MAGNA CARTA (1215)
Transcribed in modern English

(NB: Glossary at the end of the text.)

King John promises his bishops and barons that:

1. The English church shall be free.

2 - 6. The guardian of an heir who is under age must return the latter's property when he comes of age; the property must be properly looked after while in the guardian's hand; the guardian may not take a fee for handing it back; nor may he marry off the heir to somebody of lower rank.

7. After her husband's death, a widow shall have her marriage portion and her inheritance at once and without any hindrance; nor shall she pay anything for her dower, 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 of us, or without the consent of the lord of whom she holds, if she holds of another. [if she holds of us: if she is living on land of ours]

9. Neither we nor our bailiffs will seize any land or rent in payment of a debt so 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 debtor himself is capable of paying the debt.

12. No scutage or aid 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. [realm: kingdom, ransom: Lösegeld].

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. And when the summons has thus been made, the business shall go forward on the day arranged according to the counsel of those present, even if not all those summoned have come.

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.

16. No man shall be compelled to perform more 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. Recognizances of novel disseisin, mort d'ancestor, and darrein presentment shall not be held elsewhere than in the court of the County in which they occur, and in this manner: we, or if we are out of the realm our chief justiciar, shall send two justices through each county four times a year who, with four knights of each county chosen by the county, shall hold the said assizes in the county court on the day and in the place of meeting of the county court.

19. And if the said assizes cannot all be held on the day of the county court, so many knights and freeholders of those present in the county court on that day shall remain behind as will suffice to make judgements, according to the amount of business to be done.

20. A free man shall not be amerced for a trivial offence, except in accordance with the degree of the offence; and for a serious offence he shall be amerced according to its gravity, saving his livelihood; and a merchant likewise, saving his merchandise; in the same way a villein shall be amerced saving his wainage; if they fall into our mercy. And none of the aforesaid amercements shall be imposed except by the testimony of reputable men of the neighbourhood. [saving his livelihood: without destroying his livelihood, if they fall into our mercy: if we fine them].

21. Earls and barons shall not be amerced except by their peers and only in accordance with the nature of the offence.

27. If any free man dies intestate, his chattels are to be distributed by his nearest relations and friends, under the supervision of the Church, saving to everyone the debts which the deceased owed him. [to die intestate: to die without having made a will, the deceased: the dead person].

28. No constable or any other of our bailiffs shall take any man's corn or other chattels unless he pays cash for them at once or can delay payment with the agreement of the seller.

29. No constable is to compel any knight to give money for castle guard, if he is willing to perform that guard in his own person or by another reliable man, if for some good reason he is unable to do it himself; and if we take or send him on military service, he shall be excused the guard in proportion to the period of his service.

30. No sheriff or bailiff of ours or anyone else is to take horses or carts of any free man for carting without his agreement.

31. Neither we nor our bailiffs shall take other men's timber for castles or other work of ours, without the agreement of the owner.

32. We will 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.

35. Let there be one measure of wine throughout our kingdom and one measure of ale and one measure of corn, namely the London quarter, and one width of cloth whether dyed, russet or halberjet, namely two ells within the selvedges. Let it be the same with weights as with measures.

38. Henceforth no bailiff shall put anyone on trial by his own unsupported allegation, without bringing credible witnesses 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 judgement of his peers 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, both by land and by water, to buy and sell free from all maletotes by the ancient and rightful customs, except, in time of war, such as come from an enemy country. [maletotes: taxes].

42. Henceforth anyone, saving his allegiance due to us, may leave our realm and return safe and secure by land and water, save 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 country, and merchants, who shall be treated as aforesaid.

45. We will not make justices, constables, sheriffs or bailiffs who do not know the law of the land and mean to observe it well.

47. All forests which have been afforested in our time shall be disafforested at once; and river banks which we have enclosed in our time shall be treated similarly.

49. We will restore at once all hostages and charters delivered to us by Englishmen as securities for peace or faithful service.

51. Immediately after concluding peace. we will remove from the kingdom all alien knights, crossbowmen, sergeants and mercenary soldiers who have come with horses and arms to the hurt of the realm.

52. If anyone has been disseised or deprived by us without lawful judgement of his peers of lands, castles, liberties or his rights we will restore them to him at once; and if any disagreement arises on this, then let it be settled by the judgement of the Twenty-Five barons referred to below in the security clause. But for all those things of which anyone was disseised or deprived without lawful judgement of his peers by King Henry our father, or by King Richard our brother, which we hold in our hand or which are held by others under our warranty, we shall have respite for the usual crusader's term; excepting those cases in which a plea was begun or inquest made on our order before we took the cross; when, however, we return from our pilgrimage, or if perhaps we do not undertake it, we will at once do full justice in these matters.

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

56. If we have disseised or deprived Welshmen of lands, liberties or other things without lawful judgement of their peers, in England or in Wales, they are to be returned to them at once; and if a dispute arises over this it shall be settled in the March by judgement of their peers; for tenements in England according to the law of England, for tenements in Wales according to the law of Wales, for tenements in the March according to the law of the March. The Welsh are to do the same to us and ours.

58. We will restore at once the son of Llywelyn and all the hostages from Wales and the charters delivered to us as security for peace.

59. We will treat Alexander, King of the Scots, concerning the return of his sisters and hostages and his liberties and rights in the same manner in which we will act towards our other barons of England, unless it ought to be otherwise because of the charters which we have from William his father, formerly King of the Scots; and this shall be determined by the judgement of his peers in our court.

60. All these aforesaid customs and liberties which we have granted to be held in our realm as far as it pertains to us towards our men, shall be observed by all men of our realm, both clerk and lay, as far as it pertains to them, towards their own men.

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, and since we wish these things to be enjoyed fully and undisturbed, we give and grant them 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 we have granted and confirmed to them by this our 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 to four of the aforesaid twenty-five barons, those four barons shall come to us or our justiciar, if we are out of the kingdom, and shall bring it to our notice and ask that we will have it redressed without delay. And if we, or our justiciar, should we be out of the kingdom, do not redress the offence within forty days from the time when it was brought to the notice of us or our justiciar, should we be out of the kingdom, the aforesaid four barons shall 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 selling 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 judgement, amends have been made; and when it has been redressed they are to obey us as they did before. And anyone in the land who wishes may take an oath to obey the orders of the said twenty-five barons in the execution of all the aforesaid matters, and to join with them in distressing us to the best of his ability, and we publicly and freely permit anyone who wishes to take the oath, and we will never forbid anyone to take it. Moreover we shall compel and order all those in the land who of themselves and of their own free will are unwilling to take an oath to the twenty-five barons to distrain and distress us with them, to take the oath as aforesaid. And if any of the twenty-five barons dies or leaves the country or is otherwise prevented from discharging these aforesaid duties, the rest of the aforesaid barons shall on their own decision choose another in his place, who shall take the oath in the same way as the others. In all matters the execution of which is committed to those twenty-five barons, if it should happen that the twenty-five are present and disagree among themselves on anything, or if any of them who has been summoned will not or cannot come, whatever the majority of those present shall provide or order is to be taken as fixed and settled as if the whole twenty-five had agreed to it; and the aforesaid twenty-five are to swear that they will faithfully observe all the aforesaid and will do all they can to secure its observance. And we will procure nothing from anyone, either personally or through another, by which any of these concessions and liberties shall be revoked or diminished; and if any such thing is procured, it shall be null and void, and we will never use it either ourselves or through another.

62. And we have completely remitted and pardoned to all any ill will, grudge and rancour that have arisen between us and our subjects, clerk and lay, from the time of the quarrel. Moreover we have fully forgiven and completely condoned to all, clerk and lay, as far as pertains to us, all offences occasioned by the said quarrel from Easter in the sixteenth year of our reign to the conclusion of peace. And moreover we have caused letters patent of the Lord Stephen, Archbishop of Canterbury , the Lord Henry, Archbishop of Dublin, the aforesaid bishops and Master Pandulf to be made for them on this security and the aforesaid concessions.

63. Wherefore we wish and firmly command that the English Church shall be free, 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 their heirs of us and 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 and without evil intent. Witness the above-mentioned and many others. Given under our hand in the meadow which is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign.

Glossary:

Abbot: head of an abbey or monastic community. Aid: any money payment made to an overlord, but more precisely a payment made to him on certain specific occasions.

Amercement: a fine imposed by a court of law.

Archbishop: the chief bishop in an ecclesiastical division or province.

Attach: to take into official custody.

Bailiff: a minor local official responsible to the sheriff of the county, but the word is often used in a more general sense.

Baron: the highest rank of tenant in the feudal system, holding land directly from the king in return for knight service.

Barony: a large estate held directly from the king by knight service.

Bishop: the highest order of ministers in the Church, governing a diocese with a cathedral as his official seat.

Borough: .a town possessing a certain degree of selfgovernment and special privileges granted by royal charter .

Burgage: tenure of a tenement or property within a town; it involved a fixed rent in lieu of all services and the right to leave lands and tenements by will and to sell and mortgage without hindrance.

Cardinal: the highest rank in the Church after the Pope.

Castleguard: the obligation to provide service for the manning of a castle.

Chancery: the centre of all royal secretarial work, under the direction of the Chancellor; as custodian of the royal seal, all official documents had to be approved by h i m .

Charter: a document granted by a ruler conferring privileges on his subjects.

Chattels: personal estate, movable goods; distinguished from real estate, i.e., lands and revenues, the permanent means of livelihood.

Chief: see In chief.

Church: at this period there was one Church throughout Europe, governed by the Pope in Rome.

Common pleas: suits between subject and subject regarding real property, i.e., at this time principally land, build ings and titles.

Constable: a military official, especially one in charge of a castle.

Coroner: a high ranking royal official; four were appointed to each county to protect the king's interests, one of their duties being to make all preliminary investigations before a trial.

Count: the French equivalent of the English title 'Earl.' Cross: to take the Cross: to make a vow to go on a crusade against the Moslems in the Holy Land.

Darrein Presentment: an inquest to establish who pre-##

sented the incumbent to an ecclesiastical benefice or living, whose patronage was in dispute on the last occasion that it was vacant.

Demesne: land administered directly by the lord and his officials as distinct from that which was let out to others.

Disparagement: forced marriage to one who was not an equal.

Disseisin: see Novel Disseisin.

Distrain: compel by legal seizure.

Dower: the portion of a husband's lands set aside at the time of her marriage to support his wife in her widowhood.

Duke: a title denoting independent sovereignty over a small state; not at this period a title to lands in England.

Earl: the highest rank or title of English nobles, holding lands in the region whose name was attached to the title but without direct authority there.

Ell: a standard measure of length said to have been based on the length of the right arm of Henry I.

Escheat: the reversion of an estate to its overlord, generally because there was no legal heir or because its holder had forfeited it by having committed a felony.

Fee-farm: absolute tenure of a property in perpetuity by an annual payment.

Felony: the more serious criminal offences, which at this time generally rendered a culprit liable to death and forfeiture of his property.

Fief or fee: an estate held by heritable tenure, i.e., given absolutely to a man for knight service.

Fishweirs: used in a general sense to cover all large, static contrivances for catching fish, the cause of serious inconvenience to boats navigating in inland waters.

Forest: i.e. royal forest: lands reserved by the king for hunting and therefore put under a very severe code of forest laws, which provided a useful subsidiary source of royal income.

Freemen: those of free status in the eyes of the law, i.e., not villeins.

Halberjet: probably a superior type of cloth.

Honour: the name given to a very few large baronial estates; an honour was held of the king by knight service and normally was never subdivided.

Hundred: the major subdivision of a shire or county in most of England.

Implead: to sue in a court of justice.

In chief: holding directly from the king, not from a baron.

Inquest: formal inquiry made by the sheriff whereby a local jury was summoned to testify as to the facts in a particular matter.

Justiciar: chief justiciar: an official who acted as regent during the king's absence from England.

Local justiciar: a local legal official found in certain towns.

Knight: originally a mounted soldier, but here usually a well-to-do landowner, below baronial rank.

Knight service: tenure by the duty of providing a knight or knights to fight for an overlord in time of war or man his castles in time of peace.

Knight's fee: an area of land charged with the maintenance of one knight for knight service.

Knights of the Temple: a military order living under a monastic rule.

Lay holding: property held by performing secular and not ecclesiastical duties.

Letters patent: letters with the seal pendant from them, as distinct from letters close which were sealed with a blob of wax that had to be removed before the letter was open; as the seal was at this time the mark of legal validity it meant that any important letters had to be sealed patent.

Marriage portion: the property bestowed on a bride at the time of her marriage by a close relative or friend as endowment for her and her children.

Mort d' Ancestor: an inquest as to whether an heir had been prevented from taking possession of some property he should have inherited.

Novel Disseisin: an inquest into an alleged recent eviction of a tenant from his free tenement.

Peers: equals before the law.

Petty Sergeanty: tenure by the delivery of some trivial object, like an arrowhead, instead of by a rent or military service.

Pleas of the Crown: grave criminal offences such as ambush, forcible entry, neglect of summons to local military service.

Praecipe: a royal writ ordering disputed land to be restored to a plaintiff on pain of having the case transferred to a royal court.

Primate: the chief bishop in a single state; in England, the archbishop of Canterbury.

Relief: a payment by an heir of full military age when taking over his estate held by military tenure; if the heir was under age at the time of his accession he became a ward.

Royal chancery: see Chancery.

Russet: a coarse homespun cloth much used by the peasantry.

Scutage: the money payment made instead of providing a knight or knights for knight service.

Selvedges: the borders which were usually of a different weave from the body of the cloth.

Seneschal: French title for a steward.

Sergeanty: see Petty Sergeanty.

Sheriff: direct agent of the king in each county or shire.

Socage: a free, heritable tenure generally by a money rent.

Subdeacon: a person ordained to office in the Church, ranking after the three major orders of bishops, priests and deacons.

Trithing: the Ridings or third parts' into which Yorkshire and Lincolnshire were divided.

Villein: country peasant bound to work on a manor or estate; not free to leave the manor or marry , etc. , without the consent of his lord; the lowest order of society in the feudal system.

Wainage: the chattels on which the villein depended for his livelihood, such as farm implements.

Wapentake: the institution corresponding to the hundred in certain northern and midland shires.

Ward: heir of a deceased tenant who was too young to give military service in return for his lands, and who was therefore entrusted to the care of his lord, who took charge of his possessions until he should come of age.

Warren: an enclosure wherein the owner had exclusive rights to hunt lesser game.