Medieval manuscripts blog

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13 May 2015

The First Edition and Translation of Magna Carta

Our latest Magna Carta blogpost focuses on the first printed edition and translation of Magna Carta, from the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII. All the items described here can be viewed in our major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, which is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015.

The first time that the Latin text of Magna Carta was printed in its entirety was in 1508, when the king’s printer (regius impressor) Richard Pynson (c. 1449–1529/30), published it alongside other statutes, in Magna Carta Carta cum aliis Antiquis Statutis. Pynson's edition reproduced in 37 clauses King Henry III’s Magna Carta of 1225, as confirmed and enrolled on the Statute Book in 1297 by Edward I.

First printed Magna Carta
The first printed edition of Magna Carta, 1508 (British Library C.112.a.2)

Richard Pynson was born in Normandy in the mid-15th century (around the same time that Johannes Gutenberg was developing movable type printing technology), but by 1482 he had moved to London to work as a glover. By 1496 he had set up as a ‘pouchemaker’ and ‘bokeprynter’, eventually setting up business in Fleet Street in 1502, close to the legal trade associated with the London Inns of Court. Although Pynson’s first publications were religious, the printing of legal texts dominated his trade, and by 1506 he was made printer to the king with exclusive rights to print all parliamentary statutes and royal proclamations.    

Magna Carta Carta cum aliis Antiquis Statutis was one of the titles he produced for this legal trade centred around the Inns of Court. As well as containing Magna Carta in full, the edition also reproduced the complete text of the Charter of the Forest and a further 63 statutes drafted in both Latin and law French. Conceived as a practical handbook for practising lawyers, the edition drew on a long-standing tradition of bespoke manuscript compilations of laws used for legal training since the Middle Ages. Such manuscript collections underpinned the common law traditions of Tudor legal culture, and with the growth in the printing trade it was a culture that was gradually transforming from one based on irregular manuscript compilations to standardised printed texts. This was important. As a result of the standardisation of these legal textbooks, beginning with Magna Carta, the Great Charter became literally the first statute that every trained lawyer in the Inns of Court encountered in print and it was soon considered to be the foundational statute of the realm.

The first published English translation of Magna Carta, 1534 (British Library C 112.a.6)

Following the publication of the first Latin edition of Magna Carta in 1508 it was not long until the first English translation of the full text of Magna Carta was published, in 1534. The translation was made by the Tudor courtier and poet, George Ferrers (c. 1510–1579), who was associated with Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII. The book itself was printed by Robert Redman (d. 1540), an early rival of Richard Pynson’s who would later take over his premises in Fleet Street. Like Pynson, Redman largely produced legal texts for the legal market generated by the Inns of Court, and he developed the business by producing English translations of previously untranslated statutes with the useful inclusion of alphabetised indexes. Ferrers’ translation, however, was not a good one. It contained many errors that were further compounded by printer’s mistakes. Subsequent editions would announce the ‘great deal of care’ taken to correct the text and these corrected versions ran into many editions throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Life of Sir Thomas More (British Library G.1580)

The appearance of these books by Pynson and Ferrers had a significant impact on the dissemination, use and popular awareness of Magna Carta in the 16th century. In the years following their publication the range of legal invocations of Magna Carta proliferated. From 1508 onwards it was often invoked in the law courts to protect due process from royal interference in, particular the summoning of men without charge under the king’s privy seal. Furthermore, within two years of the publication of the first English translation in 1534, Magna Carta was widely called upon by those opposing of Henry VIII’s religious reforms. It was used by Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) at his trial in 1535 and by participants in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 who looked to the Charter’s first clause confirming the liberties of the English Church. That these invocations coincided with the publications of these books on Magna Carta is no coincidence. Awareness of the Great Charter and the political uses to which it could be applied was clearly growing. Its invocation was no mere rhetorical flourish, but evidence of a vibrant legal discourse that was growing as a result of these early publications.

For details about our exhibition, see our dedicated website, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

Alexander Lock


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