Study Guide

Magna Carta Quotes

By King John of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, and various English barons

  • Rights vs. Privileges

    The English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired. (1.1)

    Sounds a little like separation of church and state…although in this case it's the church telling the king to get the heck out.

    Earls and barons shall be fined only by their equals, and in proportion to the gravity of their offence. (21.1)

    No more using an overdue library book as an excuse to take away someone's castle. This clause basically said the King could no longer hand down punishments willy-nilly—and that when punishments did get doled out, they had to be reasonable.

    In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it. (38.1)

    It turns out people want the right to defend themselves in court, even against the king's officials. Sound anything like the U.S.'s Bill of Rights?

    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 way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. (39.1)

    That's a long list of stuff the king won't do anymore. How long do you think it took the barons to come up with all of those? And what if they left any out?

    To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice. (40.1)

    It has a nice ring to it; they should have led with this one…and maybe tattooed it onto the king's chest. Today this is one of the most lasting Magna Carta tidbits and has remained in most constitutions and codes of laws.

  • Injustice

    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. (9.1)

    Some of those barons must have had really cool castles and really ugly furniture because King John said, essentially, "Nah, you can keep all your stuff. Just find someplace else to put it, because I live here now." Seizing land was especially harsh because it took away the person's major source of income.

    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. (28.1)

    Do you get the feeling that King John's administration would have had some serious issues with credit card fraud if they'd had the chance? He was using every opportunity to take valuables from his subjects.

    No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall take horses or carts for transport from any free man, without his consent. (30.1)

    It's just so hard to remember which baron you took that horse from that it's not really worth even trying to return it. Luckily for King John, this only applies to free men—so it's still okay to steal horses from serfs.

    Neither we nor any royal official will take wood for our castle, or for any other purpose, without the consent of the owner. (31.1)

    The barons are covering all their bases; even firewood is off limits to King John. He has to buy it like everyone else, or maybe just get it from one of his many forests.

    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. (48.1)

    Practicing "evil customs" down by the riverbank probably sounds way more fun that it really is. It's probably just fishing there…and not letting anybody else fish there, ever.

  • Tradition and Customs

    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 only a reasonable "aid" may be levied. (12.1-2)

    They gave the king three examples of reasonable taxes, what unreasonable taxes do you think he was collecting?

    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. (13.1-2)

    It seems like this might cause some problems between city leaders and the king, perhaps it's too vague? For clarification they'll need to refer to other ancient texts that are just about London.

    Every county, hundred, wapentake, and tithing shall remain at its ancient rent, without increase, except the royal demesne manors. (25.1)

    All in favor of rolling back rent prices to what they were in ancient times raise your hands. And remember that back then rent and taxes were basically the same thing.

    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. (41.1)

    The lawful custom here is to not tax merchants to the point that they couldn't afford to come to England anymore. Hey, that seems fair.

    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. (46.1)

    It's okay to exploit people and institutions, but only if you're following ancient customs that have been around so long they don't make much sense anymore. (This isn't one of the clauses that's stood the test of time.)

  • Mortality

    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'. (2.1)

    Nobles from military families were especially concerned with their inheritances getting stolen from them…as their jobs did tend to be kind of dangerous.

    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. (4.1-2)

    On a scale of 1 to 10, how sad is it that the Magna Carta had to tell people not to destroy the property of the orphan they were supposed to be taking care of? Leave those poor little rich orphans alone.

    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. (7.1-3)

    Women at this time weren't treated like property…they were treated like really special property that should be handled carefully and given an allowance. Oh. That's also terrible.

    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. (27.1-2)

    Surely the church won't try to steal from dead people, right? You can tell that the Magna Carta crowd trusted the church a lot more than they trusted King John's government.

    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. (37.2)

    The king must have been going around and rounding up all the rich heirs he could find so that he could be their "guardian" and steal their inheritances.

  • Defeat

    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. (47.1-2)

    And with a snap of his fingers all the forests and rivers were public again and all the townspeople cheered. It's like the ending to a movie…except it didn't really happen because King John didn't really mean it.

    We will at once return all hostages and charters delivered up to us by Englishmen as security for peace or for loyal service. (49.1)

    These hostages are probably the children of nobles King John was keeping locked up to make sure that their parents stayed loyal to him.

    To any man whom we have deprived or dispossessed of lands, castles, liberties, or rights, without the lawful judgment of his equals, we will at once restore these. (52.1)

    It sounds like he's already lost a war; he's undoing everything that's happened in his entire reign. But maybe he has his fingers crossed behind his back…

    If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, 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. (61.3)

    If the barons had actually been able to follow through on this, the looks on their faces when they assailed the king and seized his possessions would have been priceless.

    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. (62.1)

    This is the Bart Simpson chalkboard clause where the king tells everyone how sorry he is over and over again, but doesn't really mean it.

  • Rules and Order

    Ordinary lawsuits shall not follow the royal court around, but shall be held in a fixed place. (17.1)

    Rule and order step one: make it so that people can actually get to a courtroom.

    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, russet, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly. (35.1-3)

    This clause might seem a bit random, but if you're going to start making rules, weights and measurements might not be a bad place to start. This time period is known for having completely arbitrary and made-up systems of measurement that changed frequently.

    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 not refused. (36.1-2)

    Having rules is good, but you're also going to have to enforce them and investigate when they've been broken. That's kind of what a government does.

    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. (45.1)

    So, part of rule and order is not picking your friends for all the cool jobs (where they get to accept bribes and collect taxes all day).

    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. (61.1)

    Even kings needed oversight. They just didn't know it yet.

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