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Sixteenth century printed Magna Carta

John Lettou introduced the printing press to London in 1480. Two years later, with the help of partner William de Machlinia, he produced the first law book typeset in England. Machlinia was succeeded by Richard Pynson who, by 1500, moved the press to Fleet Street within Temple Bar. This neighborhood became popular with those printers who specialized in law books, among them George Ferras, Thomas Petit and Richard Tottell. Here, close to the Inns of Court, a nascent legal publishing industry took hold. One of the most famous documents printed in the vicinity is Magna Charta (also spelled Magna Carta), in the sixteenth century often issued with the Antiqua Statuta. Biddle Law Library has five such editions.

Pynson first printed Magna Charta in 1508. Biddle’s earliest copy bears the date 1514. Folio primo, Magna Carta, Edward[us] dei gratia, rex Anglie includes 63 statutes and King Edward I’s 1297 confirmation of Magna Charta with thirty-seven numbered chapters. The text of the Charter is in Latin, the statutes in Law French. Pynson, like many of his peers, was educated on the continent, and presumably was comfortable with both languages. A preliminary leaf notes that Pynson was designated “Regis impressorem,” an honor bestowed by King Henry VII. The text is considered reliable for its time. Its appearance, however, is startling to the modern reader. There is no title page and the publication information is found at the end of the book.

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George Ferrers of Lincoln’s Inn offered an English translation of Magna Charta in 1534. The text is riddled with errors. It is memorable chiefly for its alphabetical table of contents which is considered vastly superior to those appearing in earlier editions. Biddle has a 1542 version of the Ferrers’ translation Magna Charta, with statutes ancient as well as recent collected together with a great deal of care for the first time which was printed by Thomas Petit. Petit established his press just off Fleet Street in St. Paul’s Church Yard. The reader of the 1542 edition is promised that all the “mystakynge of the translator” and “neclygence of the printer” of the 1534 printing are corrected.

Richard Tottell, who served in an editorial capacity for the 1542 printing, is responsible for the remaining three sixteenth century impressions of Magna Charta in the Library’s collection. The 1556 printing is dedicated “To gentlemen studious of the lawes of Englande.” Magna Charta cvm statvtis quae antiqua vocantur, iam recens excusa once again finds the text of the Charter in Latin. Although Tottell continued to offer English language editions (1557, 1559, 1565, and 1574) the translation of the manuscript was considered less trustworthy than its Latin counterpart. The preface is in English, the statutes in Law French. As early as 1553 Tottell received a patent to print all common law books for the realm. He is listed as one of the founding members of the incorporated Stationers’ Company where he twice served as president. Tottell’s preeminence among printers and booksellers of legal materials in Elizabethan England is attested to on the title page with the notation: Cum priuilegio ad imprimendum solum.

The 1576 and 1587 editions (Magna Charta cum statutis tum antiquis tum recentibus) both contain 38 numbered chapters. They are quite similar in content, with identical prefaces in English promising enhancements to the statutes still in force. There is clearly no standardization of spelling, but the typography of the 1587 printing is crisper and easier to read than the one set in 1576.

If you would like to take a look at these or any of our other rare books, stop by the Biddle Law Library Archives or contact us at  biddlearchives@law.upenn.edu.