Magna Charta, cum statutis ... London: Richard Tottel, 1556.
Beale S16; STC 9277.5

Printed by Richard Tottell (c. 1528-1593), the most prolific producer of law books in the 16th century, the Library's copy of this edition of Magna Carta is particularly prized.

At the top of the title page is written "Ex libris, Granville Sharp, 1760," indicating a volume from the library of Granville Sharp (1735-1813). Sharp was a key founder of the English abolitionist movement. Largely an autodidact, he taught himself Hebrew and Greek and joined in learned theological disputes. While still a young man, he apparently acquired his copy of Magna Carta, and developed considerable knowledge of English law despite never training as an attorney. Through his brother, a physician, he encountered cases of the mistreatment of slaves in England, and soon became involved in their legal defense.

After involvement in cases of slaves seeking freedom, Sharp published the first significant anti-slavery tract in England, A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery (1769). He was also a motive force behind the famous Somersett case (1772), which prevented James Somersett from being sent back into colonial slavery from English soil. In the same period, Sharp corresponded with American abolitionists, including Anthony Benezet, and stirred a young movement. Sharp's keen and well-researched interest in the legal dimensions of English liberty—which may trace to his reading of Magna Carta—established part of the foundation of his commitment to freedom and human rights.

Sharp underlined and annotated his copy of Magna Carta at important passages. Notably he underlined Magna Carta's famous clause 29, (from the 1225 Magna Carta), which we take as a basis of due process: "No freeman is to be taken or imprisoned or disseized of his free tenement or of his liberties or free customs, or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go against such a man or send against him save by lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell or deny or delay right or justice."

Sharp eventually authored more than sixty works on topics ranging from anti-slavery, the divinity of Christ, and the right of the American colonists to share in the English legislature.(1)

The Law Library acquired S16 in 1930.


Title page Sharp’s underlining, at cap. 29 of Magna Carta