Salvation by Statute: Magna Carta, Legislation, and the King's Soul

45 Pages Posted: 25 Feb 2017

Date Written: February 22, 2017


Scholarship on Magna Carta has advanced quite a bit in the past 100 years. The numerous articles and books written for the 700th, 750th, and 800th anniversaries of the Charter have changed our understanding of that text in significant ways. Scholars have tried to escape from the anachronistic interpretations of earlier generations of lawyers and scholars. But as much as we have tried to flee from the long-dominant Whig narrative of Magna Carta, a narrative that relegates Magna Carta to a predefined role as a predecessor to the American Bill of Rights, that narrative still affects the way historians approach the Charter and blinds us to things that have been staring us in the face for centuries. This article examines a curious phrase in Magna Carta that has never received any serious commentary from the historians. The second sentence of Magna Carta states that King John issued it “for the salvation of our soul and for the souls of all our ancestors and heirs[.]” No one has thought to ask why a person writing in 1215 would have thought it plausible that Magna Carta, a charter of liberties, could save the soul of the king, as well as those of his ancestors and heirs. This article will examine the different ways in which the language “for the salvation of our soul and the souls of our ancestors and heirs” appeared in the context of royal justice in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It will suggest that medieval English kings could and did conceive of the law and their administration of it, both through acts of judgment and acts of lawgiving, as a treasury of potential alms from which they could draw to atone for their past sins. This opens up new possibilities for the study of the early history of English legislation.

Keywords: Legal History, Law and Religion, Legislation, Magna Carta

Suggested Citation

McSweeney, Thomas, Salvation by Statute: Magna Carta, Legislation, and the King's Soul (February 22, 2017). William & Mary Bill of Rights, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2016, Available at SSRN:

Thomas McSweeney (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States

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