Richard Abels


Magna Carta's Contemporary Meaning

Despite its popular reputation as a foundational document for Anglo-American democracy, Magna Carta in its historical context should be understood as a conservative if not reactionary feudal document. The Magna Carta implicitly accepts the conception of the king as feudal overlord and God's vicar on earth. The barons even insisted that John issue it in the form of a royal grant of liberties, because they could not conceive of rights and liberties as originating from 'nature' or even directly from God. For the rebels even John, as tyrannical as he had been, was God's vicar on earth. What they tried to do was bind him to royal law, to place him under his own word and will. The barons’ stated intention was to restore the 'good old law and custom' of their grandfather's day. As a consequence, much of Magna Carta (especially articles 2-16) is a list of grievances against King John’s abuse of feudal prerogatives. In other words, Magna Carta was an attempt to force a bad royal overlord to live up to his contractual obligations to his vassals. It also justifies the notion that if a lord fails to live up to his end of the contract, his vassals may rightfully renounce their fealty to him. The barons had two other political principles, derived from feudalism, that were to make the Magna Carta the foundation of a new sort of governance:  that a good king ought to rule through legal judgment and with consultation of the greater men of the realm, secular and ecclesiastic. The idea of consultation, embodied in articles 12 and 14, derives from the conception of the kingdom as a large honor/fief in which the baronage played the role of suitors to the king's honorial court. But it also looked forward to a new conception of the realm in its use of the phrase "the common counsel of the realm," which implies that the kingdom is a commune, that is, a corporate body of free men with the right to participate in governance. What is remarkable is that the barons generalized the judgment so that it would extend to the lower rungs of free society, and a number of articles deal with the rights of "free men" regardless of social status or wealth (i.e. barons, knights, and small landholders). Articles 39, 40, and 52, for instance, guarantee that a free man could not be dispossessed or imprisoned without judgment by his peers "according to the law of the land." Magna Carta's ideas of government through counsel and judgment are expressed within a feudal context. By the seventeenth century, however, they were to be generalized into the modern English conception of a limited, constitutional monarchy.


Law and Government in Angevin England, 1154-1215

Magna Carta was the baronial response to and protest against the growth of monarchical power and authority in England under Henry II (1154-1189) and his sons Richard (1189-1199) and John (1199-1216). Self-consciously attempting to restore the powers of the Crown after a generation of disputed succession and civil war, Henry II promoted an exalted conception of monarchy that had its roots in both the sacral kingship of the earlier Anglo-Saxon realm and in the king's position as feudal overlord. Upon this foundation, Henry II constructed a legal system in which the king was defined as the liege lord of all landholders in England, and in which criminal acts such as murder and theft were regarded as offenses against the king’s peace, rather than simply personal injuries against individuals. In a series of “assizes,” Henry II and his royal counselors created legal procedures in which that the  king’s “common law courts” enjoyed jurisdictional authority in disputes not only involving land held by tenants-in-chief (i.e. those who held fiefs directly from the king) but also by mesne tenants (i.e. those who held fiefs from lords other than the king). The expanded jurisdiction of the common law courts, along with the king’s forests courts, increased the revenues of the Crown. Henry II’s and his sons’ need for money to defend the French territories of the “Angevin Empire” led him them to pursue aggressively their feudal financial prerogatives. Henry II rejected the idea that reliefs (i.e. inheritance payments from heirs to fiefs) and monetary aids from his vassals should be limited by custom, and his sons Richard and John followed suit.  After 1204 when John lost Normandy and Anjou to King Philip Augustus of France, the financial demands he made upon the barons of England became especially heavy as John was constantly raising cash to pay for mercenary troops and to subsidize foreign allies in his attempts to recover his lost patrimony. These financial demands coupled with military failure and John’s inability to inspire love and trust all were factors in the baronial rebellion of 1215 that culminated in Magna Carta.

Upon ascending the throne in 1154, Henry II ordered all private castles constructed without royal permission to be razed. Rather than depend upon feudal levies of knights (owed by tenants in chief as an obligation arising from their holding of fiefs), Henry relied mainly upon mercenaries, whose salaries he paid by commuting the military service of the barons and the knights for cash (scutage). Henry's efforts to expand royal power in England were aided by a precocious system of government characterized by the use of written records and instruments of government (charters and writs) that found its roots in the Anglo-Saxon past. The Norman conqueror of England, William the Conqueror (1066-1087) preserved the mechanisms of government that he inherited, though he also created alongside it a feudal kingship by granting out nearly all the land in England to Norman vassals in return for homage and fealty and specified quotas of knight service.

The governance of the Anglo-Norman kingdom was based on the king's travelling household, which served as the central administration of the realm (in France and Germany as well as in medieval England), and on royal officers and courts in the localities. The former reflected the dual private and public faces of kingship. Since the kingdom was, in a sense, the king's household writ large, the king's domestic servants were also his administrative officers. The king's chancellor, for example, supervised both the royal chaplains and the official writing office. The king's chamberlain was in charge of the royal chamber and wardrobe and, by extension, the king's treasury, which was stored in a strongbox in the chamber. King Henry I (1100-1135), William the Conqueror's youngest son and the 'father of English Common Law,' supplemented these household administrative offices with itinerant justices, members of the royal court commissioned by the king to conduct judicial proceedings in the localities, and with a permanent financial office, the Exchequer, established at Westminster where twice a year the sheriffs were required to submit to a financial audit in the presence of the higher officials of the king's household and a permanent staff of financial auditors known as the 'barons of the Exchequer.' (The Exchequer's name came from a giant checkerboard cloth spread on a table on which were placed counters representing sums of money; the counters were added or subtracted as with an abacus.) Henry I's itinerant justices and Exchequer helped link the court to the countryside.

Local administration of the realm rested upon Anglo-Saxon foundations. Since the ninth century England had been divided into administrative territories known as 'shires' or 'counties,' each of which was further divided into territorial blocs known as 'hundreds.' The courts of the shire and the hundred dealt with criminal and civil disputes based on customary law sanctioned by royal authority. The king's primary local agent, the sheriff, presided over the shire court, looked after the king's lands in the shire, made sure that debts to the Crown were paid (both public debts, such as taxation, and private debts, such as the payment of reliefs, proffers of wardship, etc.), and enforced the king's orders as issued to him through royal writs. Sheriffs were not salaried officials, though the office could be very lucrative. From William the Conqueror's day down to John's, sheriffs 'farmed' their shires, which meant paying to the Exchequer an agreed upon annual sum of money, from which was deducted all official expenses. (In order to get credit for such expenses, sheriffs were required to produce the writs ordering them to make the payments; the barons of the Exchequer would then compare the sheriffs' copies with the duplicates filed in their archives.) In return for paying their 'farms,' sheriffs received the right to pocket rents, renders, and other revenues from the king's estates in the shire (the royal demesne) as well as all profits of royal justice. The difference between what a sheriff could collect and what he paid as a farm represented the profit of office.

Alongside the 'public' law courts of shire and hundred in Anglo-Norman England there were numerous 'private' feudal and manorial courts. Every great lord had a 'honourial' court in which he presided over his vassals, taking advice from them on important matters and rendering justice to them in disputes concerning their lands. On a more humble level, lords of manors possessed jurisdiction over their unfree tenants (serfs or villeins). Many also enjoyed rights of justice over their free tenants through a grant of 'franchise' from the king, though certain serious crimes, such as murder, killing the king's deer, and highway robbery, were known as 'pleas of the Crown' and were almost always heard in royal courts.

Henry II and English 'Common Law': Conceptions of Kingship

In the long run Henry II's most important contribution to English governance was to increase the king's financial and judicial rights over his free subjects. Henry II and his counsellors advanced a doctrine of royal liege lordship that asserted the king to be the primary lord of all free men, whosoever their immediate lord might be. In a number of assizes (royal councils in which king and barons modified customary legal practices) Henry II translated his view of kingship into a royal legal system, Common Law--royal law that extended to all free men in the realm, which found its roots in the Anglo-Saxon past and in the legal reforms undertaken by his grandfather, Henry I. Juries of free men in the localities were now held responsible for indicting and trying criminals before itinerant royal justices. Disputes over the legal possession of land, which had formerly been heard in honorial courts (the private jurisdictional courts of lords), were now brought into royal courts presided over by royal judges who decided upon the evidence adduced by local juries. This meant that the Crown's courts superseded the private baronial courts. It also meant the king's revenues grew, since litigants had to pay for the king to issue a writ for the case to be heard, and the losing party had to pay a fine to the Crown. (King John exploited the fiscal possibilities of royal justice further by accepting and even soliciting offers of money to have suits heard. William de Mowbray, for instance, proffered John 2000-marks to have the king's justice in a suit over land; though John's court found against William, the king insisted, nonetheless, on payment of the full 'fine'.) In expanding the jurisdictional powers of the Crown Henry II was both demonstrating 'good lordship' to his vassals and fulfilling his coronation oath to maintain justice in the realm.

The question remained, though, whether the king was above or subject to the law and the courts. Here the problem was that medieval political thought advanced contradictory views of the dignity of kingship arising from the king's dual sources of authority: God and the feudal contract with his vassals. As a theocratic ruler a medieval king had, theoretically, absolute authority over his subjects, since God had established him as the sword of justice to restrain wrongdoers. As a suzerain, a feudal overlord, however, a king was obliged not only to protect his vassals but to seek their good counsel before acting. The English legal treatise known as 'Glanvill' (written by one of Henry II's officials, ca. 1180) reflects this basic constitutional confusion. Juxtaposed with the Roman law maxim, "What pleases the prince has the power of law," is the contradictory assertion that the laws of the realm are made by the king 'with the advice of the magnates.' King John, following his father and brother, regarded kingship as "a certain image on earth of divine majesty" (in the words of the courtier and theologian John of Salisbury, ca. 1175) and was, therefore, above enacted law. He was, as his charters, including Magna Carta, assert "king by Grace of God." John even used Augustine's City of God to bolster his position, citing Augustine for the idea that a king is responsible to God for his subjects, but is not himself responsible to his subjects. Kings could not do wrong with impunity; but their judge and punisher is God. Although John allowed his subjects to use common law in their disputes among themselves, he felt no need to seek legal judgment when it came to his property rights. Rather, he dispossessed, fined, and banished his enemies by royal command. For John's barons the "king's anger" and the "king's favor" were the political realities of life. The result was a justice system in which law and legal procedure governed the resolution of disputes and punishment of crimes in cases involving everyone but the king. (John actually seems to have been a very conscientious and just judge when it came to cases in which he himself was not involved.) When the king's interests were at stake, law gave way to the king's will--unless the king himself granted his subject the right to appeal to lawful judgement against him. The 'king's will' and 'judgement of court,' in John's view, possessed equal authority.

King John's Conflicts with his Subjects

The reign of King John was shaped by two great conflicts. The first was with the King of France, Philip II Augustus (1180-1223). Philip regarded John, who was not only king of England but also Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and Poitou, and Duke of Aquitaine, as a rebellious and overmighty vassal. The French king managed to seize Normandy and Anjou from John in 1204-1205--John's lukewarm defense of his French territories earned him the sobriquet "Swoftsword"--, and the reconquest of his lost patrimony obsessed John for the remainder of his reign. John needed money to hire mercenaries and to build and besiege castles [by the late twelfth century kings relied more upon mercenaries than they did upon feudal knights]. He went about obtaining it by exploiting all of his rights and prerogatives as a feudal overlord. John followed in the footsteps of his predecessors in demanding huge reliefs and exacting scutages and aids whenever he could. The scale of payments due from the so-called feudal 'incidents' of relief, wardship, and aids (see glossary) had never been satisfactorily defined or fixed by custom. Consequently, what a tenant owed his lord depended upon whatever the two agreed upon. Henry II had demanded large reliefs from his barons, but had required only small down payments; he would often then forgive the remainder of the debt after the baron had demonstrated his loyalty, thus exercising a sort of royal bureaucratic patronage. Richard the Lionheart had also been ruthless in raising money by exacting all that he could from the dues owed him. But unlike his father and famous brother, John's exactions did not lead to success in war but to a string of failures that brought on new rounds of revenue raising.

John's lack of popularity was such that he had to take hostages from his barons to secure their loyalty. In 1212 there was a baronial conspiracy to assassinate John; in 1215 there was a full scale baronial revolt that was to result in the issuing of Magna Carta. John's problems with his barons stemmed, in large measure, from his leadership style and his vindictive and suspicious personality. Despite a real talent for administration, a flair for strategic planning, and a dedication to the judicial responsibilities of kingship, John was a wretched failure as a king. In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries the military component of kingship was critical to the success or failure of a reign. Good kings, moreover, ruled in partnership with their barons and bishops. To be sure, a strong king kept his barons in check, imposing his peace upon them; but he was also expected to seek and act upon their advice, and to enrich them through his wise rule. John's character flaws, exacerbated by his military reversals, proved fatal to his kingship. Unable to inspire or give trust, John ruled with a heavy hand. He preferred to rely upon the advice and service of lesser-born nobles rather than the magnates of the realm, in part because he was more comfortable surrounded by those whose fortunes depended entirely upon his favor.

All medieval kings, including John, ruled through a combination of reward through royal patronage and threat of punishment. By the early thirteenth century royal patronage had become a particularly important source of revenues for the baronage, as the expansion of the realm through military conquest ceased and as the pressures of inflation and the luxuries of the aristocratic lifestyle made greater financial demands upon the nobility. The Crown acted as a sort of clearing house for lands and offices. If a tenant-in-chief died without heir, his lands would 'escheat' (pass back) to the king, who would then grant it out once more as a fief. Since the king was the greatest lord in the realm, he also had in his hand the choicest wardships and heiresses to distribute. The partnership between king and barons was anchored by the expectation of the latter that their service and loyalty would not go unanswered. Under John, however, royal favor and its material rewards flowed mainly to his curiales, the officials of his household, and his foreign born mercenaries and favorites, rather than to the the established, hereditary baronage. The latter had to pay through the nose for the 'favors' they received. Whereas Henry II had used royal offices, such as sheriff and forester, wardship of underage heirs, and custody of heiresses as sources of royal patronage, John, always desperate for money, tended to put these offices and guardianship up for auction, trying to extort as much money as possible from the bidders. John was also ruthless in collecting the debts owed him. In 1205 Thomas of Moulton offered John 500 marks to assume the office of sheriff of Lincolnshire. The shrievalty, however, proved less lucrative than Thomas expected and he fell behind in his payments to the Exchequer. John had him removed from office, imprisoned, and then hit him with an additional fine of 1000 marks. The king would not release Thomas until he had paid every penny. Such policies alienated the established nobility. Resentment was especially high among the barons of northern England, who saw themselves cut off from royal patronage and who regarded the king's court with suspicion and its courtiers and officers 'raised from the dust' with hostility tinged with contempt.

Even more problematic was John's treatment of enemies. Cruelty was not necessarily a vice in medieval rulers. Henry I, John's great grandfather, practiced mutilation of royal agents who abused their offices, cut off the hands of minters who produced counterfeit coins, and blinded traitors. But he did so with consistency and at least the veneer of justice. His cruelty was 'well committed,' the firm hand of a rex pacificus (a king of peace) who 'did not bear the sword in vain' (Romans 13:4-5). John's cruelty, in contrast, seemed capricious and disproportionate. When William Marshal, the earl of Pembroke, fell from favor in 1205, John insisted that he hand over his two eldest sons as hostages, this from the man whose name was by then a byword for loyalty. John, at one point, punished William by confiscating the lands of his closest followers and then taunted William for his failure to protect his men. He went so far as to invent the story of the death of William's closest friend, John of Earley, in order to cause the Marshal grief.

The most egregious example of John's abuse of his barons was the case of William de Braose. Like William Marshal, William de Braose was a Marcher lord (one of the barons who held lands on the Welsh border). He had a reputation as a fierce warrior, and was one of John's closest 'friends' in the early years of his reign. In 1202 he had the distinction of capturing in the battle of Mirabeau John's young nephew and rival for the throne, Count Arthur of Brittany, and was probably present when John murdered his nephew with his own hands (either strangling or drowning him). John rewarded William's loyalty and service by showering him with land grants and offices, making him the most powerful baron in south Wales. The king arranged advantageous marriages for de Braose's children, secured a bishopric for one of his younger sons, and gave William the great earldom of Limerick in Ireland. Six years after the battle of Mirabeau, William fell from favor, possibly because he supported the cause of his friend William Marshal. When John sent a messenger to William de Braose demanding from him his son as a hostage, William's wife Mathilda refused, indiscreetly declaring that she would 'not deliver up my sons to your lord, King John, because he basely murdered his nephew Arthur.' Though William attempted to silence his wife, her retort was carried back to the furious king, who responded by launching a vendetta against the de Braose clan. William, Mathilda, and their children fled to Ireland before they could be seized.

In 1210 John sent an army to Ireland after William and the Irish barons who had offered him shelter. William de Braose fled to Wales, leaving his wife and children in the protection of his neighbor Hugh de Lacy, lord of Ulster, and sent messages to John offering him the impossibly large sum of 33,333 pounds--the average baron's annual income was about 200 pounds--for the king's peace. John refused, and ordered his forces into Ulster. Mathilda and her eldest son escaped to Scotland, where they were captured and handed over to John. The lady offered John 33,333 pounds as a ransom, but William de Braose was unable to raise the money. Sick and worn out, William fled to France where he died in 1211. Mathilda and her eldest son were (according to a number of contemporary chronicles) starved to death in prison.

The second great conflict was with the papacy. The pope at the time was Innocent III (1198-1216), who not only claimed to be vicar of Christ and primate over the Church but also claimed the right to judge the morals of the laity, including of kings, and to raise up and depose monarchs. The quarrel between John and Innocent involved the choice of a archbishop for the see of Canterbury in 1206, the most important Church office in England. Bishops and abbots were supposed to be freely elected by the clergy, according to canon law (the law of the Church) and according to agreements made between the papacy and the princes in the early twelfth century (the resolution to the so-called 'Investiture Controversy'). But "freely elected" was an ambiguous term. Because the bishops were great landholders and the king's feudal vassals and because the king had promised in his coronation oath to protect and defend the Church, William the Conqueror and his successors insisted upon the right to participate in the 'elections,' to guarantee that the men chosen would be loyal and capable. (Henry II saw no contradiction in ordering 'free elections' in which no one other than his candidate should be elected.)

In 1206 John wanted the clergy of Canterbury to elect HIS candidate "freely." They preferred to elect a different candidate, and the case came before Innocent III in Rome, who suggested a third candidate, Stephen Langton. Stephen was elected by the representatives from Canterbury presenting their case to the pope. John responded by refusing to allow Archbishop Stephen into England. Innocent III answered this with a bull of interdict (closing the English churches and forbidding the administering of sacraments except for baptism and last rites) and with the excommunication of John himself (he was excluded from taking sacraments--this threatened his soul). John used the interdict as an opportunity to take over the management of--and profits arising from!--Church lands (the Church possessed about a quarter of all the landed wealth in England). It was not until 1213 that John made peace with Innocent III, and he did it then only because he was planning an invasion of France and needed the support of the pope and the clergy. Not only did John admit his errors and accept Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury and promise to restore the monies he had taken from the churches, he surrendered his kingdom into the hands of the pope and received it back as a fief. He formally performed homage and fealty to the papal legate in England. This guarded John against rebellion at home or invasion from abroad, for he was now under the protection of St. Peter. It also allowed him to continue to raise money and troops for war.

In 1214 King John of England created an impressive coalition, including his nephew the Holy Roman Emperor (=king of Germany), against Philip. But his elaborate plans failed and he suffered a decisive military defeat in France. This meant that the duchy of Normandy and the county of Anjou would remain in the hands of the king of France, Philip Augustus. John immediately began to raise more money and recruit more troops. The barons, particularly those in the north, had had enough of what they deemed royal extortion. They revolted and marched on London. On 15 June, 1215 at Runnymede (near London) King John of England was coerced by rebellious barons to grant a "great charter" of "liberties." This was Magna Carta. John thereupon sent agents to Rome to get Innocent III to annul the charter. He did. Innocent III regarded political rebels as rebels against God (see Romans 13). For him Magna Carta was not freely given (its form is that of a free grant), but coerced. The pope excommunicated the rebel barons and quashed Magna Carta.


"Rights" (iura): in 1215 "rights" meant title to hold land, offices, revenues, etc. Rights could be held by custom or by royal grant. By the end of the 13th century the words ius/iura had regained their Roman connotation of law/laws. The 'Great Charter' thus was transformed into the first statute law by subsequent commentators.

"Liberties" (libertates): in 1215 a "liberty" was a royal grant of privilege.

"Free" men: to be "free" (as opposed to being a serf=villein) in 1215 meant that one held land at fixed rents and services and could dispose of it as one wished (=free tenure); one could neither be sold nor bought; one had at least theoretical freedom of movement; one had the protection of royal law for person and property through access to royal courts. The exact proportion of free men to villeins in 1215 cannot be calculated, but a rough measure is reflected by the 1279 Hundred Rolls. Of the 10,000 tenants recorded for the midland shires, only 2 out of every 5 men were free.

"Villeins": English term for serfs, "unfree" peasants, i.e they owed specified labor services to their lords and could not leave or marry without the lord's approval.

Realm" (regnum)--the rebels interpreted "realm" to mean a community to which the king belonged. King John and his supporters viewed "realm" as a royal possession, the territory ruled by the king. Hence the chancery clerks always used the phrase "our realm" not "the realm" in the Charter.

"Fief" held "in chief": a fief was property held by a vassal from a lord in return for pledges of loyalty (homage), military service, and specified monetary payments (see below). To hold "in chief" meant to hold a fief directly from the king. "Mesne" tenants were those who held fiefs from tenants in chief. The term “honor” also meant a holding or a group of estates held by a tenant-in-chief with rights of jurisdiction.

"Relief" (art.. 2-3): a relief was a monetary payment owed by the heir to a deceased fief-holder to the lord of the deceased. One could not 'inherit' a fief unless one first did homage and paid the specified relief to the lord.

"Wardship" (art.. 2-6): if a vassal who held a fief died leaving a minor as his heir, the deceased vassal's lord had the right to guardianship over the underage heir and the fief he held from the lord. The lord could, if he wished, grant the right of guardianship over the child and his lands to another noble. The lord also had the right to choose the husband of a female heir (usually in consultation with the woman's nearest kinsmen).

"Scutage" (art.. 12): scutage was a money payment made by a fief-holder to his lord in lieu of

providing him with the knights owed from a fief.

"Aids" (art.. 12, 13-15): often mistakenly translated as 'taxes,' aids were more precisely feudal payments owed by vassals to their lords in time of need. (A 'tax' is a public levy of monies by a state; "aids" arise from a private relationship).

Shire and Hundred: shires were English counties and hundreds were administrative units within these counties. Each had a court that was public and royal in which civil and criminal cases were heard. The shire court was presided over by the king's sheriff.

Assizes: legal proceedings that resolved questions over the legal possession of land and inheritance of fiefs according to specific royal writs and actions of law.


trans. J. C. Holt, Magna Carta (Cambridge U, 1965), 317-37

[Abels's annotations are in boldface and brackets]


John, by the grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy [legal claim to lands lost by war to King Philip II Augustus of France in 1204-1205] and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou [lost to Philip 1204-1205], to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justiciars, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants and all his officials and faithful subjects greetings. [Note that John issues this charter as king and addresses its recipients in hierarchical order, beginning with the ecclesiastical officials, moving to the secular nobility, then to the royal agents in the localities, and finally to his other subjects]

Know that we [grant], from reverence for God and for the salvation of our soul and those of all our ancestors and heirs, for the honor of God and the exaltation of Holy Church and the reform of our realm [John here explains why he is freely granting these liberties; his expressed motivation is that he is doing it for the glory of God and out of his duty as a Christian king], on the advice of our reverend fathers, Stephen, Archbishop of Canterbury [followed by a list of bishops and other prelates] ... and the noble men, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke [followed by a list of barons] ... and others our faithful subjects [like any 'good' medieval king John has sought the advice of his best subjects before acting]:

1. In the first place [we] have granted [this is important--John as king is granting this privilege; it is not a natural right or a civil right] to God and by this our 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 ... of our own free will before the quarrel between us and our barons began, we conceded and confirmed by our charter, freedom of elections [John says here that the clergy has the right to elect its own bishops and abbots without interference from the king or other laymen. John begins with acknowledging the liberties of the Church and takes pains to point out that he had granted these even before the rebellion] ... We have also granted to all the free men of our realm [in 1215 only 40% of the population of England was 'free'; the remainder were serfs/villeins] for ourselves and our heirs for ever, all the liberties [privileges] written below, to have and hold, to them and their heirs from us and our heirs [this binds John's heirs to the terms of this grant].

2. If any of our earls or barons, or others holding of us in chief by knight service shall die, and at his death his heir be of full age and owe relief [see glossary], he shall have his inheritance on payment of the ancient relief, namely the heir or heirs of an earl 100 pounds for a whole earl's barony, the heir or heirs of a baron 100 pounds for a whole barony, the heir or heirs of a knight 100 shillings at most for a whole knight's fee; and anyone who owes less shall give less according to the ancient usage of fiefs.

[Article 2 defines what the king can demand in relief from the heirs of tenants in chief. Since there had been no agreed upon schedule of relief payments, John (following the precedent of Richard the Lionheart, John's brother, and Henry II, John's father) had set reliefs as high as he could in order to raise cash. He was particularly hard on barons whose loyalty he suspected. The reference to 'ancient relief' is an attempt to justify this schedule as customary. But there is no evidence that 100 pounds had ever been accepted as a customary relief for baronies or earldoms.]

3. If, however, the heir of any such person has been under age and in wardship, when he comes of age he shall have his inheritance without relief or fine. [Wards of the Crown will not be soaked twice by the king.]

4. The guardian of the land of such an heir who is underage shall not take from the land more than the reasonable revenues, customary dues and services, and that without destruction and waste of men or goods. ... And if we give or sell to anyone the wardship of any such land and he causes destruction or waste, he shall lose the wardship and it shall be transferred to two lawful and prudent men of the fief who shall be answerable to us [for the revenues]. [Protects minors from guardians who loot the property under their charge.]

6. Heirs shall be given in marriage without disparagement [wards of the Crown will not be married to their social inferiors, such as mercenary captains or household knights], yet so that before a marriage is contracted it shall be known to the heir's next of kin.

7. ... a widow shall have her marriage portion and inheritance at once without any hindrance; nor shall she pay anything for her dower [a widow's dower was the portion of her dead husband's land that she was entitled to hold for her lifetime--usually a third of his property], her marriage portion, or her inheritance which she and her husband held on the day of her husband's death; and she may stay in her husband's house for forty days after his death, within which period her dower shall be assigned to her.

8. No widow shall be compelled to marry so long as she wishes to live without a husband, provided that she gives security that she will not marry without our consent if she holds [land] of us, or without the consent of the lord of whom she holds [land], if another.

10. If anyone has borrowed from the Jews any amount, great or small, dies before the debt is repaid, it shall not carry interest as long as the heir is under age, of whomsoever he holds; and if that debt fall into our hands, we will take nothing except the principal sum specified in the bond. [Jews were legally defined as serfs of the Crown. An English king owned all of the property that belonged to a Jew and was the legal heir to a Jew. This meant that kings who needed cash could raise revenues by demanding money from the Jews, who would then raise the money by calling in the debts owed to them by Christians. Usury was a sin, but king's could profit from this sin indirectly. John in his restless search for money milked his lordship over the Jews for all it was worth. In 1210, for instance, he ordered a Jew in Bristol to pay him 10,000 marks. When the Jew resisted, John ordered one tooth to be extracted from the recalcitrant man for each day he delayed payment. He lost seven teeth in all.]

12. No scutage or aid [see glossary] is to be levied in our realm except by the common counsel of our realm, unless it is for the ransom of our person, the knighting of our eldest son or the first marriage of our eldest daughter; and for these only a reasonable aid is to be levied. Aids from the city of London are to be treated likewise.

[This is one of the most frequently quoted and historically important articles in Magna Carta. It is also one of the most abused by commentators who have wished to transform the MC into a document establishing the fundamental liberties of Englishmen. Though article 12 has often been depicted as a prohibition upon levying taxes without first obtaining the consent of those being taxed, it really does not relate to taxes at all. Rather, art.. 12 deals with the prerogative of a lord to require his vassals to give him money in times of need. This article defines the occasions in which a lord could demand money without first seeking the consent of his vassals. In fact, the barons were merely restating what had been customary practice concerning aids. The innovation was in linking scutage, which had NOT required consent, with aids, which had. The reference to London is also interesting, since lords had previously had the right to tallage [an arbitrary demand for money made by a lord upon his serfs] a town within their demesne. This article seems to alter the position of London vis-a-vis the Crown, making it liable for the payment of aids along with the barons. Whether it was also still liable to pay tallage was left unresolved.]

14. And to obtain the common counsel of the realm for the assessment of an aid (except in the three cases aforesaid) or a scutage, we will have archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls and greater barons summoned individually by our letters, and we shall also have summoned generally through our sheriffs and bailiffs all those who hold of us in chief, for a fixed date, with at least forty days' notice, and at a fixed place; and in all letters of summons we will state the reason for the summons. ... [In 1215 there was not yet an English Parliament--that was to develop in the second half of the thirteenth century. This article was meant to provide a mechanism for seeking consent to the levying of aids or scutage. If everyone answered the summons, the assembly would have been upward of 800 landholders, but the target group was much smaller, the great barons, both ecclesiastical and lay.]

15. Henceforth we will not grant anyone that he may take an aid from his free men, except to ransom his person, to make his eldest son a knight and to marry his eldest daughter once; and for these purposes only a reasonable aid is to be levied. [The rebel barons had succeeded because of the support of their tenants. Magna Carta recognizes this here and in article 60, which extends the privileges and rights granted by the king to his tenants in chief to under tenants. As J. C. Holt observes, Magna Carta, 2nd ed., CUP 1992, p. 278, Magna Carta "assumed that the liberties at issue were to be held by a community, not by a series of individuals of this or that status, but by the realm."]

16. No man shall be compelled to perform more service for a knight's fee or for any other free landed tenure than is due from it.

17. Common pleas [civil actions between individuals initiated by a royal writ and heard by a royal judge] shall not follow our court but shall be held in some fixed place. [John's father, Henry II, had revolutionized English common law by creating a number of different civil actions to safeguard the rights of under tenants against their lords. Such actions would be initiated by a writ, a written order from the Crown to a royal agent to perform a specified action. Henry II had created two centralized royal courts, one that travelled with him and the other that stayed in session at Westminster; in 1209 John had abolished the latter. This meant that litigants had to find the king to seek redress from him. This article ordered the king to reestablish a permanent court at Westminster.]

18. Recognizances [hearings and judgments] of novel disseisin, mort d'ancestor, and darrein presentment [three civil actions established by Henry II, the gist of which was that those in possession of land ought to remain in possession, even against the wishes of their lords, until a legal judgment in a royal court has established rightful possession] shall not be held elsewhere than in the court of the shire in which they occur, and in this manner: we, or if we are out the realm our chief justiciar, shall send two justices through each shire four times a year who, with four knights of each shire chosen by the shire, shall hold the said assizes [court proceedings] in the shire court on the day and the place of the meeting of the shire court. [The importance of articles 17-18 is that they show how much Henry II's common law reforms had been accepted by the English upper class. By 1215 the question was not whether common (i.e. royal) civil law would prevail over private justice, but how would this common law be made available to all those who wished to avail themselves of it.]

20. A free man will not be amerced [fined in lieu of corporal punishment] for a trivial offence, except in accordance with the gravity of the offence. ... and none of the aforesaid amercements shall be imposed except by the testimony of reputable men of the neighborhood.

21. Earls and barons shall not be amerced except by their peers and only in accordance with the nature of the offence. [This is the basis for the idea of trial by one's peers. Note, however, that here it is based on class distinctions.]

22. No village or man shall be forced to build bridges at river banks, except those who ought to do so by custom and law. [The Crown cannot impose new public works on the localities.]

27. If any free man dies without a will, his chattels are to be distributed to his nearest relations and friends, under the supervision of the Church [note], except for debts the deceased owed to others.

28. No constable or any other of our bailiffs shall take any man's grain or other chattels unless he pays cash for them at once or can delay payment with the agreement of the seller. [This article attempts to reform the practice of royal purveyance, whereby agents of the king could gather supplies for the court or for an army--constables were in charge of the king's military forces--by simply seizing them with a vague promise of subsequent compensation. Articles 30 and 31 forbid royal agents from using carts or timber without the owners' agreement.]

29. No constable is to compel any knight to give money in lieu of performing castleguard, if he is willing to perform that guard in his own person or by another reliable man ... If we take or send him on military service, he shall be excused the guard in proportion to the period of his service. [Castles were of the utmost military importance, and castleguard was one of the most important, though least noted, obligations of fief-holders. John apparently preferred hiring mercenaries to using the obligated service of his tenants.]

32. We shall not hold the lands of convicted felons for more than a year and a day, when the lands shall be returned to the lords of the fiefs. [This recognizes that an under tenant's crimes cannot make his lord lose possession of that tenant's fief.]

35. [Decrees that there should be one measure and weight for wine, grain, and cloth throughout the kingdom.]

38. No bailiff shall put anyone on trial by his own unsupported allegation, without bringing credible witness to the charge.

39. No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers [see art.. 21] or by the law of the land.

40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.

41. All merchants are to be safe and secure in leaving and entering England, and in staying and travelling in England ... to buy and sell free from all tolls by the ancient and rightful customs, except in time of war. ... And if such men are found in our land at the outbreak of war they shall be detained without damage to their persons or goods, until we or our chief justiciar know how the merchants of our land are treated in the enemy land; and if ours are safe there, the others shall be safe in our land. [This article was intended to protect alien merchants in order to facilitate foreign trade; by the 17th century it had become reinterpreted to forbid the Crown from levying taxes upon trade.]

42. Anyone, saving his allegiance due to us, may leave our realm and return safe and secure by land an water, except for a short period in time of war on account of the general interest of the realm and excepting those imprisoned and outlawed according to the law of the land, and natives of an enemy land, and merchants, who shall be treated as aforesaid. [Note the implication that before this the king claimed the right to prohibit individuals from either leaving or reentering England without obtaining royal permission.]

45. We will not raise up men to be justices, constables, sheriffs or bailiffs, unless they know the law of the land and mean to observe it well.

44, 47, 48. [These articles deal with the royal forests. They reflect the general hostility toward the royal prerogatives claimed in these forests (e.g., the prohibition on hunting made famous by Robin Hood) and toward the royal agents who enforced them.)

54. No one shall be taken or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman for the death of anyone except for her husband.

52, 55 [Promises to restore all lands, castles, liberties or rights taken away without lawful judgment of peers and to remit all fines and amercements imposed contrary to the law of the land. Any disagreement about the lawfulness of such actions will be decided by a council of 25 barons described in art.. 61.]

60. All the aforesaid customs and liberties which we have granted to be held in our realm as far as it pertains to us toward our men, shall be observed by all men of our realm, both cleric and layman, as far as it pertains to them, towards their own men. [This generalizes throughout the entire feudal hierarchy all of the concessions made by the Crown to its tenants in chief.]

61. Since, moreover, we have granted all the aforesaid things for God, for the reform of our realm and the better settling of the quarrel which has arisen between us and our barons, .... we give and grant the following security: namely, that the barons shall choose any twenty-five barons of the realm they wish, who with all their might are to observe, maintain and cause to be observed the peace and liberties which he granted and confirmed to them by this present charter; so that if we or our justiciar or our bailiffs or any of our servants offend against anyone in any way, or transgress any of the articles of peace or security, and the offence is indicated by four of the twenty-five barons, these four .... shall bring it to our notice and ask that we have it redressed without delay. And if we ... do not redress the offence within forty days from the time it was brought to our notice ... the aforesaid four barons will refer the case to the rest of the twenty-five barons and those twenty-five barons with the commune of all the land shall distrain and distress us in every way they can, namely by seizing castles, lands and possessions, and in such other ways as they can, saving our person and those of our queen and of our children, until, in their judgment amends have been made; and when it had been redressed they are to obey us as they did before. ... [In this amazing article John licenses the formation of a watchdog council of 25 barons who are granted the right of waging limited civil war upon the Crown in the event that the king does not abide by the promises contained in the Charter. The nature of the security is a reminder of the hostility and distrust that produced the Charter and the lack of institutional checks upon royal power.]

62. We have completely remitted and pardoned [right!] to all any ill will, grudge or rancor that have arisen between us and our subjects...from the time of the quarrel...

63. Whence we wish and firmly command that the English church shall be free [cf. art.. 1], and the men in our realm shall have and hold all the aforesaid liberties, rights and concessions well and peacefully, freely and quietly, fully and completely for them and for their heirs of us and of our heirs in all things and places for ever, as is aforesaid. Moreover, an oath has been sworn, both on our part and on the part of the barons, that all these things aforesaid shall be observed in good faith [yeah, right] and without evil intent. ...


Holt, J. C. Magna Carta, 2nd. edition. Cambridge U. Press, 1992.

Magna Carta and Medieval Government. Hambledon Press, 1985.

Magna Carta and the Idea of Liberty (ed.). John Wiley, 1972.

Turner, Ralf. King John. Longmans, 1994.

Warren, W. L. Henry II. California U. Press, 1973.

King John. California U. Press, 1961.

The Governance of Anglo-Norman and Angevin England. Edward Arnold, 1987.