The year 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of King John putting his royal seal to Magna Carta, the document regarded by many historians and libertarians as the most significant ever written in England’s history. Some argue it had major ramifications even beyond the British Isles.
Magna Carta, meaning ‘great charter’, was drafted to placate a group of land-owning barons who had become dissatisfied with the demands placed upon them by England’s monarch. The king put his seal to the handwritten parchment by the banks of the River Thames at Runnymede, 20 miles west of London, on 15 June 1215. In 2015 two stone benches were unveiled at the site. They flank a pillared memorial surrounding inscribed granite that proclaims Magna Carta a “symbol of freedom under law”.
A document limiting royal power?
The document guaranteed a number of rights for the church and noblemen, effectively limiting the power of the crown. Magna Carta has subsequently been interpreted as a legal document that proved even England’s reigning monarch had to obey the laws of the land; a revolutionary concept in the 13th century.
Just a couple of months later Pope Innocent III decreed Magna Carta annulled. King John claimed he had been forced into acquiescing to the barons’ demands. Civil war followed. The conflict became known as the First Barons’ War and raged for two years, but King John did not live to see its outcome. He died at Newark Castle in October 1216. With a twist of intrigue, rumours circulated that the unpopular monarch was poisoned by a monk though it seems more likely he died of dysentery.
The 13 copies of Magna Carta
Thirteen copies of Magna Carta were made for distribution throughout the kingdom. Handwritten, each is unique. Some contain spelling errors. Only four copies remain in existence. Two are now housed within the British Library, in London. The others are the property of the cathedrals of Lincoln and Salisbury. Throughout the Middle Ages modified editions of Magna Carta were reissued by King John’s followers to the English throne. Versions are held at sites including Durham, Oxford’s Bodleian Library and in Hereford Cathedral.
Magna Carta at Lincoln Castle
Lincoln Castle – which re-opened in April, following a four years of extensive restorations costing £22 million – displays the nearby cathedral’s copy of the 1215 charter in its new visitor centre, featuring a purpose built, underground vault.
The story of why the document came into existence is told in the centre’s underground cinema, which features surround sound and a wraparound screen. The Bishop of Lincoln, Hugh of Wells, was present at the sealing of the Magna Carta and presented with a copy for safe keeping. The castle also houses an important document known as the Charter of the Forest, dating from 1217, which reaffirmed key aspects of Magna Carta.
The impressive fortress at Lincoln was established by the Normans, who crossed into the British Isles from northern France in 1066. Some commentators suggested the arrival of the Normans resulted in the erosion of traditional English liberties and rights, and that the charter helped restore at least some of them.
The 1215 Magna Carta in Salisbury
Salisbury Cathedral’s Chapter House holds the only other 1215 Magna Carta in existence outside of London. An interactive exhibition within the 13th century Chapter House looks at the role Elias of Dereham, who was present at Runnymede as an aid to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. Elias was responsible for distributing copies of the document and later played a key role in the construction of the cathedral.
The historic events of 1215 have inspired modern writers to pen the scripts of The Magna Carta Plays, which were performed at Salisbury Playhouse from 22 October until 7 November 2015.
A section of exhibition at Salisbury explores the legacy of Magna Carta. Legal minds have interpreted the document in a variety of ways over the past eight centuries. It was cited by the factions who fought against King Charles I in the English civil wars of the 1640.
Magna Carta and the American Revolution
In America it was used by colonists to justify opposing crown taxes and in defence of perceived liberties; arguments that roused people rebel against the British and form the United States of America. Importantly, it was interpreted as enshrining the right of habeas corpus, the freedom of the individual. The charter inspired aspects of the American Bill of Rights, the US constitution plus the laws of countries such as Australia, Canada and South Africa.
The British Library’s exhibition
Throughout the summer a major exhibition – Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy – was held at the British Library. It attracted more than 100,000 people; a record number of visitors for an exhibition at the library. Artefacts such as the library’s copies of the charter, Innocent III’s papal bull plus Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the American Declaration of Independence were displayed. It also explored issues such as the effect of Magna Carta on the monarchy and its ramifications on human rights laws in the contemporary age.
Of course, the extent to which a document drawn up over 800 years ago influences the modern world is open to debate. What’s indisputable is the renewed interest in Magna Carta within the United Kingdom over recent months.
See the Magna Carta 800th website for more information about the historic document and the events that lead to it being drawn up.
See the Visit England website for information in historic sites around the country.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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