The definitive guide to the Magna Carta 800

2015 is a year of great significance as we celebrate, commemorate and mark the 800th year since the sealing of the first copy of that which our modern day freedom is built upon. The Magna Carta is not simply a fascinating chapter in British history, but arguably the greatest and most valuable contribution Great Britain has ever made to world history. The story of the Magna Carta is not just about the creation of an old document but of the eternal struggles of mankind. The desire for strength and power to control, dictate and exploit the weak versus the recognition that all were created equal, all have something of worth to offer and that which sets us apart from animals; the desire to nurture, protect and strengthen the weak and vulnerable.

Society and more specifically the laws which govern our lands have evolved to reflect the belief in freedom, rights, equal opportunity and liberty for all; regardless of age, race or creed. The legal freedom that we enjoy today had to have a beginning, a moment in history when these ideals were first implanted in the hearts and minds of man and that moment began in 1100AD when Henry I became the King of England.

The beginning
CanterburyIn 1100AD King Henry I ascended to the throne of England and set a precedent as he issued a royal proclamation called the Coronation Charter which was designed to atone for the messy history of his predecessor William Rufus and secure the on-going financial support of the nobility. After his 35 year reign, the Coronation Charter was conveniently ignored by subsequent monarchs until 113 years later when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton took it upon himself at Canterbury to show the charter to the powerful Barons in the hope that his personal long term dispute with King John could be resolved by a new and improved charter.

On 4 August 1213 the Barons and Clergy met at St. Albans Abbey. Here the King's Justiciar was compelled to pay compensation for past grievances, triggering a demand for general rights and privileges based on the Coronation Charter which had become the template for Magna Carta. As a result the following year a group of Barons met in St. Edmunds Abbey Church and swore an oath to compel King John to accept The Charter of Liberties; the direct precursor to Magna Carta.

The Baron's War
runnymedeOn Sunday 17th May 1215 while everyone was at mass in London, The Barons used the opportunity to install their own mayor, take over the city and compel King John to meet them at Runnymede for a final showdown. On 15th June 2015 King John had little choice but to attend the meeting in the meadow and here he sealed the historic document with the royal seal. 4 days later the Baron's made formal peace with the King, renewing their oaths of allegiance.

By August however, Pope Innocent III had already annulled the Magna Carta claiming it invalid due to being signed under duress. By October 1216 King John died of dysentery however the power of a charter like this one had already become clear and the ideals of liberty and freedom that not even a King was above was a concept that could no longer simply be ignored.

Magna Carta goes viral
Up to 13 copies of the Magna Carta were made at that time and distributed throughout the Kingdom. Many important people had been present at the sealing of the first Charta and with the Magna Carta going viral, there was no chance that it could ever be forgotten or ignored. The boy King Henry III who succeeded the throne had the Charter re-instated and over the course of the next 185 years the Magna Carta was amended and re-issued several times until the latest full version in 1300.

lincolnOnly 4 known copies of the original 1215 charter remain. 2 of these are held at the British Library in London. The third is in Lincoln Cathedral where it has remained for the last 8 centuries, surviving even the English Civil War and World War 2 where it was moved to Fort Knox in the USA. The Lincoln Diocese Bishop Hugh of Wells was present at Runnymede in 1215 and Stephen Langton - the Archbishop of Canterbury who was the main architect and instigator of the document was a Lincolnshire man who studied kingship from the manuscripts in the Cathedral. This makes Lincoln one of the most important locations in the Magna Carta history and trail.

Where are they now?
salisburyThe 4th and best surviving copy of the original Magna Carta is held at Salisbury Cathedral. The Cathedral itself is one of the most spectacular in Britain boasting the tallest spire in England and provides a fantastic public viewing area for the document itself. The original document was sent to Old Sarum - the original Cathedral city of Salisbury which was just a couple of miles away. That Cathedral was demolished and the stones were used to build the 'new' Cathedral which was consecrated in 1258.

Subsequent editions of the Magna Carta are held in Durham, Oxford and Hereford. Durham Cathedral boasts 3 editions of the charta, each holding their own significance. The first is a 1216 edition; the first to be re-instated after King John's death. The second from 1225 was issued as the boy King Henry III came of age and this copy was accompanied with a declaration by the King that the charta was signed and backed by his own free will. The final is the 1300 edition, the full and final incarnation of the Magna Carta.

Hereford Cathedral houses a 1216 edition which was sealed by Henry III at 10 years old under the supervision of his guardians. Oxford's world famous Bodliean Library holds 3 copies of the 1217 version of the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta today
The Magna Carta has been the most valuable export of Great Britain to the rest of the world throughout history. It was the document on which subsequent documents, declarations and charters throughout the world were modelled on and inspired by. The idea that all persons in a land should be under a single common law, declaring certain liberties and freedom for all in the land is one which has stood the test of time despite endless attempts throughout history of monarchs, dictators and leaders to abolish such ideals.

magnaIf you're thinking of visiting the UK in 2015, why not make the Magna Carta Trail Tour part of your journey? Follow in the footsteps of the Kings and conspirators as you trace the journey and history of the Magna Carta around England. Visit the rooms in which the charter was dreamed up and drawn up, visit Runnymede where the Charter was signed under duress by King John and of course see the incredible Cathedrals for yourself containing the original document - the Great Charter, 'Magna Carta'.


By Ruth Lancey

Date: 2017-11-28 13:25:01