David Carpenter on the Magna Carta

“The Charter has indeed become one of the most famous documents in world constitutional history, regarded as a fundamental protection against arbitrary and tyrannical rule.”


Magna Carta translated with a commentary by David Carpenter (2015, Penguin Classics)

The year 2015 was the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta Libertatum (Medieval Latin for “the Great Charter of the Liberties”), simply known as the “Magna Carta.” One of the founding legal documents of democracy and an early development in the Constitution of the United Kingdom, this set of statements was initially drafted by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. It was signed and sealed by John, King of England (1166-1216) on 15 June 1215 at Runnymede (a water-meadow alongside the River Thames in Surrey, about 20 miles west of central London) – this to make peace between himself and a group of rebel barons.

David Carpenter, a Professor of Medieval History at King’s College London, recently worked out a translation and commentary of the Magna Carta with Penguin Classics. He explains:

Magna Carta shows the king’s subjects in conflict with one another as well as in conflict with the king.

Yet Magna Carta did assert a fundamental principle. That principle was the rule of law. Henceforth, the king was to be bound by law, the law the Charter made. He was thus restricted in a whole series of ways, for the Charter had no fewer than sixty-three chapters. Most significant of all were chapters 39 and 40. In chapter 40, the king was not to sell, deny or delay justice.

From an economic point of view, royal forests were important in medieval England. They were both protected and exploited by the Crown, supplying the King with hunting grounds, raw materials and money. Forest law was harsh and arbitrary, purely a matter of the King’s will. These issues were addressed in the Charter – one of the ways in which the King’s power was checked. (Illustration: King John on a Stag Hunt, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Read a sample from the Magna Carta – on the unlawful possession of lands:

If we have disseised or dispossessed Welshman of lands, or liberties or other things, without lawful judgement of their peers, in England or in Wales, those things are to be immediately restored to them. And if a dispute arises about this, then it is to be dealt with in the March by judgement of their peers, concerning tenements in England according to the law of England, concerning tenements of Wales, according to the law of Wales, concerning tenements of the March, according to the law of the March. Welshmen shall do the same for us and our men.

Learn more about the document in these videos:

From the UK Parliament –

From the British Library –

Featured Image: A romanticised 19th-century recreation of King John signing the Magna Carta by James William Edmund Doyle, Wikimedia Commons

Preview Magna Carta translated by David Carpenter.

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