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Sir Edward Coke explains one of the key sections of Magna Carta on English liberties (1642)

The English judge and Member of Parliament Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) spelled out the full meaning of what it meant to have “English liberties.” Because he believed that “the liberty of a mans person is more precious to him, then all the rest that follow” he listed the nine “branches” which made up the “tree of liberty” as understood in the mid-17th century:

Upon this Chapter [29], as out of a roote, many fruitfull branches of the Law of England have sprung…

This Chapter containeth nine severall branches.

  1. That no man be taken or imprisoned, but per legem terrae, that is, by the Common Law, Statute Law, or Custome of England; for these words, Per legem terrae, being towards the end of this Chapter, doe referre to all the precedent matters in this Chapter, and this hath the first place, because the liberty of a mans person is more precious to him, then all the rest that follow, and therefore it is great reason, that he should by Law be relieved therein, if he be wronged, as hereafter shall be shewed.

  2. No man shall be disseised, that is, put out of seison, or dispossessed of his free-hold (that is) lands, or livelihood, or of his liberties, or free customes, that is, of such franchises, and freedomes, and free customes, as belong to him by his free birth-right, unlesse it be by the lawfull judgement, that is, verdict of his equals (that is, of men of his own condition) or by the Law of the Land (that is, to speak it once for all) by the due course, and processe of Law.

  3. No man shall be out-lawed, made an exlex, put out of the Law, that is, deprived of the benefit of the Law, unlesse he be out-lawed according to the Law of the Land.

  4. No man shall be exiled, or banished out of his Country, that is, Nemo perdet patriam, no man shall lose his Country, unlesse he be exiled according to the Law of the Land.

  5. No man shall be in any sort destroyed (Destruere. i. quod prius structum, & factum fuit, penitus evertere & diruere) unlesse it be by the verdict of his equals, or according to the Law of the Land.

  6. No man shall be condemned at the Kings suite, either before the King in his Bench, where the Pleas are Coram Rege, (and so are the words, Nec super eum ibimus, to be understood) nor before any other Commissioner, or Judge whatsoever, and so are the words, Nec super eum mittemus, to be understood, but by the judgement of his Peers, that is, equalls, or according to the Law of the Land.

  7. We shall sell to no man Justice or Right.

  8. We shall deny to no man Justice or Right.

  9. We shall defer to no man Justice or Right.

Chapter 29

No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.

“No Free, &c.”

This extends to Villeins, saving against their Lord, for they are free against all men, saving against their Lord. See the first part of the Institutes, sect. 189.

“No Freeman.”

Albeit homo doth extend to both sexes, men and women, yet by Act of Parliament it is enacted, and declared, that this Chapter should extend to Duchesses, Countesses, and Baronesses, but Marchionesses, and Vicountesses are omitted, but not withstanding they are also comprehended within this Chapter.

Upon this Chapter, as out of a roote, many fruitfull branches of the Law of England have sprung.

And therefore first the genuine sense hereof is to be seene, and after how the same hath been declared, and interpreted. For the first, for more perspicuity, it is necessary to divide this Chapter into severall branches, according to the true construction and reference of the words.

This Chapter containeth nine severall branches.

1. That no man be taken or imprisoned, but per legem terrae, that is, by the Common Law, Statute Law, or Custome of England; for these words, Per legem terrae, being towards the end of this Chapter, doe referre to all the precedent matters in this Chapter, and this hath the first place, because the liberty of a mans person is more precious to him, then all the rest that follow, and therefore it is great reason, that he should by Law be relieved therein, if he be wronged, as hereafter shall be shewed.

2. No man shall be disseised, that is, put out of seison, or dispossessed of his free-hold (that is) lands, or livelihood, or of his liberties, or free customes, that is, of such franchises, and freedomes, and free customes, as belong to him by his free birth-right, unlesse it be by the lawfull judgement, that is, verdict of his equals (that is, of men of his own condition) or by the Law of the Land (that is, to speak it once for all) by the due course, and processe of Law.

3. No man shall be out-lawed, made an exlex, put out of the Law, that is, deprived of the benefit of the Law, unlesse he be out-lawed according to the Law of the Land.

4. No man shall be exiled, or banished out of his Country, that is, Nemo perdet patriam, no man shall lose his Country, unlesse he be exiled according to the Law of the Land.

5. No man shall be in any sort destroyed (Destruere. i. quod prius structum, & factum fuit, penitus evertere & diruere) unlesse it be by the verdict of his equals, or according to the Law of the Land.

6. No man shall be condemned at the Kings suite, either before the King in his Bench, where the Pleas are Coram Rege, (and so are the words, Nec super eum ibimus, to be understood) nor before any other Commissioner, or Judge whatsoever, and so are the words, Nec super eum mittemus, to be understood, but by the judgement of his Peers, that is, equalls, or according to the Law of the Land.

7. We shall sell to no man Justice or Right.

8. We shall deny to no man Justice or Right.

9. We shall defer to no man Justice or Right.

The genuine sense being distinctly understood, we shall proceed in order to unfold how the same have been declared, and interpreted. 1. By authority of Parliament. 2. By our books. 3. By precedent.

“No Freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned.”

Attached and arrested are comprehended herein.

1. No man shall be taken, (that is) restrained of liberty, by petition, or suggestion to the King, or to his Councell, unlesse it be by indictment, or presentment of good, and lawfull men, where such deeds be done.This branch, and divers other parts of this Act have been notably explained by divers superseded Acts of Parliament, &c. quoted in the margent.

2. No man shall be desseised, &c.

b. Hereby is intended, that lands, tenements, goods, and chattells shall not be seised into the Kings hands, contrary to this great Charter, and the Law of the Land; Nor any man shall be disseised of his lands, or tenements, or dispossessed of his goods, or Chattels, contrary to the Law of the Land.

c. A custome was alledged in the town of C. that if the Tenant cease by two years, that the Lord should enter into the freehold of the Tenant, and hold the same untill he were satisfied of the arrerages, and it was adjudged a custome | against the Law of the Land, to enter into a mans freehold in that case without action or answer.

King H. 6. graunted to the Corporation of Diers within London, power to search, &c., and if they found any cloth died with Logwood, that the cloth should be forfeit: and it was adjudged, that this Charter concerning the forfeiture, was against the Law of the Land, and this Statute: For no forfeiture can grow by Letters Patents.

No man ought to be put from his livelihood without answer.

3. No man outlawed, that is, barred to have the benefit of the Law. Vide for the word, the first part of the Institutes.

Note to this word utlagetur, these words, Nisi per legem terrae, do refer. 

About this Quotation:

Sir Edward Coke wrote a voluminous set of glosses on aspects of English law known as The Institutes. In this case, The Second Part of the Institutes, he glosses the meaning of the Great Charter (Magna Carta) of 1215. It elaborated in considerable detail the foundation upon which “English liberties” rested. It was not published until 1642, some 8 years after his death, but just in time to become part of the intellectual ammunition used by opponents of the Monarchy during the English civil war and revolution during the 1640s and 1650s. This quotation comes from chapter 29 on the section entitled “No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties … but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land.” To Coke, this was the “root” from which sprang many “branches” of English law regarding individual liberty. One can imagine John Lilburne reading from this passage in his successful defence in his trial for treason in 1649. The jury of his peers acquitted him of all charges.

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