The Text of Magna Carta
As might be expected, the text of the Magna Carta of 1215 bears many
traces of haste, and is clearly the product of much bargaining and
many hands. Most of its clauses deal with specific, and often
long-standing, grievances rather than with general principles of
law. Some of the grievances are self-explanatory: others can be
understood only in the context of the feudal society in which they
arose. Of a few clauses, the precise meaning is still a matter of
In feudal society, the king's barons held their lands `in fee'
(feudum) from the king, for an oath to him of loyalty and obedience,
and with the obligation to provide him with a fixed number of knights
whenever these were required for military service. At first the barons
provided the knights by dividing their estates (of which the largest
and most important were known as `honours') into smaller parcels
described as `knights' fees', which they distributed to tenants able
to serve as knights. But by the time of King John it had become more
convenient and usual for the obligation for service to be commuted for
a cash payment known as `scutage', and for the revenue so obtained to
be used to maintain paid armies.
Besides military service, feudal custom allowed the king to make
certain other exactions from his barons. In times of emergency, and on
such special occasions as the marriage of his eldest daughter, he
could demand from them a financial levy known as an `aid'
(auxilium). When a baron died, he could demand a succession
duty or `relief' (relevium) from the baron's heir. If there was
no heir, or if the succession was disputed, the baron's lands could be
forfeited or `escheated' to the Crown. If the heir was under age, the
king could assume the guardianship of his estates, and enjoy all the
profits from them-ven to the extent of despoliation-until the heir
came of age. The king had the right, if he chose, to sell such a
guardianship to the highest bidder, and to sell the heir himself in
marriage for such price as the value of his estates would command. The
widows and daughters of barons might also be sold in marriage. With
their own tenants, the barons could deal similarly.
The scope for extortion and abuse in this system, if it were not
benevolently applied, was obviously great and had been the subject of
complaint long before King John came to the throne. Abuses were,
moreover, aggravated by the difficulty of obtaining redress for them,
and in Magna Carta the provision of the means for obtaining a fair
hearing of complaints, not only against the king and his agents but
against lesser feudal lords, achieves corresponding importance.
About two-thirds of the clauses of the Magna Carta of 1215 are
concerned with matters such as these, and with the misuse of their
powers by royal officials. As regards other topics, the first clause,
conceding the freedom of the Church, and in particular confirming its
right to elect its own dignitaries without royal interference,
reflects John's dispute with the Pope over Stephen Langton's election
as archbishop of Canterbury: it does not appear in the Articles of the
Barons, and its somewhat stilted phrasing seems in part to be
attempting to justify its inclusion, none the less, in the charter
itself. The clauses that deal with the royal forests (§§ 44,
47, 48), over which the king had special powers and jurisdiction,
reflect the disquiet and anxieties that had arisen on account of a
longstanding royal tendency to extend the forest boundaries, to the
detriment of the holders of the lands affected. Those that deal with
debts (§§ 9-1l) reflect administrative problems created by
the chronic scarcity of ready cash among the upper and middle classes,
and their need to resort to money-lenders when this was required. The
clause promising the removal of fish-weirs (§ 33) was intended to
facilitate the navigation of rivers. A number of clauses deal with the
special circumstances that surrounded the making of the charter, and
are such as might be found in any treaty of peace. Others, such as
those relating to the city of London (§ 13) and to merchants
(§ 41), clearly represent concessions to special interests.
(Clauses marked (+) are still valid under the charter of 1225, but
with a few minor amendments. Clauses marked (*) were omitted in all
later reissues of the charter. In the charter itself the clauses are
not numbered, and the text reads continuously. The translation sets
out to convey the sense rather than the precise wording of the
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,
KNOW THAT BEFORE GOD, for the health of our soul and those of our
ancestors and heirs, to the honour 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
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 for the entire
earl's barony, the heir or heirs of a knight l00s. 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 fine.
(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 to us.
(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 to her.
(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
* (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 ouly 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 appeared.
* (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
(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 manors.
(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 servlce.
(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 standardised 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 `honour' 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 it.
(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
* (49) We will at once return all hostages and charters delivered up
to us by Englishmen as security for peace or for loyal service.
* (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 followers.
* (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 connexion
with forests that are to be disafforested, or to remain forests, when
these were first a-orested 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 unjustiy 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
* (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
* (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
chiefjustice, 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
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 they were.
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 appear.
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
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 peace.
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 fulness 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
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).
Source and Further Information
G. R. C. Davis, Magna Carta, Revised Edition, British Library,
British Library Publications - An Overview.
Copyright © 1995, The British Library Board
From Portico - The British Library's Online Information Server