Magna Carta, the rule of law, citizens liberty and succession law

Updated 1 October 2020

Magna Carta (the “Great Charter”) and succession law

The Magna Carta  (Latin for the Great Charter)  was sealed under oath by King John at Runnymede England in 1215.  It then became enshrined into English Law and subsequently adopted into Australian law.  The Magna Carta has been described as the ‘foundation stone of the rule of law’ by Lord Irvine of Lairg when he delivered his lecture on the Magna Carta to the Australian Parliament.

More on what the rule of law means and its importance can be found on the Australia’s Magna Carta Insitute here. 

But what has the Magna Carta got to do with inheritance and succession law? 

In medieval England succession and inheritance were matters of concern, considerably so for the succession of the monarch. 

Some interesting excerpts relating to wills, succession and inheritance law from the Magna Carta are referenced below.  The British Library has given an English translation online of the Magna Carta which makes easy reading and appreciation of the importance in the development of inheritance and succession law.  Look up Clauses 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, 30 and 31.

For example on women and marriage Clause 7 states:

(7) At her husband’s death, a widow may have her marriage portion and inheritance at once and without trouble. She shall pay nothing for her dower, marriage portion, or any inheritance that she and her husband held jointly on the day of his death. She may remain in her husband’s house for forty days after his death, and within this period her dower shall be assigned to her.

The Australian Parliament holds a manuscript of the Magna Carta, one of four manuscripts known to exist.  It is on display in Parliament House, Canberra.  The Senate’s website at contains interesting information on its relevance to Australia, and its importance to the liberty of citizens.  Two excerpts on succession from the Magna Carta are produced below for interest:

Debts of the deceased have to be paid first, before the executors could distribute

“26.     If anyone holding a lay fief of us dies and our sheriff or bailiff shows our letters patent of summons for a debt which the deceased owed us, it shall be lawful for the sheriff or our bailiff to attach and list the chattels of the deceased found in lay fee to the value of that debt, by the view of lawful men, so that nothing is removed until the evident debt is paid to us, and the residue shall be relinquished to the executors to carry out the will of the deceased.  And if he owes us nothing, all the chattels shall be accounted as the deceased’s saving their reasonable shares to his wife and children.


 What was to happen on an intestacy (no will)

“27.    If any free man dies intestate, his chattels are to be distributed by his nearest relations and friends, under the supervision of the Church, saving to everyone the debts which the deceased owed him.”

Magna Carta, Icon of Liberty,
Rex Davis (ed)
Dean and Chapter of Lincoln in association with Lincoln Magna Carta Trust,1988


B Stead
BHS Legal
29 September 2014, updated 1October 2020