Magna Carta

Excerpted from Magna Carta

Introduction by Max Etchemendy

A Landmark for Legal History
Magna Carta
— the Great Charter — is one of the most important documents in legal history. The original version of the Charter was, in essence, forced upon the widely despised King John “Lackland” in 1215 by rebellious barons.

You may remember King John as the unimpressive younger brother of the great military hero Richard the Lionheart. He also appears as one of the villains in versions of the Robin Hood myth.

John was not the first Anglo-Norman king to face rebellious nobles, though his “reckless oppression,”1 high taxes, and unwillingness to listen to his barons’ advice led to especially fierce resistance.

Imposing Limits and Regulations
How did the Great Charter lessen the barons’ worries about abuses of royal power? Among other things, the Charter regularized relations between barons and tenants to avoid royal interference and abuse. It also regulated courts and put limits on the king’s ability to limit the movement of foreign merchants.

But perhaps the most famous provisions of the Charter were those preventing a man from being convicted without due process of law (Chapter 39). This meant that a man could not be imprisoned, exiled, made an outlaw, or have his lands confiscated without going through proper, established legal processes (for example, a fair trial by battle or jury).

The Charter’s immediate result was “to familiarize people with the idea that by means of a written document it was possible to make notable changes in the law.”

But over the centuries, Magna Carta became a symbol of the rule of law. Ralph Turner explains: “[T]he Charter…established the basic principle that the rule of law ensures personal liberty. First, the executive power must proceed by recognized legal process, never unlawfully…Second, no one is above the law, however high his or her status.”

Eight centuries later, these ideas lie at the foundation of the Anglo-American legal tradition.


Theodore F. T. Plucknett. A Concise History of the Common Law. 5th ed. Union, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, 2001.

Ralph V. Turner. Magna Carta. Harlow: Pearson, 2003.

due process of law: the legal procedures that the law requires, usually (though not always) carried out by or with the supervision of a court. Magna Carta defines these procedures as "the lawful judgment of [a defendant's] peers or by the law of the land" (MC 39). Of course, that's not very doesn't tell us what the law of the land is! A person would have to turn to other sources to answer that question. But this provision makes it clear that the King can't just do whatever he wants whenever he wants. Even his courts, his sheriffs, and his foresters would have to obey the law.

trial by battle: resolving a dispute by one-on-one combat. Champions were often used in place of the actual parties to the lawsuit. Rule of Law and Personal Liberty. This practice was introduced to England by the Normans, and by the time of Magna Carta it was already something of a relic of an older, more savage time: it wasn't available in all legal actions, and litigants increasingly found ways to avoid it. (Even though God was supposed to favor the rightful party, everybody knew it was still a gamble, not to mention dangerous and painful for whoever had to do the actual fighting.) Still, trial by battle wasn't formally abolished in England until 1819.


In primis concessisse Deo et hac praesenti carta nostra confirmasse, pro nobis et heredibus nostris in perpetuum, quod Anglicana ecclesiae libera sit, et habeat iura sua integra, et libertates suas illesas.  Concessimus etiam omnibus liberis hominibus regni nostri, pro nobis et heredibus nostris in perpetuum, omnes libertates subscriptas, habendas et tenendas eis et heredibus suis, de nobis et heredibus nostris. First, we and our heirs have granted to God, as this charter confirms, the freedom of  the English Church with all its rights and liberties. We and our heirs forever have also granted to all freemen of our kingdom all the liberties stated below, to be had and held by them and their heirs. EI
Nulla vidua distringatur ad se maritandum, dum voluerit vivere sine marito, ita tamen quod securitatem faciat quod se non maritabit sine assensu nostro, si de nobis tenuerit, vel sine assensu domini sui de quo tenuerit, si de alio tenuerit. No widow will be forced to remarry as long as she wishes to live without a husband. However, she must offer security [property that could be confiscated] to ensure that she will not marry without our consent if she holds [her land] from us, or without the consent of her lord if she holds [her land] from someone else. EII
Nullus constabularius, vel alius ballivus noster, capiat blada vel alia catalla alicuius, nisi statim inde reddat denarios, aut respectum inde habere possit de voluntate venditoris. Nullus ballivus ponat decetero aliquem ad legem simplici loquela sua, sine testibus fidelibus ad hoc inductis. No government men will take grain or cattle from anyone without immediate payment, unless the seller willingly postpones payment. No bailiff can subject anyone to his law on his word alone without trustworthy witnesses presented for this purpose. EIII
Nullus liber homo capiatur, vel imprisonetur, aut disseisiatur, aut utlagetur, aut exuletur, aut aliquo modo destruatur, nec super cum ibimus, nec super cum mittemus, nisi per legale iudicium parium suorum vel per legem terrae. No free man will be arrested, imprisoned, deprived of his land, outlawed, exiled, or ruined in any way, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or the law of the land; neither will we proceed against him or send [judges out] against him except according to the law of the law. GI
Nulli vendemus, nulli negabimus aut differemus rectum aut iustitiam.  Nullus capiatur nec imprisonetur propter appellum feminae de morte alterius quam viri sui. We will not sell justice or deny rights or justice to anyone. No one will be arrested or imprisoned for murder on the accusation of a women unless the victim is her husband. GII

Etymology Exercise I

1. The animal rights activists presented their case for the liberation of the caged lab rats.
2.  The cartographer created the map by integrating a variety of land features.
3.  He relinquished his heredity claims to the house, confirming doubts as to his parentage.  

Etymology Exericse II

1. to agree: assent
2. the state of being safe: security
3. to rule over others: dominate

Etymology Exercise III

The London constable was called to testify regarding the case of the vendor who dealt in pirated DVDs.  Unfortunately, the defendant had no respect for legal customs, and began shouting at the witness.  The bailiff had to remove her from the courtroom.

Grammar I: Future Tense, Passive Voice

Put the verbs in the third person passive, future passive indicative.

1. Iacietur ad lupis!
2. Ardebitur in taleam!
3. Tegebitur vivendum!
4. Dormietur cum piscibus!
5. Caput eius in taleam ponebitur!

Grammar II: nullus, -a, -um

Give the correct form of nullus, -a, -um.

1.  Nullus rectum habet.
2.  Nullus hoc me vendet.
3.  Nulli hoc nego.
4.  Nullos libros legi.
6.  Nullum in lapide scribitur.