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13 Magna Carta Facts You Might Not Know

Magna Carta happens to be one of the most important documents in history. Signed by King John of England, it is believed that this document has been the basis of human rights, the American Declaration of Independence and other related important documents. The document marked its 800th birthday in 2014. Also known as the Great Charter, this document emphasizes on government’s accountability towards human rights and civil protection. The following are 13 Magna Carta Facts.


Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor King John in History and Memory

History has not been kind to King John of England (reigned 1199–1216). Interpretations of his character have ranged from the cruel Prince John of the Robin Hood tradition to the complex but weak-willed sovereign in Shakespeare’s Life and Death of King John. Depictions have rarely been flattering. During his own time, King John’s reputation was no better.

King John presided over the loss of the extensive realm that his father King Henry II (reigned 1154–1189) had ruled across the English Channel. His prolonged failure to reconquer that territory, the unprecedented level of taxation he demanded, and conflicts that he unnecessarily caused with Pope Innocent III all served to erode his political support at home. Many barons claimed that King John governed England with disregard for their traditional privileges.

Leaders of a failed 1212 baronial revolt returned to England by 1214, after King John’s defeat at the Battle of Bouvines, and found common cause with English bishops who resented John for weakening the independence of the English Church. Meanwhile, a coalition of northern barons emerged who refused to pay for King John’s wars and were ready to renounce their loyalty to his crown.

Mysteriously Absent

Shakespeare’s play about King John makes no mention of Magna Carta and omits the theme of the balance of power between king and nobles that appears in most accounts of King John’s reign. The play focuses instead on questions of legitimacy as King John defends his position against several claimants to the throne. This theme, along with the danger of foreign invasion and conflicts with the pope, which also animate the play, echoed living concerns for Elizabethan audiences. This page is from the First Folio, the first complete edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616). The Life and Death of King John in Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (First Folio). London: Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, 1623. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (005)

Bookmark this item: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/magna-carta-muse-and-mentor/king-john-in-history-and-memory.html#obj005

England’s Champion against Rome

English actor and playwright Colley Cibber recasts Shakespeare’s King John favorably as the protagonist in a struggle for English liberty against a tyrannical pope. A failed play by the author’s own estimation, it enjoyed mixed reviews during the anti-Catholic backlash that followed the Jacobite uprising of 1745 when Catholic Charles Edward Stuart, sometimes known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie” (1720–1788), attempted to regain the throne for the House of Stuart.

Colley Cibber (1671–1757). Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John. A Tragedy. London: J. Watts, 1745. Page 2. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (006)

Bookmark this item: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/magna-carta-muse-and-mentor/king-john-in-history-and-memory.html#obj006

Robin Hood and King John

At times, the Robin Hood legend has merged with the memory of Magna Carta. This theatrical poster depicts Shakespearean actor Frederick Warde as Robin Hood in a Gilded-Age-era play by William Greer Harrison. In Runnymede: A Drama of Magna Charta, King John, vexed by Robin Hood’s thievery, plots to kill the bandit and steal his bride, Maid Marian. When the barons rush onstage and force King John to sign Magna Carta, the unhappy king finds that Chapter 39 prohibits him from murdering Robin Hood.

Robin Hood Defies King John in Frederick Warde’s Superb Production of Runnymede by Wm. Greer Harrison. Cincinnati and New York: Strobridge Lith. Co., ca. 1895. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (007)


A Brief Brit History: The Story of Magna Carta

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Magna Carta is truly one of the most important legal documents in history. It introduced concepts of individual rights, limits on royal power, and provided a framework for similar agreements between governments and their people (including the United States Constitution). In Latin, the name translates to “Great Charter,” which effectively sums up what it was meant to be. Join us as we examine the origins and conditions that made Magna Carta necessary, its covenants for both the monarch and the nobles, and how it was fairly quickly disregarded by the parties involved.

Magna Carta has its beginnings in the early reign of King John, who had lost a good number of lands in France to King Phillip II. John struggled to get them back by warring with the French king, and as wars inevitably cost a lot of money, he took to raising taxes on his nobles to pay for it all. Additionally, John found himself on the bad side of Pope Innocent III and became the first English king to be excommunicated by the Vatican in 1209 after John refused to accept Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. While John accepted Langton and was absolved of his excommunication in 1213, a year later, King Phillip ultimately defeated him, and England lost its territory in northern France for about 200 years.

As John returned to England in 1214, the combination of his troubles with Rome, losses to France, and increased taxes led to a brewing rebellion from his barons in Northern and Eastern England over John’s perceived abuses of power. Hoping to head off a military conflict, King John and the barons appealed to the Pope for help settling their disagreement. Despite this, a civil war broke out in May 1215, and shortly afterward, the two sides agreed to meet at Runnymeade to come to terms. The barons presented John with a document known as the Articles of the Barons, which was based in part on the earlier Charter of Liberties by King Henry I, that sought to limit taxation and the King’s powers. Negotiations between John and the barons would transform these Articles into Magna Carta Libertatum (“Great Charter of Freedoms”), which was agreed to on June 15, 1215, and the barons re-swore their oaths to John a few days later.

The Magna Carter agreed to by the parties had a total of 63 clauses. These provisions included the protection of property rights for the barons and other powerful Englishmen. It also contained some of the first procedural rights in English law, including provisions against illegal arrest and access to swift justice. There were also protections for the Church since the Pope was concerned that a threat to the Crown’s power might easily become one against the Vatican’s power. Some limited provisions for serfs also existed, but the primary goal was the projection of the nobility from King John. To that end, the nobles successfully included a clause that allowed them to seize King John’s property in the event that he did not address any violations of the document within a prescribed period.

Needless to say, this provision greatly concerned John, and a great deal of mistrust continued on both sides after it was signed. The council of barons formed to enforce Magna Carta was full of the men who attempted to rebel against John. Additionally, the barons were supposed to surrender London but never did so. The Pope then further threw his support behind King John, saying that John had been under duress to accept the terms. Unsurprisingly, the First Barons’ War then broke out less than three months later. When John died in 1216, a lot of the issues that he and the barons fought over remained unresolved, though the conflict with the Crown appeared to die with John (at least for the moment). Magna Carta was reissued that year under the young King Henry III, with some of the provisions meant to curb the monarchy’s power removed. As Henry grew older, he operated his government largely within the confines of subsequent charters.

Despite its failure to serve the purpose for which it was originally devised, Magna Carta became representative of attempts to limit the power of government and protect the rights of citizens (even if those initial protections only extended to the aristocracy). Many of its clauses were enshrined in later English laws, and later its concepts were applied to the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The foundations of modern democracy can be traced back to this “Great Charter” once forced on an English King by his rebellious barons.

Editor’s Note: I have been corrected on more than one occasion that it’s ‘Magna Carta’ not ‘The Magna Carta’ – so if this reads a bit strangely, that’s why!


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Magna Carta

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1Pellias

2boldface

Magna Carta is hugely important, historically, constitutionally, legally and culturally, both in Britain and internationally, but (sotto voce) it's a little bit boring to spend £1500 on it. (Normal voice) The seal's quite smart, though. I suppose most of the money is going on the genuine parchment, which, I admit, is a nice touch, and the oak frame.

3wcarter

4astropi

Yikes! That's a lot of money. and for the record, I think a cheaper (much cheaper) facsimile WITH a beautiful limited edition book talking about the history and importance of the document (all presented in a nice box) would have been much preferable! That said, I did get a chance to see an original copy:

It was a nice exhibit. Interesting, worth seeing, but. well, sorry not going to spend big bucks on a facsimile.

5UK_History_Fan

6JuliusC

7cronshaw

8Pellias

6 months ahead, time to prepare. I want this, but, after i "get this" .. then i want something else, and the sky is the limit .. then comes the fall, and no parachute.

This thread will be funny in some time .. never say never.

Hmm, what can i sell .. the tv, myself maybe .. lol

9ultrarightist

10JuliusC

It's now up for sale. And it includes Letterpress certificate and accompanying book.
http://www.foliosociety.com/bookcat/9231/MAT/

11Pellias

Yes i know. Thats why im going mental ) should i/should i not .. according to earlier "similar" editions - hvow long will this supposedly last untill gone?

Magna Carta .. i belive i have watched robin hood too many times

12boldface

I'm still not convinced, I'm afraid. Reading the description it even seems that the accompanying book, Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215–2015, is simply the standard edition available elsewhere for around £45.

13Pellias

14boldface

Just my personal opinion! Usually, I'm accused of rampant enablement!

15Pellias

16JuliusC

17ironjaw

18wcarter

19scholasticus

I am very tempted, but I think the book will suffice. Truth be told, $2500 is quite rich, given that the Charter itself is written on 76 lines, so that's just under $33 CAD per line.

I made an exception for the Hereford World Map (for those of you who know that I own it) because I think the value is well worth it, given that it came with two books. You can certainly find both books on the market for a fraction of the $1400 CAD price, but FS had gotten permission to replace the poor-quality photographs in the books with images from the retouched Map that they printed, so it was well worth the money in my opinion.

Here, the real distinguishing mark is that the facsimile is produced on parchment. I have seen some excellent quality posters of the Charter on paper, giclee, you name it, and if I wanted a copy of the Charter, I'd probably go that route, but that's just me, personally. FS have done nothing to touch up the Charter as they did the Hereford World Map, so I can't get myself around the $2500 price tag.

I should also point out that for anyone who's tempted by this offering that if you really want to appreciate the Charter, you should start taking up Latin, and once you finish that, take up medieval scribal abbreviations. The Latin is not written out in full, so it'll look very much like gibberish given the profusion of scribal abbreviations throughout the text. So if anyone's expecting to be able to read the Latin, consider yourself warned. (I'm sure the book will have a translation of the Latin if not, you can find that very easily online.)

As tempting as it is to own a facsimile of the Charter itself on parchment(!), I think I'd rather save my money and go for the hardcover edition, which looks quite lovely.

Still, kudos to FS for recognising a significant milestone in English history and law! Not many publishers would do the same, let alone give such a milestone the luxury treatment.

20wongie

Pass for me. I'm not in a position where price isn't an issue, it is, and for £1500 the product in question should convince me straight away that I want it I'm not convinced.

Important as it is I don't have the wall space nor any understanding of Latin to truly appreciate it.


The Compact That Preceded the Magna Carta

On this date—June 15—in the year 1215, English nobles compelled King John to affix his seal to a remarkable document, the Magna Carta. The event is often regarded as the kick-off to the long, 800-year march of liberty in the British Isles.

As I previously explained, war and taxes played key roles in pressuring John to that table at Runnymede. However, an event two centuries before can stake a strong claim as the real genesis of English liberty.

The principal figure in this earlier occasion is known in history as King Aethelred the Unready, who ruled England from 978 to 1013 and then again from 1014 to his death in 1016 at the age of 49. “Unready” meant “poorly-advised,” not ill-prepared or asleep at the switch. His rule was so disastrous that he is invariably on the short list as worst of all the English monarchs since the first one, Alfred the Great in the 9th Century.

Aethelred’s tenure started out reasonably well. He became king at age 12 upon his brother’s death in 978. England was at peace and was the richest, most politically sophisticated nation in Europe. But it all unraveled with the coming of the Danish Vikings in the 980s. Fiercely aggressive, the well-armed Danes attacked and looted village after village. When English forces lost the fateful Battle of Maldon in 991, Aethelred was forced to pay annual Danegeld (or tribute) in gold and silver to the Danes. Renewed warfare was assured when, in 1002, Aethelred ordered the St. Brice’s Day massacre, the execution of Danish settlers in England. By 1013, Danish forces succeeded in driving the English King into exile in Normandy.

Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark was now King of England but he died within a year. The opportunity arose for Aethelred’s return and a resumption of his Anglo-Saxon monarchy. But England would not take him back without exacting some concessions.

In Episode 2 of his BBC documentary, Monarchy, historian David Starkey explains:

The surviving English leaders invited Aethelred to return as King—on certain conditions…The complaints against [him] included high taxes, extortion and the enslavement of free men. By the end of the talks, Aethelred was forced to agree to govern within the rules established by his predecessor [the more moderate Edward the Martyr].

The result was a formal, written compact, recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), in which the King consented to lighten up. It was, in Starkey’s words, “the Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta” and “the first constitutional settlement” in English history. Aethelred ruled for two more years before he died, but an important precedent was set. Even if he claimed to rule by “Divine Right,” the king no longer possessed unchecked, limitless discretionary power. He had agreed, according to the ASC, “to govern more justly than he had in the past.”

Richard Abels, retired professor of history at the US Naval Academy, tells us in his book, Aethelread the Unready: The Failed King, what English nobles had in mind in imposing terms on the ruler’s restoration:

Anglo-Saxon kings could and did legislate against reeves [magistrates] who abused their authority but policing and disciplining those who acted in the king’s name was difficult in the best of times and nearly impossible in the chaotic conditions created by recurring Viking raids. Excessive royal exactions undoubtedly were also high on the list, as were complaints about ill-conceived or poorly implemented policies. One suspects that many landowners thought Aethelred overly eager to find reasons to confiscate property. Others may have been uneasy about the violence that had plagued the king’s court. Quite simply, the elites of the realm wanted the king to conduct himself more lawfully.

This was in the year 1014. When English nobles forced King John to the table 201 years later, they were probably thinking, “We’ve done this before. We can do it again. This time, let’s make it stick.”


History of the Magna Carta

King John I (also known as John Lackland, 1166–1216) ruled England, Ireland and sometimes Wales and Scotland between 1177–1216. His predecessor and brother Richard I had spent much of the kingdom's wealth on the crusades: and in 1200, John himself had lost lands in Normandy, ending the Andevin Empire. In 1209, after an argument with Pope Innocent III over who should be the archbishop of Canterbury, John was excommunicated from the church.

John needed to pay money to get back in Pope's good graces, and he wanted to wage war and get back his lands in Normandy, so as sovereigns were wont to do, he increased already-heavy taxes on his subjects. The English barons fought back, forcing a meeting with the king at Runnymede near Windsor on June 15, 1215. At this meeting, King John was coerced into signing the Great Charter which protected some of their basic rights against royal actions.

After some modifications, the charter known as the magna carta libertatum ("great charter of liberties") became part of the law of the land of England in 1297 under the reign of Edward I.


Representations of King John

1851 – A Child’s History of England (Volume 1) – England from the Ancient Times, to the death of King John (A total of three volumes were published between 1851 to 1853, one per year with each being released in December. Amazingly these books formed part of the curricula well into the middle of the 20th century.

1905 – Our Island Story – by H. Marshall. This book has increased in popularity and exposure over recent years due to Michael Gove and his aspirations of the curriculum.

1969 – King John and the Magna Carta – A Ladybird ‘Adventure from History’ book

1623 – Shakespeare’s King John (believed to have been written in the mid 1590’s but not publishes until 1623 in the First Folio. Performed on stage many times. 1899, the famous Victorian actor Herbert Beerbohm was involved in the first known Shakespeare film. Interestingly, no actual mention of Magna Carta.

1962 – A Durable fire: a play (written by Patrick Dickinson and performed as part of the 1965 anniversary celebrations at Tonynbee Hall by a Special Drama Group of London County Council)

1965 – Left Handed Liberty (A play commissioned by The City of London Corporation. Written by John Arden and performed for one week at the Mermaid Theatre, London)

1986 – Song of the New Age – an Opera based on the life of Stephen Langton (performed at Runnymede by the Portable Theatre Company)

1950 – Rogues of Sherwood Forrest (a film in which King John seals Magna Carta using a giant cider press)

1959 – Hancock’s Half Hour (Magna Carta, did she die in vain?)

1973 – Robin Hood (Disney animated)

1983 – The Life and Death of King John (TV Movie – a silent adaptation of Shakespeare’s King John)

1983 – Doctor Who – The King’s Demon (The Doctor discovers that what appears to be the King is in fact a shape-changing android called Kamelion whom the Master found on Xeriphas. The Master has disguised himself as the King’s Champion, Sir Gilles Estram, and is using Kamelion in a plot to discredit the King and prevent the signing of the Magna Carta, thereby changing the course of history)

1993 – Robin Hood – Men in Tights (a spoof of Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves)

2010 – Robin Hood (directed Ridley Scott and featuring Russell Crowe

2011 – Ironclad (a deranged King John played by Paul Giamatti lays siege to Rochester Castle. He fails in his attempt due to the intervention of the Knights Templar)


The Mad King and Magna Carta

We parked near a meadow, tramped through a damp cow field and stood in the shadow of one of Britain’s oldest living things. The Ankerwycke Yew is 2,000 years old: a gnarled beast of a tree with a trunk ten feet wide and thick branches spilling out fronds of spiny, dark-green needles. Romantic legend holds that Henry VIII courted Anne Boleyn beneath its boughs. It grows on the north bank of the Thames upstream from London, in the county of Surrey. Nearby are the ruins of a 12th-century priory, a couple of large water reservoirs and Heathrow Airport. Every 90 seconds a plane roars overhead. In the distance we could hear traffic on the M25, the motorway that encircles London, but across the river it was calm. Over there was Runnymede, a low-lying, lush green meadow cut through and watered by the Thames. The ground is soft and muddy stand too long and your boots will start to sink. The foot traffic that morning consisted mostly of dog walkers. There was little to indicate that we were near the spot where, 800 years ago, King John agreed to a peace treaty with his rebellious barons. Today we call that agreement Magna Carta.

Related Reads

Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter

If we had stood beside the younger, smaller Ankerwycke Yew on Monday, June 15, 1215, we would have witnessed a busier and more dangerous Runnymede. The treaty was struck on the brink of civil war. The conference that produced it was tense. Dozens of earls, barons and bishops attended, all with their own military followings. The chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall wrote that these rebels “gathered with a multitude of most famous knights, armed well at all points.” They camped in tents on one side of the meadow. On the other side stood large royal pavilions, which would have soared into the air with John’s standards depicting three lions embroidered in gold fluttering above. When the king came down to the conference he traveled, probably by barge, from his fiercely defended castle upriver at Windsor. He didn’t want to come. It was said by another chronicler that although he may have been charming during negotiations, behind the scenes “he gnashed his teeth, rolled his eyes, grabbed sticks and straws and gnawed them like a madman.” The tantrums did him no good. Although John did not know it at the time, when he agreed to put his seal to Magna Carta, he was both limiting forever the rights of kings to place themselves above the law and creating the most famous constitutional document in the English-speaking world.

The world had written laws long before King John and Magna Carta. The commandments handed down by God to Moses, the Roman Code of Justinian and the Salic law of Germanic France had all laid out basic rules for human society, and they were kept in written form for reference in the case of dispute. Stone tablets survive from Mesopotamia bearing laws written in Sumerian around 2100 B.C. Magna Carta, which comprises 63 clauses spelling out in dense legalese some of the basic laws of medieval England, and which is often thought of as England’s first statute, fits into this tradition.

Yet England in the 13th century was in no sense lawless. If anything, it was one of the most deeply governed places on earth. From at least the time of Alfred the Great (A.D. 871-899) and most likely long before, English law had been codified, written down and pretty efficiently enforced. When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they continued to issue written legal codes, often when a new king was crowned. John’s father, Henry II (1133-1189), had been a particularly enthusiastic legal reformer. He created swaths of new legal processes and is often described as the father of English common law, that body of custom and precedent that complements statutory law. So the point of Magna Carta in 1215 was not to invent laws to fill the vacuum of anarchy. Rather, it was to restrain a king who was using his legal powers rather too keenly.

John was born in 1167. He was his father’s youngest son, and although the Plantagenet dynasty established by Henry II had lands stretching from the borders of Scotland to the Pyrenees, John as a prince had no territories to call his own. He was nicknamed John Lackland. He was called plenty of other names, too. The chronicler Gerald of Wales condemned him as a “tyrannous whelp.” William of Newburgh said he was “nature’s enemy.” The French poet Bertrand de Born judged that “no man may ever trust him, for his heart is soft and cowardly.” From a very early age John was recognized as sly, conniving, deceitful and unscrupulous.

Color illustration of King John of England (Popperfoto / Getty Images) John, the son of King Henry II, was known as “a tyrannous whelp.” (Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images) As king, John abused his barons and feuded with Pope Innocent III, pictured here. (Tarker / Corbis) With the nobility ready to rebel, Archbishop Stephen Langton mediated the historic negotiations held at Runnymede. (David Gee / Alamy)

Still, bad character was no impediment to being king. John inherited the throne in 1199, after his heroic and much-admired elder brother Richard I, “the Lionheart,” died of gangrene after he was shot with a crossbow bolt during a siege. Almost immediately things went wrong. The Plantagenet empire included or controlled the French territories of Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Maine, Touraine and Aquitaine—about a third of the territorial mass of modern France and virtually the entire western seaboard. During the first five years of John’s reign the bulk of this was lost, in large part thanks to his insipid military command. The most traumatic loss was that of Normandy, conquered by the French in 1204. This was a terrible humiliation, and it had two important consequences. First, John was now forced to spend almost his entire reign in England (his father and brother had spent most of their reigns abroad), where his disagreeable personality brought him into regular conflict with his barons. Second, John’s determination to reconquer Normandy and the rest of his lost French lands drove him to an extortionate form of government. He devoted himself to squeezing as much money as humanly possible out of his subjects, particularly his barons and the Church.

John was a legal whiz. He knew the machinery of government inside-out and the best ways to manipulate it to take his subjects’ money. He would entangle his barons in massive debts to the crown and then use the courts to strip their wealth, often ruining them forever. As king he was entitled to charge his nobles fees known as “fines” for inheriting lands and titles and getting married. There was an understanding that these would be levied at reasonable rates, but John ignored it and charged some mind-blowing sums. In 1214 he charged one man 㾹,333—something like $17 million or more today—for permission to marry. John also set the military tax known as “scutage,” by which a knight could buy his way out of military service to the crown, at an exorbitant rate. And he charged huge fees for his subjects to obtain justice in his courts.

Besides this racketeering, John also earned a reputation as vindictive and even murderous. It was believed that in 1203 he killed his nephew and rival, Arthur of Brittany. One chronicler heard that John had done the deed himself, “after dinner, when he was drunk and possessed by the devil,” and thrown the body into the Seine. In 1208 John fell out with a close associate named William de Braose and pursued his family to destruction, starving to death William’s wife and eldest son in the dungeons of his castle. (William died in exile in France.) John mistreated hostages given to him as security for agreements: The knight William Marshal said he “kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner and in such abject confinement that it seemed an indignity and a disgrace to all those with him.” And it was rumored that he made lecherous advances on his barons’ wives and daughters.

Then there was the Church. In 1207 John fell out with Pope Innocent III over the appointment of a new archbishop of Canterbury. The king claimed the right to approve the appointment so did the pope. A bitter standoff ensued. Innocent first placed England under interdict—a sentence banning all church services. Later he personally excommunicated John. It took six years to resolve this power struggle, during which time John seized Church lands and property and confiscated the vast revenues of his bishops, most of whom fled the country. This made John rich but earned him the lasting hatred of almost everyone connected with the Church. Fatally for his reputation, that included the monastic chroniclers who would write most of the contemporary histories of the reign. A typical judgment was given by the 13th-century writer Matthew Paris, in an epitaph for the king: “Foul as it is, hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John.”

In 1213 Pope Innocent, tired of being ignored, asked the king of France to invade England and depose the faithless king. Finally, John backed down and reconciled with Rome. Later he even promised (probably in bad faith) to lead a new crusade to Jerusalem. But his abrasive methods had earned him the undying hatred of a large group of English barons, particularly in the north of the realm. In 1214 they had their chance to strike. John gambled all of his ill-gotten wealth on a military campaign to win back Normandy. It failed spectacularly when his allies were crushed by the French at the Battle of Bouvines on July 27, 1214. “And thereafter began the war, the strife and criminal conflict between the King and the barons,” wrote a contemporary historian. John returned home that autumn to find rebellion brewing. Insurgents were demanding that the king produce a charter promising to mend his ways, to stop abusing Church and aristocracy, and to govern in accordance with his own law, which they should help make. If he failed to do so, they would depose him and invite a new king to take his place.

These rebels, calling themselves the Army of God, finally took up arms in the spring of 1215 and seized control of London. This is what forced John to assent to Magna Carta at Runnymede that June. The agreement followed lengthy discussions mediated by the archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. When it was written down it came to about 4,000 words, now conventionally divided into 63 clauses. They covered a wide range of issues. The king conceded that the English church would be free from government interference, as would the City of London. He promised to cap military taxes and the fines he levied on his barons for inheritance and marriage.

He dealt with scores of other issues, large and small. John promised to eject foreign mercenaries from England, and he promised to remove the fish traps that obstructed rivers near London and blighted water transport. Most important of all, in Clauses 39 and 40 he promised that “no free man is to be arrested or imprisoned or stripped of his possessions or outlawed or exiled or in any other way ruined, nor will we go or send against him except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.”

News of this extraordinary charter traveled fast. A Scottish chronicle from the time records that “A strange new order began in England Whoever heard of such a thing? For the body longed to govern the head, And the people wished to rule the king.” The charter itself was widely distributed, too. Royal scribes made at least 13 copies, and perhaps as many as 40. Each was authenticated with the king’s royal seal. (He never signed Magna Carta.) They were then distributed around England, probably via the bishops, who stored them in their cathedrals. Today, only four survive.

One morning in early February this year I took a taxi to the British Library in London to meet the curator of medieval manuscripts, Claire Breay. Even though it was around seven o’clock, there was an air of excitement in the library’s Treasures Gallery. TV crews were set up, ready for live broadcasts. We were there to witness a unique event. The four surviving copies of King John’s Magna Carta were going on display together. It was the first time in 800 years that the four pieces of parchment had been in the same room.

The next day 1,215 people, selected by lottery, came to the library to see them. Later in the week the charters were taken to the Houses of Parliament. Then they were returned to their permanent homes: Two are kept in the British Library, one is owned by Lincoln Cathedral and displayed at the nearby castle, and one belongs to Salisbury Cathedral. (That’s why Jay-Z made a private pilgrimage to Salisbury Cathedral to mark the U.K. launch of his 2013 album, Magna Carta. Holy Grail. The British Library turned him down.)

Viewed next to one another, it was surprising how different the charters were. There is no “original” Magna Carta: The surviving charters from 1215 are “engrossments,” or written records of an oral agreement. Their text is virtually identical—heavily abridged Latin written in ink made from oak galls on parchment of dried, bleached sheepskin. Each charter is a different size and shape—one almost square, two “portrait” and one “landscape.” The Salisbury charter is written in dark ink and a sort of handwriting more typically seen in 13th-century Bibles and psalters than on legal documents. The other three are in a paler “chancery hand,” the script used on official documents by the king’s full-time scribes.


Watch the video: Shakespeares First Folio discovered on Isle of Bute BBC News (July 2022).


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