A guide to Magna Carta

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Magna Carta started life as a peace treaty between King John and a significant number of powerful barons and knights who dared to challenge his tyrannical rule. It failed as a peace treaty, since, after the immediate crisis, John swiftly appealed to the pope who annulled it just two months later.

The charter survived, however, as it had set a precedent by stating that the king must act within the law. Over the centuries it was re-drafted and re-issued dozens of times to appease the demands of the growing community of England. Its principles became enshrined in constitutions across the world long after the details of its original purpose had faded from memory.


King John agreed to Magna Carta on 15 June 1215 after many days of negotiations with a large number of high ranking barons. Prominent among King John's advisers were Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury, who had originated in the Lincolnshire village of Langton by Wragby, and William Marshal, earl of Pembroke. Witnesses also included Hugh, bishop of Lincoln. and John Marshal, the sheriff of Lincolnshire, the Marshal's nephew.

Many of the barons and lesser knights held personal grievances against John's style of government. A considerable number of them were "Northerners", including some with Lincolnshire connections such as William de Mowbray with lands in the Isle of Axholme and William of Huntingfield with land at Frampton.

The demands to which King John agreed reflected why he had faced outright rebellion; he had taxed heavily and arbitrarily and paid no heed to the rule of law. The charter is littered with detail as to how John should in future behave as regards his obligations as king. Much of that detail is incomprehensible to modern eyes as it speaks of knights' fees, scutage and inquests of novel disseisin.

However, over-arching statements of principle were written into the 1215 charter which are still law today:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.  Clause 39

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.  Clause 40

Although King John retracted Magna Carta, he initially gave the impression of following its demands by ordering that copies should be made and sent throughout the land to be made public and then kept safely in every major town and city. Historians have debated whether a copy was sent to every county to be read out under the authority of the sheriffs or whether a copy was only sent to every diocese.

Documentary evidence only confirms that 13 copies of the charter were made.

The 'Barnwell' chronicler recounted that a copy of the Charter was carried round through towns and villages and that all swore to observe its terms.

The Dunstable annalist simply stated that the charters were sent to a safe place in each bishopric.

There are only four surviving original charters sealed by King John in 1215. Lincoln Cathedral owns the charter now on display in Lincoln Castle which is the only one of these charters to have been in continuous custody since 1215.

The sheriff of Lincolnshire in 1215 was John Marshal who steadfastly supported King John like his uncle, William Marshal, earl of Pembroke. It is likely, therefore, that Magna Carta was publicly read out at the sheriff's court in Lincoln Castle before being transferred to the safe custody of Lincoln Cathedral under the authority of Hugh, bishop of Lincoln, who was renowned for his organisation of the diocesan records.

1216 - 1217

King John died unexpectedly at Newark Castle in October 1216. He had been forced from his London base by the rebel barons and Prince Louis, the eldest son of Philip II, king of France to whom they had offered the English crown when John was obviously not going to honour Magna Carta as agreed.

King John's supporters agreed that William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, should rule as regent for John's son, the nine-year-old King Henry III. To rally baronial support, one of the Marshal's first acts in conjunction with the papal legate, Guala Biccieri, was to reissue Magna Carta in the young king's name.

The charter was issued yet again the following year, in November 1217, after the Battle of Lincoln and a sea battle off the Kent coast, which resulted in victory for Henry III's army against the rebel barons and Prince Louis.

However, this time the clauses relating to the royal forests were taken out, added to and written into an additional shorter charter. In comparison with this new Charter of the Forest, Magna Carta was a somewhat larger document and then became known as Magna Carta, meaning the Great Charter. From a distinction in size, Magna Carta has, of course, over the centuries come to mean "great" by its reputation as an icon of liberties.

1225 and 1297

Henry III renewed Magna Carta when he began to rule in his own right in 1225. It is this version which Edward I had enrolled on the statute book.


Image by kind permission of The British Library © The British Library Board, Cotton Claudius D. II.,f116

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