It does not seem necessary to present here the complete Magna Carta. It is around thirty-five hundred words in the original Latin, and over five thousand in the English translation. Though printed as early as 1499 by Richard Pynson, its exact contents were not generally known until 1759, when Blackstone printed it in his book, The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest. However, from 1215, the date of its drafting, the conception of Magna Carta as a "Charter of Liberties," grew in the minds of the people.

Four original sealed copies are in existence—all of them in England. Photographic copies can be obtained from the British Library of Information in New York, but nobody but a Latin scholar of great attainments could even begin to understand the original.

Some excerpts are quoted in order to give an idea of it. As pointed out in the First Book, it was one long-drawn-out instrument, without preamble, "chapters" or sections. Scholars, however, have for convenience divided it into a preamble and sixty-three "chapters." The proper sequence, of course, has been kept.

The quotations given here are from Dr. William Sharp McKenchie's book, Magna Carta, the outstanding work on the subject. His translations are regarded as the best.


Johannes Dei gratia res Anglie, dominus Hibernie, dux Normannie et Aquitannie, et comes Andegavie, archiepiscopis, episcopis, abbatibus, comitibus, baronibus, justiciariis, forestariis, vicecomitibus, prepositis, ministris et omnibus ballivis et fidelibus suis salutem. Sciatis nos intuitu Dei et pro salute anime nostre et omnium antecessorum et heredum nostorum, ad honorem Dei et exaltationem sancte Ecclesie, et emendacionem regni nostri, per consilium venerabilium patrum nostrorum, Stephani Cantuariensis archiepiscopi tocius Anglie primatis et sancte Romane ecclesie cardinalis, Henrici Dublinensis archiepiscopi, Willelmi Londoniensis, Petri Wintoniensis, Joscelini Bathoniensis et Glastoniensis, Hunonis Lincolniensis, Walteri Wygorniensis, Willelmi Coventriensis, et Benedicti Roffensis episcoporum; magistri Pandulfi domini pape subdiaconi et familiaris, fratris Aymerici magistri milicie Templi in Anglia; et nobilium virorum Willelmi Mariscalli comitis Penbrocie, Willelmi comitis Sarresburie, Wileli comitis Warennie, Warini filii Geroldi, Petri filii Hereberti, Huberti de Burgo senescalli Pictavie, Hugonis de Nevilla, Mathei filii Hereberti, Thome Basset, Alani Basset, Philippi de Albiniaco, Roberti de Roppeleia, Johannis Mariscalli, Johannis filii Hugonis et aliorum fidelium nostorum.

The translation is as follows:

John, by the grace of God, king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justiciars, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and to all his bailiffs and liege subjects greeting. Know that, having regard to God and for the salvation of our souls, and those of all our ancestors and heirs, and unto the honour of God and the advancement of holy Church, and for the reform of our realm, [we have granted as underwritten] by advice of our venerable fathers, Stephen, archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England and cardinal of the holy Roman Church, Henry archbishop of Dublin, William of London, Walter of Worcester, William of Coventry, Benedict of Rochester, bishops; of master Pandulf, subdeacon and member of the household of our lord the Pope, of brother Aymeric (master of the Knights of the Temple in England), and of the illustrious men William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, William, earl of Salisbury, William, earl of Warenne, William, earl of Arundel, Alan of Galloway (constable of Scotland), Warren Fitz Gerald, Peter Fitz Herbert, Hubert de Burgh (seneschal of Poitou), Hugh de Neville, Matthew Fitz Herbert, Thomas Basset, Alan Basset Philip d'Aubigny, Robert of Roppesley, Joh Marshal, John Fitz Hugh, and others, our liegemen.

From this it can be seen that the Magna Carta was a treaty between the King and his nobility and clergy. It was not in any sense a constitution of the people. A long, tedious study, not of much value to the present-day student of modern constitutional law, would be necessary to understand the Magna Carta thoroughly.


Chapter 39 is generally regarded as the most important section of the Magna Carta, but 40 is also important. So both are presented. Of these, McKechnie says that they had much "read into them that would have astonished their framers: application of modern standards has resulted in complete misapprehension."

Here follows 39, in English:

No freeman shall be taken or [and] imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or [and] by the law of the land.

And 40:

To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.

It is from 39, with its reference to "law of the land" that we are supposed to get due process of law, jury trial, equal justice, and so on. At great length McKechnie points out the errors in this supposition.


The regulation of business is nothing new.

Chapter 35 reads:

Let there be one measure of wine throughout our whole realm; and one measure of ale; and one measure of corn, to wit, "the London quarter"; and one width of cloth (whether dyed, or russet, or "halberget"), to wit, two ells within the selvedges; of weights also let it be as of measures.

As a matter of fact, numerous regulations which concerned business were made. (The actual word business [Latin, negocium] is used in another part of the instrument.) Provision was made for the practices of buying and selling, and for the travel of merchants, both English and foreign.


Chapter 33 deals with navigation:

All kydells for the future shall be removed altogether from the Thames and the Medway, and throughout all England, except the sea shore.

"Kydells" were fish-weirs that got in the way of river transportation. Their removal was necessary because roads were in a deplorable state. There are mother provisions concerning rivers, riverbanks, forests, and waste of soil. Mention is made of "disafforestation." Apparently there had been waste of resources—lands, waters and forests.

Although admittedly not quite a modern TVA, this might be one of the first documents of record which dealt with "conservation of natural resources."


The "Jewish question" was also touched upon in the Magna Carta, although John granted a separate "Charter to the Jews." The Jews had no citizenship, and were generally persecuted. But no so cruelly and systematically as by Mr. Hitler today.

Chapter 10 reads:

If one who has borrowed from the Jews any sum, great or small, die before that loan be repaid, the debt shall not bear interest while the heir is under age, of whomsoever he may hold; and if the debt fall into our hands, we will not take anything except the principal sum contained in the bond.

And 11:

An if anyone die indebted to the Jews, his wife shall have her dower and pay nothing of that debt; and if any children of the deceased are left under age, necessaries shall be provided for them in keeping with the holding of the deceased; and out of the residue the debt shall be paid, reserving, however, service due to feudal lords; in like manner let it be done touching debts due to others than Jews.


There were general provisions for charter rights of London and other cities, for heirs, inheritances, guardians, rights of widows war taxes (not levied except for "common counsel," by King with lords), for military service, all kinds of knights' fees, criminal and civil procedure of courts, various writs, rents, dues and foreign affairs.

With these noble pretensions all written down in Latin which few could understand, the King and their lordships repaired to their unsanitary piles of rocks they called castles. As they left, they began to consider all of the ways they could violate the agreement they had made. The King, who had only signed in fear of his life, soon after tried to welch.

But thereafter there were more charters, petitions, and bills of rights. Each time, more and more classes of people were considered.