not be distrained upon so long
as the debtor himself can discharge his debt. If, for lack of means, the debtor
is unable to discharge his debt, his sureties shall be answerable for it. If
they so desire, they may have the debtor's lands and rents until they have
received satisfaction for the debt that they paid for him, unless the debtor
can show that he has settled his obligations to them.
(10) If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews
dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the
debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his
lands. If such a debt falls into the hands of the Crown, it will take nothing
except the principal sum specified in the bond.
(11) If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have
her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that
are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to
the size of his holding of lands. The debt is to be paid out of the residue,
reserving the service due to his feudal lords. Debts owed to persons other than
Jews are to be dealt with similarly.
(12) No scutage or aid may be levied in our kingdom
without its general consent, unless it is for the ransom of our person, to make
our eldest son a knight, and (once) to marry our eldest daughter. For these
purposes only a reasonable aid may be levied. Aids from the city of London are
to be treated similarly.
(13) The city of London shall enjoy all its ancient
liberties and free customs, both by land and by water. We also will and grant
that all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports shall enjoy all their
liberties and free customs.
(14) To obtain the general consent of the realm for the
assessment of an aid - except in the three cases specified above - or a
scutage, we will cause the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater
barons to be summoned individually by letter. To those who hold lands directly
of us we will cause a general summons to be issued, through the sheriffs and
other officials, to come together on a fixed day (of which at least forty days
notice shall be given) and at a fixed place. In all letters of summons, the
cause of the summons will be stated. When a summons has been issued, the
business appointed for the day shall go forward in accordance with the
resolution of those present, even if not all those who were summoned have
(15) In future we will allow no one to levy an aid from
his free men, except to ransom his person, to make his eldest son a knight, and
(once) to marry his eldest daughter. For these purposes only a reasonable aid
may be levied.
(16) 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.
(17) Ordinary lawsuits shall not follow the royal court
around, but shall be held in a fixed place.
(18) Inquests of novel disseisin, mort d'ancestor, and
darrein presentment shall be taken only in their proper county court. We
ourselves, or in our absence abroad our chief justice, will send two justices
to each county four times a year, and these justices, with four knights of the
county elected by the county itself, shall hold the assizes in the county
court, on the day and in the place where the court meets.
(19) If any assizes cannot be taken on the day of the
county court, as many knights and freeholders shall afterwards remain behind,
of those who have attended the court, as will suffice for the administration of
justice, having regard to the volume of business to be done.
(20) 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. In the
same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a husbandman the
implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court. None
of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable
men of the neighborhood.
(21) Earls and barons shall be fined only by their
equals, and in proportion to the gravity of their offence.
(22) A fine imposed upon the lay property of a clerk in
holy orders shall be assessed upon the same principles, without reference to
the value of his ecclesiastical benefice.
(23) No town or person shall be forced to build bridges
over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.
(24) No sheriff, constable, coroners, or other royal
officials are to hold lawsuits that should be held by the royal justices.
(25) Every county, hundred, wapentake, and tithing shall
remain at its ancient rent, without increase, except the royal demesne
(26) If at the death of a man who holds a lay fee of the
Crown, a sheriff or royal official produces royal letters patent of summons for
a debt due to the Crown, it shall be lawful for them to seize and list movable
goods found in the lay fee of the dead man to the value of the debt, as
assessed by worthy men. Nothing shall be removed until the whole debt is paid,
when the residue shall be given over to the executors to carry out the dead
man's will. If no debt is due to the Crown, all the movable goods shall be
regarded as the property of the dead man, except the reasonable shares of his
wife and children.
(27) If a free man dies intestate, his movable goods are
to be distributed by his next-of-kin and friends, under the supervision of the
Church. The rights of his debtors are to be preserved.
(28) 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.
(29) No constable may compel a knight to pay money for
castle-guard if the knight is willing to undertake the guard in person, or with
reasonable excuse to supply some other fit man to do it. A knight taken or sent
on military service shall be excused from castle-guard for the period of this
(30) No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall
take horses or carts for transport from any free man, without his consent.
(31) Neither we nor any royal official will take wood for
our castle, or for any other purpose, without the consent of the owner.
(32) We will not keep the lands of people convicted of
felony in our hand for longer than a year and a day, after which they shall be
returned to the lords of the fees concerned.
(33) All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the
Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast.
(34) The writ called precipe shall not in future be
issued to anyone in respect of any holding of land, if a free man could thereby
be deprived of the right of trial in his own lord's court.
(35) There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and
corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a
standard width of dyed cloth, russett, and haberject, namely two ells within
the selvedges. Weights are to be standardized similarly.
(36) In future nothing shall be paid or accepted for the
issue of a writ of inquisition of life or limbs. It shall be given gratis, and
(37) If a man holds land of the Crown by fee-farm,
socage, or burgage, and also holds land of someone else for knight's service,
we will not have guardianship of his heir, nor of the land that belongs to the
other person's fee, by virtue of the fee-farm, socage, or burgage, unless the
fee-farm owes knight's service. We will not have the guardianship of a man's
heir, or of land that he holds of someone else, by reason of any small property
that he may hold of the Crown for a service of knives, arrows, or the like.
(38) In future no official shall place a man on trial
upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the
truth of it.
(39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or
stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of
his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or
send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the
law of the land.
(40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay
right or justice.
(41) 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.
(42) In future it shall be lawful for any man to leave
and return to our kingdom unharmed and without fear, by land or water,
preserving his allegiance to us, except in time of war, for some short period,
for the common benefit of the realm. People that have been imprisoned or
outlawed in accordance with the law of the land, people from a country that is
at war with us, and merchants - who shall be dealt with as stated above - are
excepted from this provision.
(43) If a man holds lands of any escheat such as the
honor of Wallingford, Nottingham, Boulogne, Lancaster, or of other escheats in
our hand that are baronies, at his death his heir shall give us only the relief
and service that he would have made to the baron, had the barony been in the
baron's hand. We will hold the escheat in the same manner as the baron held
(44) People who live outside the forest need not in
future appear before the royal justices of the forest in answer to general
summonses, unless they are actually involved in proceedings or are sureties for
someone who has been seized for a forest offence.
(45) We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs,
or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to
keep it well.
(46) All barons who have founded abbeys, and have
charters of English kings or ancient tenure as evidence of this, may have
guardianship of them when there is no abbot, as is their due.
(47) All forests that have been created in our reign
shall at once be disafforested. River-banks that have been enclosed in our
reign shall be treated similarly.
(48) All evil customs relating to forests and warrens,
foresters, warreners, sheriffs and their servants, or river-banks and their
wardens, are at once to be investigated in every county by twelve sworn knights
of the county, and within forty days of their enquiry the evil customs are to
be abolished completely and irrevocably. But we, or our chief justice if we are
not in England, are first to be informed.
(49) We will at once return all hostages and charters
delivered up to us by Englishmen as security for peace or for loyal
(50) We will remove completely from their offices the
kinsmen of Gerard de Athée, and in future they shall hold no offices in
England. The people in question are Engelard de Cigogné, Peter, Guy, and
Andrew de Chanceaux, Guy de Cigogné, Geoffrey de Martigny and his
brothers, Philip Marc and his brothers, with Geoffrey his nephew, and all their
(51) As soon as peace is restored, we will remove from
the kingdom all the foreign knights, bowmen, their attendants, and the
mercenaries that have come to it, to its harm, with horses and arms.
(52) 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. In cases of dispute the matter shall be
resolved by the judgement of the twenty-five barons referred to below in the
clause for securing the peace (§ 61). In cases, however, where a man was
deprived or dispossessed of something without the lawful judgement of his
equals by our father King Henry or our brother King Richard, and it remains in
our hands or is held by others under our warranty, we shall have respite for
the period commonly allowed to Crusaders, unless a lawsuit had been begun, or
an enquiry had been made at our order, before we took the Cross as a Crusader.
On our return from the Crusade, or if we abandon it, we will at once render
justice in full.
(53) We shall have similar respite in rendering justice
in connection with forests that are to be disafforested, or to remain forests,
when these were first afforested by our father Henry or our brother Richard;
with the guardianship of lands in another person's fee, when we have hitherto
had this by virtue of a fee held of us for knight's service by a third party;
and with abbeys founded in another person's fee, in which the lord of the fee
claims to own a right. On our return from the Crusade, or if we abandon it, we
will at once do full justice to complaints about these matters.
(54) No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal
of a woman for the death of any person except her husband.
(55) All fines that have been given to us unjustly and
against the law of the land, and all fines that we have exacted unjustly, shall
be entirely remitted or the matter decided by a majority judgement of the
twenty-five barons referred to below in the clause for securing the peace
(§ 61) together with Stephen, archbishop of Canterbury, if he can be
present, and such others as he wishes to bring with him. If the archbishop
cannot be present, proceedings shall continue without him, provided that if any
of the twenty-five barons has been involved in a similar suit himself, his
judgement shall be set aside, and someone else chosen and sworn in his place,
as a substitute for the single occasion, by the rest of the twenty-five.
(56) If we have deprived or dispossessed any Welshmen of
lands, liberties, or anything else in England or in Wales, without the lawful
judgement of their equals, these are at once to be returned to them. A dispute
on this point shall be determined in the Marches by the judgement of equals.
English law shall apply to holdings of land in England, Welsh law to those in
Wales, and the law of the Marches to those in the Marches. The Welsh shall
treat us and ours in the same way.
(57) In cases where a Welshman was deprived or
dispossessed of anything, without the lawful judgement of his equals, by our
father King Henry or our brother King Richard, and it remains in our hands or
is held by others under our warranty, we shall have respite for the period
commonly allowed to Crusaders, unless a lawsuit had been begun, or an enquiry
had been made at our order, before we took the Cross as a Crusader. But on our
return from the Crusade, or if we abandon it, we will at once do full justice
according to the laws of Wales and the said regions.
(58) We will at once return the son of Llywelyn, all
Welsh hostages, and the charters delivered to us as security for the peace.
(59) With regard to the return of the sisters and
hostages of Alexander, king of Scotland, his liberties and his rights, we will
treat him in the same way as our other barons of England, unless it appears
from the charters that we hold from his father William, formerly king of
Scotland, that he should be treated otherwise. This matter shall be resolved by
the judgement of his equals in our court.
(60) All these customs and liberties that we have granted
shall be observed in our kingdom in so far as concerns our own relations with
our subjects. Let all men of our kingdom, whether clergy or laymen, observe
them similarly in their relations with their own men.
(61) SINCE WE HAVE GRANTED ALL THESE THINGS for God, for
the better ordering of our kingdom, and to allay the discord that has arisen
between us and our barons, and since we desire that they shall be enjoyed in
their entirety, with lasting strength, for ever, we give and grant to the
barons the following security:
The barons shall elect twenty-five of their number to keep, and cause to be
observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to
them by this charter.
If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in
any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or
of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five
barons, they shall come to us - or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief
justice - to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence
abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning from the
day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall
refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon
and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of
the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving
only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have
secured such redress as they have determined upon. Having secured the redress,
they may then resume their normal obedience to us.
Any man who so desires may take an oath to obey the commands of the twenty-
five barons for the achievement of these ends, and to join with them in
assailing us to the utmost of his power. We give public and free permission to
take this oath to any man who so desires, and at no time will we prohibit any
man from taking it. Indeed, we will compel any of our subjects who are
unwilling to take it to swear it at our command.
If one of the twenty-five barons dies or leaves the country, or is prevented
in any other way from discharging his duties, the rest of them shall choose
another baron in his place, at their discretion, who shall be duly sworn in as
In the event of disagreement among the twenty-five barons on any matter
referred to them for decision, the verdict of the majority present shall have
the same validity as a unanimous verdict of the whole twenty-five, whether
these were all present or some of those summoned were unwilling or unable to
The twenty-five barons shall swear to obey all the above articles
faithfully, and shall cause them to be obeyed by others to the best of their
We will not seek to procure from anyone, either by our own efforts or those
of a third party, anything by which any part of these concessions or liberties
might be revoked or diminished. Should such a thing be procured, it shall be
null and void and we will at no time make use of it, either ourselves or
through a third party.
(62) We have remitted and pardoned fully to all men any
ill-will, hurt, or grudges that have arisen between us and our subjects,
whether clergy or laymen, since the beginning of the dispute. We have in
addition remitted fully, and for our own part have also pardoned, to all clergy
and laymen any offences committed as a result of the said dispute between
Easter in the sixteenth year of our reign (i.e. 1215) and the restoration of
In addition we have caused letters patent to be made for the barons, bearing
witness to this security and to the concessions set out above, over the seals
of Stephen archbishop of Canterbury, Henry archbishop of Dublin, the other
bishops named above, and Master Pandulf.
(63) 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
fullness and entirety for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs, in all
things and all places for ever.
Both we and the barons have sworn that all this shall be observed in good
faith and without deceit. Witness the abovementioned people and many
Given by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor
and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign
(i.e. 1215: the new regnal year began on 28 May).