There were 63 clauses in the original version of the Charter, issued in 1215. Many of these related to the particular circumstances of John’s reign and to the grievances which the barons had against the king personally. In the reissues of 1216, 1217 and 1225 all these time-specific clauses were taken out, producing a much shorter, crisper document. In 1217 the forest clauses were likewise taken out and, much expanded, were published as a separate Charter of the Forest. The 1225 Magna Carta, reissued in 1297, only contained 37 clauses.
The numbering used below refers to the original, 1215 version of the Charter. The Charter was particularly concerned to regulate and limit the service and payments due to the king from his barons who held their lands directly from him (his tenants in chief), and to protect the rights and property of their widows and heirs. For example:
After her husband’s death, his widow shall have her marriage portion and her inheritance at once and without hindrance (7).
Several clauses defined how the royal courts were to operate and justice be administered and sought to ensure that royal officers acted according to law, such as:
Common pleas shall not follow our court but shall be held in some fixed place (17).
Commerce was also protected and promoted through clauses allowing merchants to enter and leave England safely (41), introducing standard weights and measures for wine, ale, corn and cloth (35) and ordering that all fish weirs be removed from rivers (33).
Though much of the terminology is very technical, some of the clauses still resonate as statements of fundamental rights, of benefit to all free subjects:
The English Church shall be free and shall have its rights and liberties undiminished (1)
No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or in any way ruined except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land (39).
To no one shall we sell, deny or delay right or justice (40).
Other far-reaching clauses in the 1215 Charter were actually omitted from later versions as encroaching too far on royal or baronial freedoms:
No scutage or aid (tax) is to be levied except by common counsel of the realm (12).
We will not appoint justices, constables, sheriffs or bailiffs who do not know the law of the land and who do not mean to observe it well (45).
All these customs and liberties, which we have granted as far as it pertains to us towards our own men, shall be observed by all men of our realm towards their own men (60).
Even in its pared down form, however, the Charter remained a powerful and impressive document which redefined the relationship between monarch and subject.
Text by Professor Nigel Saul, Royal Holloway, University of London.