A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance


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Extracts from the Charter

Source—Text in William Stubbs, Select Charters Illustrative of English Constitutional History (8th ed., Oxford, 1895), pp. 296–306. Adapted from translation in Sheldon Amos, Primer of the English Constitution and Government (London, 1895), pp. 189–201 passim.

John, by the grace of God, king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy, Aquitane, and count of Anjou, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justiciaries, foresters, sheriffs, governors, officers, and to all bailiffs, and his faithful subjects, greeting. Know ye, that we, in the presence of God, and for the salvation of our soul, and the souls of all our ancestors and heirs, and unto the honor of God and the advancement of Holy Church, and amendment of our Realm, . . . have, in the first place, granted to God, and by this our present Charter confirmed, for us and our heirs forever:

Liberties of the English Church guaranteed

1. That the Church of England shall be free, and have her whole rights, and her liberties inviolable; and we will have them so observed that it may appear thence that the freedom of elections, which is reckoned chief and indispensable to the English Church, and which we granted and confirmed by our Charter, and obtained the confirmation of the same from our Lord Pope Innocent III., before the discord between us and our barons, was granted of mere free will; which Charter we shall observe, and we do desire it to be faithfully observed by our heirs forever.1

The rate of reliefs

2. We also have granted to all the freemen of our kingdom, for us and for our heirs forever, all the underwritten liberties, to be had and holden by them and their heirs, of us and our heirs forever. If any of our earls, or barons, or others who hold of us in chief by military service,1 shall die, and at the time of his death his heir shall be of full age, and owe a relief, he shall have his inheritance by the ancient relief—that is to say, the heir or heirs of an earl, for a whole earldom, by a hundred pounds; the heir or heirs of a knight, for a whole knight’s fee, by a hundred shillings at most; and whoever oweth less shall give less, according to the ancient custom of fees.2

3. But if the heir of any such shall be under age, and shall be in ward, when he comes of age he shall have his inheritance without relief and without fine.3

The three aids

12. No scutage4 or aid shall be imposed in our kingdom, unless by the general council of our kingdom;5 except for ransoming our person, making our eldest son a knight, and once for marrying our eldest daughter; and for these there shall be paid no more than a reasonable aid. In like manner it shall be concerning the aids of the City of London.1

The Great Council

14. And for holding the general council of the kingdom concerning the assessment of aids, except in the three cases aforesaid, and for the assessing of scutage, we shall cause to be summoned the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons of the realm, singly by our letters. And furthermore, we shall cause to be summoned generally, by our sheriffs and bailiffs, all others who hold of us in chief, for a certain day, that is to say, forty days before their meeting at least, and to a certain place. And in all letters of such summons we will declare the cause of such summons. And summons being thus made, the business shall proceed on the day appointed, according to the advice of such as shall be present, although all that were summoned come not.2

15. We will not in the future grant to any one that he may take aid of his own free tenants, except to ransom his body, and to make his eldest son a knight, and once to marry his eldest daughter; and for this there shall be paid only a reasonable aid.3

36. Nothing from henceforth shall be given or taken for a writ of inquisition of life or limb, but it shall be granted freely, and not denied.4

39. No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or disseised,1 or outlawed,2 or banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we pass upon him, nor will we send upon him,3 unless by the lawful judgment of his peers,4 or by the law of the land.5

40. We will sell to no man, we will not deny to any man, either justice or right.6

Freedom of commercial intercourse

41. All merchants shall have safe and secure conduct to go out of, and to come into, England, and to stay there and to pass as well by land as by water, for buying and selling by the ancient and allowed customs, without any unjust tolls, except in time of war, or when they are of any nation at war with us. And if there be found any such in our land, in the beginning of the war, they shall be detained, without damage to their bodies or goods, until it be known to us, or to our chief justiciary, how our merchants be treated in the nation at war with us; and if ours be safe there, the others shall be safe in our dominions.1

42. It shall be lawful, for the time to come, for any one to go out of our kingdom and return safely and securely by land or by water, saving his allegiance to us (unless in time of war, by some short space, for the common benefit of the realm), except prisoners and outlaws, according to the law of the land, and people in war with us, and merchants who shall be treated as is above mentioned.2

51. As soon as peace is restored, we will send out of the kingdom all foreign knights, cross-bowmen, and stipendiaries, who are come with horses and arms to the molestation of our people.3

60. All the aforesaid customs and liberties, which we have granted to be holden in our kingdom, as much as it belongs to us, all people of our kingdom, as well clergy as laity, shall observe, as far as they are concerned, towards their dependents.4

How the charter was to be enforced

61. And whereas, for the honor of God and the amendment of our kingdom, and for the better quieting the discord that has arisen between us and our barons, we have granted all these things aforesaid. Willing to render them firm and lasting, we do give and grant our subjects the underwritten security, namely, that the barons may choose five and twenty barons of the kingdom, whom they think convenient, who shall take care, with all their might, to hold and observe, and cause to be observed, the peace and liberties we have granted them, and by this our present Charter confirmed.1 . . .

63. . . . It is also sworn, as well on our part as on the part of the barons, that all the things aforesaid shall be observed in good faith, and without evil duplicity. Given under our hand, in the presence of the witnesses above named, and many others, in the meadow called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, the 15th day of June, in the 17th year of our reign.

1 The charter referred to, in which the liberties of the Church were confirmed, firmed, was granted in November, 1214, and renewed in January, 1215. It was in the nature of a bribe offered the clergy by the king in the hope of winning their support in his struggle with the barons. The liberty granted was particularly that of "canonical election," i. e., the privilege of the cathedral chapters to elect bishops without being dominated in their choice by the king. Henry I.’s charter (1100) contained a similar provision, but it had not been observed in practice.

1 Tenants in capite, i. e., men holding land directly from the king on condition of military service.

2 The object of this chapter is, in general, to prevent the exaction of excessive reliefs. The provision of Henry I.’s charter that reliefs should be just and reasonable had become a dead letter.

3 During the heir’s minority the king received the profits of the estate; in consequence of this the payment of relief by such an heir was to be remitted.

4 Scutage (from scutum, shield) was payment made to the king by persons who owed military service but preferred to give money instead. Scutage levied by John had been excessively heavy.

5 The General, or Great, Council was a feudal body made up of the king’s tenants-in-chief, both greater and lesser lords. This chapter puts a definite, even though not very far-reaching, limitation upon the royal power of taxation, and so looks forward in a way to the later régime of taxation by Parliament.

1 London had helped the barons secure the charter and was rewarded by being specifically included in its provisions.>

2 Here we have a definite statement as to the composition of the Great Council. The distinction between greater and lesser barons is mentioned as early as the times of Henry I. (1100-1135). In a general way it may be said that the greater barons (together with the greater clergy) developed into the House of Lords and the lesser ones, along with the ordinary free-holders became the "knights of the shire," who so long made up the backbone of the Commons. In the thirteenth century comparatively few of the lesser barons attended the meetings of the Council. Attendance was expensive and they were not greatly interested in the body’s proceedings. It should be noted that the Great Council was in no sense a legislative assembly.

3 It is significant that the provisions of the charter which prohibit feudal exactions were made by the barons to apply to themselves as well as to the king.

4 This is an important legal enactment whose purpose is to prevent prolonged imprisonment, without trial, of persons accused of serious crime. A person accused of murder, for example, could not be set at liberty under bail, but he could apply for a writ de odio et âtia ("concerning hatred and malice") which directed the sheriff to make inquest by jury as to whether the accusation had been brought by reason of hatred and malice. If the jury decided that the accusation had been so brought, the accused person could be admitted to bail until the time for his regular trial. This will occur to one as being very similar to the principle of habeas corpus. John had been charging heavy fees for these writs de odio et âtia, or "writs of inquisition of life and limb," as they are called in the charter; henceforth they were to be issued freely.

1 To disseise a person is to dispossess him of his freehold rights.

2 Henceforth a person could be outlawed, i. e., declared out of the protection of the law, only by the regular courts.

3 That is, use force upon him, as John had frequently done.

4 The term "peers," as here used, means simply equals in rank. The present clause does not yet imply trial by jury in the modern sense. It comprises simply a narrow, feudal demand of the nobles to be judged by other nobles, rather than by lawyers or clerks. Jury trial was increasingly common in the thirteenth century, but it was not guaranteed in the Great Charter.

5 This chapter is commonly regarded as the most important in the charter. It undertakes to prevent arbitrary imprisonment and to protect private property by laying down a fundamental principle of government which John had been constantly violating and which very clearly marked the line of distinction between a limited and an absolute monarchy.

6 The principle is here asserted that justice in the courts should be open to all, and without the payment of money to get judgment hastened or delayed. Extortions of this character did not cease in 1215, but they became less exorbitant and arbitrary.

1 The object of this chapter is to encourage commerce by guaranteeing foreign merchants the same treatment that English merchants received in foreign countries. The tolls imposed on traders by the cities, however, were not affected and they continued a serious obstacle for some centuries.

2 This chapter provides that, except under the special circumstances of war, any law-abiding Englishman might go abroad freely, provided only he should remain loyal to the English crown. The rule thus established continued in effect until 1382, when it was enacted that such privileges should belong only to lords, merchants, and soldiers.

3 During the struggle with the barons, John had brought in a number of foreign mercenary soldiers or "stipendiaries." All classes of Englishmen resented this policy and the barons improved the opportunity offered by the charter to get a promise from the king to dispense with his continental mercenaries as quickly as possible.

4 This chapter provides that the charter’s regulation of feudal customs should apply to the barons just as to the king. The barons’ tenants were to be protected from oppression precisely as were the barons themselves. These tenants had helped in the winning of the charter and were thus rewarded for their services.

1 The chapter goes on at considerable length to specify the manner in which, if the king should violate the terms of the charter, the commission of twenty-five barons should proceed to bring him to account. Even the right of making war was given them, in case it should become necessary to resort to such an extreme measure.


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Chicago: "Extracts from the Charter," A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance in A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, ed. Frederic Austin Ogg (1878-1951) (New York: American Book Company, 1908), 303–310. Original Sources, accessed March 29, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L3TH7EREEB27F32.

MLA: . "Extracts from the Charter." A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, in A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, edited by Frederic Austin Ogg (1878-1951), New York, American Book Company, 1908, pp. 303–310. Original Sources. 29 Mar. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L3TH7EREEB27F32.

Harvard: , 'Extracts from the Charter' in A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance. cited in 1908, A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, ed. , American Book Company, New York, pp.303–310. Original Sources, retrieved 29 March 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L3TH7EREEB27F32.