John, Henry and Edward

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Glossary of terms in charters - new window


This charter is the important document which the rebellious barons of England forced King John to sign at Runnymede to the west of London on 13th June 1215. On the 20th June, John sent out a King’s Writ, with a copy of the charter, to certain sheriffs and bishops in England ordering that the charter be read publically and that they should restore the peace and swear obedience to the twenty-five barons. The only copy of this letter to survive is held at Hereford Cathedral. The charter was written in Latin, the language of legal documents, but must have soon been translated into French, the language of the nobility, and English, the language of lower officials and the majority of the population although no English or French documents survive.

The charter is very specific, dealing mainly with feudal rights, protecting women and children within the justice system nd taxation. There are echoes of two earlier charters: the Coronation Charter of Henry I which addressed abuses of royal power by his predecessor, his brother William Rufus, and the Constitutions of Clarendon issued by Henry II aimed at forcing the church to submit to the law of the nation as opposed to its own ecclesiastical law. However because the baron’s charter was only agreed to under duress, it was not valid legislation and the king appealed to the pope. Pope Innocent III supported his appeal, revoked the charter on 24th August of that year and later excommunicated the rebellious barons.

King John died in October 1216 and the charter was reissued in 1216 and in 1217 by the papal legate, Cardinal Guala Bicchieri, and the Earl of Pembroke, William Marshall the elder. They were the legal guardians of John’s son who, at nine years old, had been crowned Henry III. The charters of 1216 and 1217 do not include certain specific clauses referring to Wales and Scotland. Also clauses dealing with the laws of the royal forests were rewritten as a separate Forest Charter. The original charter became known as the ‘Magna Carta’ or ‘Great Charter’ of Liberties. The Crown had got back some powers of taxation by deleting clauses 12 and 14. When Henry came of age in 1225 he re-issued the charter under his own seal in return for including a new tax on moveable goods and it became officially the law of the land. This is the authoritative version because of the sixty-five witnesses whose names are given. The wording was basically unchanged when the Magna Charta of Henry III was reissued by Edward I on 12 October 1297. The procedure was that a Confirmation Charter was issued two days before the 1297 reissue and sealed by the King in Ghent on the fifth of November. An official copy was for the first time enrolled by the Chancery Court and included in the Statute Rolls as the law. Edward also issued a Last Confirmation in 1300/1301. The 1297 issue translated into Engish was first printed in a book in 1534 by Robert Redman in London.

The Great Charter only began to lose its legal status in 1828 when original clause 36 was replaced by the ‘Offences against the Person Act’. Many further clauses were replaced by the ‘Statute Law Revision Act’ of 1863 and up to the Statute Law (Repeals) Act of 1969. Today only original clauses 1/2, 13, and 39/40 are still in force. Clause 1/2 defends the freedom and rights of the English church, clause 13 confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, but clause 39/40 is the most famous:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled; nor will we proceed with force against him, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

This clause is the forerunner of the famous writ of habeas corpus which is a summons addressed to the custodian demanding that a prisoner be taken before a court to decide if he is being lawfully detained. (This right is included in many legislations around the world under different names.) In the fourteenth century the English Parliament saw this clause as guaranteeing trial by jury and in due course it may have influenced both the American Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Great Charter was written on parchment (sheepskin) with a quill pen using iron gall ink. It was composed in medieval Latin using the standard abbreviations of the time. Note that in the original charters the text reads continuously. It was divided into clauses and the clauses numbered for reference by Sir William Blackstone in 1759.

Out of thirteen issued, there are four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, two held by the British Library in London, one at Salisbury Cathedral Chapter House and one at Lincoln Cathedral Archives. They were awarded ‘Memory of the World’ status by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in August 2009 and are now included on the Memory of the World International Register.

Of later editions, Durham holds 1216, 1217 and 1225, Hereford has a 1217 copy, the Bodleian library in Oxford holds three 1217 and one 1225, the National Archives at Kew in London has a copy of 1225; the City of London Corporation has a copy of 1297 and another copy is on display in the Members’ Hall of Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. David Rubenstein’s 1297 copy is on permanent loan to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

In all there are existing 4 copies of 1215 charter, 1 copy of 1216, 5 copies of 1217, 3 copies of 1225 and 3 copies of 1297.

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