A Look at Magna Carta

Magna Carta (the Great Charter) is, by any standards, one of the most important documents in English history, and indeed in all those countries which have drawn on the Anglo-Saxon political and constitutional tradition. It has been interpreted as the beginning of a number of central English freedoms and rights, and as the first stage of the establishment of power for the people, rather than the king. It is still quoted in law-courts (most recently, in a case involving fishing rights in Ireland, in 2007, nearly 800 years after the charter was drawn up).

That said, it is in some respects misleading to regard Magna Carta as enshrining the fundamental rights of the English people. First, because Magna Carta was really much more to do with an attempt to settle a political problem, than to establish legal rights. King John was facing opposition from his barons at home (mainly because he had over-taxed them, in part to pay for disastrous military campaigns aimed at recovering his continental possessions in Normandy) and the whole of England had been placed under a papal interdict by the powerful Innocent III after John had opposed the pope’s nominee to the archbishopric of Canterbury. The barons wanted him to confirm the laws of Edward the Confessor and the so-called ‘charter of liberties’ issued by Henry I at his coronation in 1100. (References to previous laws, always frequent in medieval texts, are found throughout Magna Carta.) Secondly, whilst Magna Carta does provide certain rights to ‘free men’, it did nothing for the serfs and is really mostly concerned with the relationship between the king and his wealthier landowners.

Nevertheless, Magna Carta is the first of a number of documents which set in motion the process by which the modern English state emerged. It was not of course, written in English, the language of the conquered which (despite a long history of use in writing) largely disappears from sight in the documentary record of the Middle Ages after 1066, only resurfacing in the thirteenth century. The first version of the charter was in Latin, but it was quickly translated into Anglo-Norman, spoken by the king, but also by at least his barons and perhaps by some of the French-speaking nobility. Most of the population, of course, would have spoken only English, but, as already indicated, Magna Carta did not in any case have much to do with them. The Anglo-Norman translation, almost certainly made in order to help to promulgate the charter in Hampshire, was copied into a cartulary (that is, a later collection of materials) in a leper-hospital in Pont-Audemer, in Normandy, and that is the version which survives, extracts from which are shown, translated, and discussed below. The images are of the original manuscript which is now in the Bibliothèque Municipale in Rouen , and are reproduced here by kind permission of the Collections de la Bibliothèque Municipale de Rouen, and of the photographer, Thierry Ascencio-Parvy. [Collections Bibliothèque Municipale de Rouen. Photographie: Thierry ASCENCIO-PARVY.]

The existence of a version of Magna Carta in Anglo-Norman is itself of some significance. It is relatively unusual for an important political and state document to be written in any language other than Latin, which at this time was the language of the church, of education, and of power all over Europe. England is a bit of an exception in that Anglo-Norman (the language of the Conqueror and his men) came to be used at a very early stage – earlier than in France – for similar purposes, presumably as a sort of statement of authority on the part of the Normans.

The language of this Anglo-Norman copy of Magna Carta contains many words which have passed into English and remain central to English government and the English state. Indeed much of the vocabulary of the apparatus of that state is Anglo-Norman in origin: the Houses of Parliament, the House of Commons, the word government itself, and of course the entirety of the language of the law.

The Rouen manuscript of Magna Carta, Bibliothèque Municipale MS. Y 200, is made of vellum. The text occupies folios 81-87v. The extracts here begin a little way down Folio 83v of the manuscript, and continue with the whole of folios 84v and 84r, concluding with the top portion of 85r. Below each segment of manuscript illustrated is a transcription, with a translation below it.

In the transcriptions, characters missing from the manuscript and supplied by the editor where necessary to complete the sense are enclosed in square brackets. Characters in italics denote places where the manuscript uses a contraction or abbreviation which the transcription has written out in full. In particular, the initial capitals at the beginning of paragraphs are enclosed in square brackets, because they are missing in the manuscript itself – a space was left for them to be added later, presumably in coloured ink, but somehow this seems to have been forgotten. The translation is deliberately designed to help readers follow the original by staying as close as is feasible to the syntax of the original, and is not necessarily meant to read well as a translation in its own right. If you put your mouse pointer over any word in the manuscript image, the corresponding point in the transcript will be highlighted. Clicking on the marked words in the transcript will open up an annotation, generally including a link to a corresponding AND entry. A further click on the same word will re-hide the annotation.

Folio 83v

[S]e aucuns frans huem muert senz testament, li chatel seient departi par les mains
des prochains parenz e de ses amis par la veue de seinte iglise, sauves les dettes a chascun
que le mort lor devoit

If any free man dies without leaving a will, his moveable goods shall be distributed by his close relatives and friends, under Church supervision, except for debts which shall be paid to those to whom the deceased owed them.

[N]us de noz conestables ne de noz altres bailliz ne pregne les blez ne les altres chatels
d’aucun, se maintenant n’en paie les deniers, o il n’en puet aver respit par volenté
del vendeor.

None of our constables nor of our other officers shall take corn or other moveable goods from anyone, unless he pays the money for them, or he is allowed to postpone payment by the will of the seller.

[N]us conestables ne destreigne nul chevalier a doner deniers por la garde del chastel
s’il la voit faire en sa prop[r]e persone u par altre prodome, s’il ne la puet faire por aulcune
reignable achaisun; e se nos le menons o enveions en ost, il sera quites d’icele garde
tant dis cum il sera par nos en l’ost

No constable shall distrain any knight to give money for castle-guard if the knight wants to guard it himself or have it guarded by another worthy man if the knight has a reasonable excuse for not doing it himself; and if we should take or send the knight on military service, he shall be excused from castle-guard for such time as he serving in our army.

[N]us viscontes ne nostre bailliz ne altre ne pregne les chevals ne les charettes d’aucun
franc home por faire cariage, fors par la volenté de cel franc home.

No sheriff, official or anyone else shall take the horses or carts of any free man for transport, unless by the will of that free man.

[N]e nos ne nostre baillie ne prendrons altrui bois a nos chastels o a nos altres ovres faire,
fors par volenté de celui cui sera li bois.

Neither we nor our officers shall take wood from anyone else for our castles or for other works, except by the will of the owner of the wood.

[N]os ne tendrons les terres de cels qui seront convencu de felonie, fors un an e un jor, e
adons les rendrons as seignors des fiez.

We shall not hold the lands of those convicted of felony for more than a year and a day, and at that point we shall return them to the lords of the fiefs concerned.

[T]ot li kidel seient d’ici en avant osté del tot en tot de Tamise e de Medoine, e par
tote Engleterre, fors par la costiere de la mer.

All fishing-weirs shall henceforth be entirely removed from the Thames and the Medway, and throughout England, except on the sea coast.

[L]i bries qui est apelezprecipetdes ci en avant ne seit fais a nul d’aucun tenement,
dont frans hoem peust perdre sa cort.

The writ called ‘precipe’ shall not henceforth be issued to anyone for any land-holding, if a free man could because of that lose his right to trial in his lord’s court.

Folio 84r

[U]ne mesure de vin seit par tot nostre regne, e une mesure de cerveise, e une mesure de
ble, ço est li quartiers de Londres, e une leise de dras teinz e de rosez e de haber
, ço est deus aunes dedenz listes; e des peis seit ensement come des musures.

There shall be one standard measure of wine throughout our kingdom, and one measure for ale, and one measure for corn (namely, the ‘London quarter’), and one width of dyed cloth and russett and haberjet, i.e. two ells within the edges; and concerning weights, it shall be the same as for measures.

[R]iens ne seit doné ne pris des ci en avant por le brief del enqueste de vie o de membres,
de aucun, mais seit otree en pardone ne seit escondit.

Nothing shall be given or taken henceforth for a writ of inquisition of life or limbs, from anyone, but the writ shall be provided free, and shall not be refused.

[S]e aucuns tient de nos par feuferme o par sokage e tient terre d’altrui par servise de che
valier, nos n’avrons mie la garde de l’ heir, ne de sa terre qui est d’altrui fie par achaison
de cele feuferme, o del sokage, o del burgage; ne n’avrons la garde de cele feufer
, o del socage, o del borgage, se cele feuferme ne deit servise de chevalier.

If anyone holds land from us by ‘fee-farm’ or socage, or holds lands from another by knight-service, we shall not be guardians of his heir, nor of that part of his land which is part of the fief of another by virtue of this fee-farm, or of socage, or of burgage nor shall we have guardianship of this fee-farm, or of the socage, or of the burgage, if this fee-farm does not owe knight-service.

[N]os n’avrons la garde de l’heir ne de la terre d’alcun, que il tient d’altrui par servise de cheva
, par achaison d’aucune petite serjanterie, qu’il tient de nos par servise de rendre saet
o cotels o tels choses.

We shall not be guardians of the heir or of the land of anyone, which is held from another by knight-service, by virtue of any minor sergeanty, which he holds from us by service of supplying arrows or knives or similar things.

[N]uls bailliz ne mette des ci en avant alcun a lei par sa simple parole, fors par
bons tesmoinz amenez a ice.

No officer shall henceforth put a man on trial by his word alone, without sound witnesses brought forward for the purpose.

[N]uls frans hom ne sera pris, ne emprisonez, ne dessaisiz, ne u[t]llagiez ne eissilliez, ne des
en aucune maniere, ne sor lui n’irons ne n’enveierons, fors par leal jugement
de ses pers o par la lei de la terre.

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned or dispossessed of his land or outlawed or exiled, or in any way damaged, nor shall we set upon him by force or send anyone to do so, except by lawful judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land.

[A] nulli ne vendrons, a nullui n’escondirons, ne ne parloignerons dreit ne justise.

We will not sell to anyone, nor will we refuse or delay to anyone right or justice.


Folio 84v

[T]uit li marchant aient sauf e seur eissir d’Engleterre, e venir en Engleterre e de
, e aler par Engleterre par terre e par eve a vendre e a achater, sanz totes males
par les ancienes dreites costumes, fors el tens de guerre, cil ki sunt de la
terre qui nos guerroie; e se tel sunt trové en nostre terre el comencement de la guerre
soient atachié sanz domage de lor cors e de lor choses jusque il seit seu de nos
o de nostre chevetein justisier coment li marcheant de la nostre terre seront traitié,
qui donc seront trové en la terre qui contre nos guerroie; e se li nostre sunt ilueke sauf,
seient li lor sauf en la nostre terre.

All merchants shall be allowed to leave England safely and securely, to come to England and to stay there, and to go around England by land and by water, to sell and to buy, without any exactions, according to ancient lawful customs, except in time of war, those who are from the country that is making war on us; and if such people are found in our country at the beginning of the war, they shall be detained without harm to their persons or to their property until we or our chief justice knows how the merchants from our country, who are in the country which is making war on us, are being treated; and if our merchants are safe there, theirs shall be safe in our country.

[L]eise chascun des ci en avant eissir de nostre Regne e repairier sauf e seur par terre e par eve
sauve nostre fei, fors el tens de guerre par alcun petit tens por preu del regne; mais d’iço
sunt jetté fors li emprisoné, e li utlagié solon la lei del regne, e la gent ki contre nos
guerroie. Des marcheanz seit feit si come nos avon devant dit.

Let it henceforth be allowed that anyone can leave our kingdom and return to it safe and unharmed by land and by water, his allegiance being kept, except in time of war for some short time for the good of the kingdom; but from this are excluded prisoners, and outlaws according to the law of the land, and people who are making war on us. For merchants, it shall be done as we have said above.

[S]e aucuns tient d’aucune eschaette si come del honor de Walingeford, Notingeham,
Boloigne, Lancastre, u d’autres eschaetes qui sunt en nostre main, e sunt de baro
, e il muert, ses heirs ne doinst altre relief, ne face a nos altre servise
qu’il feist al baron, se cele baronie fust en main del baron; e nos la ten
en tele maniere que le baron la tint.

If anyone holds any escheat such as the ‘honour’ of Wallingford, Nottingham, Boulogne, Lancaster, or other escheats which are in our hands, and which are baronies, and he should die, his heir should give [us] no relief, nor do any service, other than that which he would have done for the baron, had this barony been in the hands of the baron; and we shall hold the escheat in the same manner as the baron held it.

Li home qui maignent fors de la forest ne viegnent de ci en avant devant noz ju
de la forest par communes somonses, s’il ne sont en plait u plege de aucun
ou d’aucuns qui seient atachié por la forest.

Men who live outside the forest shall not come henceforth before our forest justices by general summons, unless they are party to the plea or are standing pledge for someone or some people who have been detained because of the forest.

[N]os ne frons viscontes, justises, ne bailliz, fors de tels qui sachent la lei de la
terre e la voilent bien garder.

We shall create no sheriffs, justices, or officials, except from amongst those who know the law of the land and who want to keep it properly.

[T]uit cil qui fonderent abbeies dont il ont chartres des reis d’Engleterre, o anci
tenue, aient en la garde quant eles seront voides si com il avoir devent.

All those who founded abbeys, for which they have charters from the kings of England, or ancient tenure, shall have guardianship of them when they are void, as they should have.

[T]otes les forez qui sunt aforestees en nostre tens,
seient meintenant desaforestees e ensement seit feit des riveres qui en nostre
tens sunt par nos mises en defens.

All the forests which have been afforested in our time, shall now be disafforested, and similarly shall be done for the rivers which in our time have been fenced off.

Folio 85r

[T]otes les males costumes des forez e des warennes, e des forestiers e des
warenniers des viscontes e de lor ministres, des rivieres e de lor gardes
seient maintenant enquises en chascun conté par xii chevaliers jurez de
meimes le conté, qui devent estre esleu par prodeshomes de meismes le conté e
dedenz xl jorz aps ço qu’il avront feite l’enqueste seient del tot en tot ostees
par cels meismes, si que jamés ne saient rapelees; eissi nepurquant que nos le sachons
avant, o nostre justise, se nos ne sumes en Engleterre.

All the bad customs concerning forests and warrens, and foresters and warreners, sheriffs and their servants, concerning rivers and their wardens, shall be now investigated in each county by twelve sworn knights from the same county, who must be elected by worthy men of of the same county; and within forty days after they have carried out their inquiry, the bad customs are to be entirely removed by these same knights, such that they shall never be reinstated; and thus notwithstanding that we, or our justice, if we are not in England, should know about it in advance.