Home » Events » Read More: Magna Carta – ‘The Great Charter’ of 1215

Read More: Magna Carta – ‘The Great Charter’ of 1215

  • by Antony Ramm, Information and Research, Central Library

This is an entry in our Read More series. These are ‘long-form’ articles, where staff offer a curated and detailed look at areas of our book collections, usually based around a specific theme or subject. These posts aim to guide the interested reader through to those books that offer a more in-depth look at a topic, or which are classics in their field.

450-year old edition of the Magna Carta held at Leeds Central Library

450-year old edition of the Magna Carta held at Leeds Central Library

On the 15th of June 1215 a band of rebellious barons forced the despised King John to agree to a list of legal demands. The 800th-anniversary of the ‘Magna Carta’ is an occasion well worth marking, even if many of the concerns and subsequent demands made in that ‘Great Charter’ are now of little concern.

That is because the Magna Carta contains – at the very least – one passage that has reverberated down through the centuries: the legendary Clause 39. Its text reads: “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.” That last phrase – “the law of the land” – was the most vital; indicating as it did that there was a body of rulings that could be appealed to above and beyond the arbitrary intentions of whoever currently wielded power.

Before that idea could be truly understood, however, the Charter had to be made explicable to those elements of society that did not grasp Latin. So it was that, in 1534, the Magna Carta was translated into English for the first time, by the parliamentarian George Ferrers, whose own dealings with arbitrary power proved the necessity of the rule of law. The image at the top of this article shows the library’s 1541 edition of that translation, while the image below shows the celebrated Clause 39 as it appears in Ferrers’ translation.

Clause 39 as it appears in the 1541 edition of Ferrers translation. The modern separation of the document into 63 Clauses or Chapters was introduced in 1759 by William Blackstone; hence Clause 39 appearing here as Clause 29

Clause 39 as it appears in the 1541 edition of Ferrers translation. The modern separation of the document into 63 Clauses or Chapters was introduced in 1759 by William Blackstone; hence Clause 39 appearing here as Clause 29

Our 1541 edition is especially interesting – and possible worthy of further investigation – because it features a note indicating that the book was printed by Elizabeth Pickering, widow of the printer Robert Redman and the first English woman to print books.

Note at the back of the 1541 Magna Carta, indicating that the volume was printed by Elizabeth Redman

Note at the back of the 1541 Magna Carta, indicating that the volume was printed by Elizabeth Redman

Redman was himself a curious figure, known for his feud with another well-known publisher of the time, Thomas Pynson. Redman angered the more-established Pynson – the King’s Printer – by moving into the latter’s old premises at St Clement Danes, outside Temple Bar, and then adopting Pynson’s sign of The George and adapting his own monogram “RR” to more closely resemble Pynson’s “RP”.

Pynson responded in his 1528 edition of Thomas Littleton’s Tenures by describing Redman as “Rob.Redman, sed verius Rudeman” (“Robert Redman, or more properly called ‘Robert Rudeman’”). Littleton’s Tenures was the first text-book on English property law and was the subject of a celebrated commentary by the 17th-century jurist Edward Coke, in his Institutes of the Lawes of England (1628) – a book which, to come full-circle, contains a hugely-influential analysis and interpretation of the Magna Carta as the cornerstone of English liberties. The legal scholar William Blackstone was just one who drank deeply from Coke’s well and, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England: In Four Volumes (1759), he asserted that there was “no transaction in the ancient part of our English history more interesting and important” than the creation of the Magna Carta.

A slightly more modern analysis is to be found in Richard Thomson’s An Historical Essay on the Magna Carta of King John (1829). This comprehensive volume includes copies of the Charter in both English and Latin; “explanatory notes on their several privileges”; and various historical essays relating the background to the signing of the Charter and the life of King John.

Front-piece to Thomson’s work on the Magna Carta (1829)

Front-piece to Thomson’s work on the Magna Carta (1829)

The Magna Carta was next seriously assessed by a scholar in William Sharp McKechnie’s celebrated commentary at the start of the twentieth-century, a copy of which is available in our library. A collection of Magna Carta Commemoration Essays, published by the Royal Historical Society in 1917, can also be seen here. More modern analyses and interpretations include Geoffrey Hindley’s The Book of Magna Carta – which details the afterlife of the Charter, specifically its role in English and American history – and J.C. Holt’s authoritative Magna Carta. Faith Thompson’s 1948 work Magna Carta: its role in the Making of the English Constitution, 1300-1629 shows something of how the Charter developed from an obscure collection of feudal demands into the guiding light of liberty and democracy.

These last three items are available for loan from the Information and Research department, with all other volumes mentioned here being for reference viewing. Please contact the library to arrange access.

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