Magna Carta

In honour of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta Megan’s Medieval Museum is hosting a special exhibit on the important document.

Henry III and Magna Carta 1225

Lecture by David Carpenter

Given at the Society of Antiquaries of London on June 2, 2015

Magna Carta exhibition shows off newly found copy of charter

Earlier this year a copy of Magna Carta dated to the year 1300 was discovered in Kent. This rare copy now goes on public display as part of an exhibition starting today at the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone.

magna carta exhibit - photo courtesy Kent County Council

The Magna Carta Rediscovered Touring Exhibition runs from July 25th to September 5th, and features the Magna Carta issued at the beginning of the 14th century by King Edward I to the borough of Faversham, one of the Cinque Ports.

The free exhibition includes numerous interactive displays which allow visitors to find out more about the importance of the medieval Magna Carta. It also takes a look at how it ties to today’s concepts of the freedom of the individual, democracy and society, with the Faversham Magna Carta as the centrepiece.

Alongside this is the exhibition ‘In Comitatu Kantie: Life in Kent at the time of Magna Carta’, produced by the Kent History and Library Centre, which will give a taste of life in Kent in the later middle ages.

Part of the exhibit traces the theme of shopping in the 13th century while another looks at how the law impacted on people’s lives. Other pieces include religion, music culture, and everyday life in the middle ages.

Documents from the county archive collections and objects contemporary to Magna Carta will illustrate how people lived, worked and played within the structure of the Law and the Church.

Kent County Council Cabinet Member for Community Services Mike Hill commented, “Magna Carta Rediscovered offers the chance to see an original Magna Carta close up. Visitors will be given detailed guidance on the background to Magna Carta, its sealing, history and modern legacy.

“I would encourage everyone to go and have a look as we celebrate 800 years and see what life was like back then.”

Kent County Council Cabinet Member for Community Services Mike Hill commented, “Magna Carta Rediscovered offers the chance to see an original Magna Carta close up. Visitors will be given detailed guidance on the background to Magna Carta, its sealing, history and modern legacy.

“I would encourage everyone to go and have a look as we celebrate 800 years and see what life was like back then.”

King John known for murder and Magna Carta

Despite affixing his seal to Magna Carta, ushering in a new era of individual rights, King John was and still is seen as a villain.

Print showing King John certifying the Magna Carta in a meadow at Runnymede in 1215.


Print showing King John certifying the Magna Carta in a meadow at Runnymede in 1215.

It was an inauspicious nickname, though somewhat more felicitous in French. Jean sans terre trips not too awkwardly off the tongue. But John Lackland — now that has the odour of an impecunious villein, and a ne’er-do-well at that.

Little wonder the man proved to be spiteful. And villainous. Add treacherous, murderous and two-faced.

The list of character traits is longer, but suffice it to say that King John — there has only ever been one King John — has resisted all attempts at rehabilitation, even now, 800 years after he affixed his royal seal, under enormous duress, to Magna Carta. Even after he set in motion a series of charters that would live on in such key tenets as due process, equality under the law and the right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers.

As a latter version of the charter, circa 1300, makes its way on a mini cross-country tour (Ottawa, Winnipeg, Toronto, Edmonton), King John’s legacy is once again up for examination, and once again we are reminded that older brother King Richard I, or Richard the Lionheart, lives large as the great crusader whose noble statue has pranced outside the House of Lords for more than 150 years.

Brother John, by contrast? A thumb bone and two of his molars are on display at the British Library as part of its Magna Carta anniversary exhibit.

This Monday marks the 800th anniversary of the creation of the Magna Carta, a foundational document in western civilization.

Harsh? Not especially. Consider a later crook-back king. “In contrast to Richard III, where there’s the debate — is he monstrous or is he misunderstood — the portrayal of John is remarkably consistent over time,” says Carolyn Harris, a professor of history at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies

He was the youngest of the four surviving sons of Henry I and Eleanor of Aquitaine, that epic alliance that wedded the lands of Aquitaine to Normandy and Anjou and all of England. Born last of the line, he was, truthfully, lacking in land, and so King Henry wrested properties already settled on the older brothers and reassigned them to John, which did not sit well with young Henry nor his siblings Geoffrey and Richard.

Attempts at revolt, supported by the Queen, no doubt led the king to favour John, or at least that’s the moviegoer’s version. Recall Peter O’Toole as King Henry in The Lion in Winter referring to surviving sons one, two and three (wee William had died as a child) as “three whiskered things.” A stoop-shouldered John never misses a moment to spout, “Just to remember, father loves me best.”

With a duplicitous eye on the whole empire, John later mewls somewhat creepily, “Daddy took it all for me. But when can I have it Daddy? Not until they bury you.”

By the time King Henry lay his head upon his deathbed pillow, John had realigned himself with Richard, as Harris says, “just to ensure he would be on the right side of the new monarch who was succeeding to the throne … John always seems to have been looking out for his own self-interest and was quick to betray others, including within his own family to ensure his own interests were looked after.”

That betrayal would later turn to Richard himself who as king and while off on crusade, was captured and imprisoned by Duke Leopold of Austria. John seized the moment of vulnerability to conspire with the king of France to take over the Anglo-French empire, a time which, in popular culture, has come to be associated with Robin Hood. The legends of Robin Hood had originally been set in a variety of periods in medieval history, according to Harris, but latterly became stuck in the era of King Richard’s reign. In the 1930s version, Robin Hood (a dashing Errol Flynn) robs the rich to feed the poor while a bejewelled and heavily brocaded evil Prince John (a distasteful Claude Rains) pours himself another generous measure of mulled wine and declaims that his brother’s travails have left “all of England to my tender care.”

Young Henry was long dead of dysentery. Geoffrey had fatally fallen off his horse. And Prince John had developed a reputation as a lover of fine food, generous drink and showy attire. “He wore brocade mantles and coloured hose and gold cross garters,” says Harris, habits which, combined with his indulgent habit of bathing once every three weeks and staying in bed with his women until noon, “contributed to his reputation as somebody who was more interested in his own pleasures than in governing.

Dreams of empire were scuppered by Richard’s return, and the ever-wily prince flew to his brother’s side. “John remained at least outwardly loyal to him to ensure that he would be designated the king’s heir when the childless Richard died,” says Harris. Which the childless and valorous Richard did do, having been fatally struck by an arrow in the spring of 1199.

On the plus side, John’s ascension to the throne brought to England a king who was quite well-educated and well-read. (Harris says he travelled with a personal library.) On the minus side, his military training appears to have been absent, which did not bode well.

And there was a perceived impediment to his reign. John’s brother Geoffrey had fathered a son, Arthur, just 12 at the time of King Richard’s death, but growing into an adolescent threat in King John’s early tenure. So the king had him imprisoned. The Margam annals, 13th-century monastic chronicles from an abbey in south Wales, recount Arthur’s death in the tower of Rouen: “After dinner on the Thursday before Easter, when he was drunk and possessed by the devil, [John] killed him with his own hand, and attaching a great stone to the body, threw it in the Seine.” (There was also the story that the king had ordered Arthur’s eyes be put out with red hot irons.

Did King John personally do the deed? That’s in dispute. Some accounts have him merely directing his nephew’s murder. In Magna Carta, David Carpenter, a professor of medieval history at King’s College London, suggests that the author of the Margam annals could have been a “hostile” source but concludes that there can be little doubt that John, “in one way or another,” murdered Arthur.

“If you thought Richard III had a poor reputation, no one accuses Richard of actually wielding the pillow and smothering the princes in the tower himself,” says U of T’s Harris. “The fact that lurid rumours like that were spreading from very early in John’s reign really cast a shadow over his reputation.”

Arthur’s murder was tactical. The deaths of Matilda (or Maud) de Briouze and her eldest son exposed John’s ruthlessness. A disagreement with the king over debts prompted Matilda’s husband, William, a baron with lands in Normandy, Sussex and Wales, to flee. Matilda, whom David Carpenter describes as “easily the most famous woman of her age,” was imprisoned along with her son at Corfe Castle in Dorset

An anonymous account of the time, believed to have been written early in the 13th century, includes the gruesome outcome. The king “ordered that a sheaf of oats and one piece of raw bacon be given to them. He did not allow them to have any more meat. After eleven days, the mother was found dead between her son’s legs, still upright albeit leaning forward against her son’s foot. Her son, who was also dead, was found sitting straight, bent against the wall.”

This “hideous crime” (Carpenter’s phrase) would have enormous consequences.

“The idea that a baronial family that had once controlled most of the Welsh borderlands, had been high in John’s favour, for this to happen to them … there was this sense from the barons that this could happen to any of them,” says Carolyn Harris. “Certainly what happened to the Briouze family informs Magna Carta’s clauses against arbitrary rule.”

The barony was powerful, and epically pissed. In 1204, King John lost Anjou and Normandy to the king of France. The years that followed saw the ramped-up extraction of taxes, levies and arbitrary fines to finance his aims of regaining lost territories, while the barons saw their coffers diminished and their lands sometimes seized by arbitrary “disseisin,” or dispossession.

Harris joins historians in citing the Battle of Bouvines near the northern French town of Lille in the summer of 1214 as pivotal. King John’s ill-considered coalition forces fell to the French in brutal battle. “That leads almost irrevocably to him losing his vast continental empire,” says Harris, which in turn is a disaster for the barons, many of whom held lands in Normandy since the Norman Conquests.

The barons were led by Robert FitzWalter, whose own lands had been confiscated and swiftly granted to the king’s bastard son, Henry. Perhaps it was the last straw. The baronial army seized London in mid-May, leaving King John no choice but to negotiate the terms of what was simply known then as a charter, or carta, becoming known as Magna Carta years later after successive versions were signed.

Four original charters surviving today are deemed authentic, each having been sealed by King John at or near a meadow on the neutral grounds of Runnymede on June 15, 1215. Of the 63 articles contained in the document, perhaps none resonates as clearly as article 39: “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.”

The constraints on sovereign power were clearly set, the very foundation of human rights.

A month later King John disavowed it. The barons were back at war.

History could have turned out quite differently had King John not conveniently died in the autumn of 1216 — dysentery again — leaving the 9-year-old Henry as heir. “It’s really only because of John’s death that this leads to the charter being a lasting document,” says Carolyn Harris. A child king on the throne gave the barons years to entrench Magna Carta before the king came of age.

Charter revisions were made in the years following John’s death, the final version dated 1300.

Three centuries later, Shakespeare would write a not very gripping play about King John. He makes no mention of the charter, though the king is self-evidently a bad man. In David Carpenter’s assessment, the man’s character was all. What if he had been a better man? “Without the intense hostility to him as a person,” Carpenter writes, “there would have been no revolt and no Magna Carta.”

5 Places to Discover the Magna Carta this Weekend

2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. The document, which means ‘Great Charter’, was sealed at Runneymede on 15th June 1215. At the time it was the solution to a political crisis in Medieval England, but its importance has endured as it has become recognised as a cornerstone of liberty influencing much of the civilized world and is considered to be one of the most important documents in history. Celebrate its legacy, and soak up the foundations of democracy by visiting these six places brimming with history.

1. St Albans

The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Albans, by Fotorus

St Albans bore witness to the very start of the Magna Carta. Churchmen and barons, led by Stephen Langton the Archbishop of Canterbury, held their first meeting in St Albans in 1213 to discuss their grievances against King John. You can find out more about the city’s involvement by visiting the Romanesque Grade I listed cathedral, the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain.

Full List of Magna Carta related events in St Albans.

2. Salisbury Cathedral

Inside Salisbury Cathedral, by Nathan Rupert

Nestled in the Chapter House of this stunning Grade I listed early English gothic cathedral is one of the four remaining copies of the 1215 Magna Carta.  Salisbury is the best preserved of all the copies and the cathedral has staged an exhibition which takes visitors on a journey throughout the Cathedral, medieval cloisters and stunning 13th century Chapter House.

The Salisbury Cathedral Magna Carta events programme.

3. The British Library and the City of London

Ralph of Coggeshall, Chronicon Anglicanum , AD 1066–1223 – find out more on this manuscript

The British Library has staged a major exhibition to mark the anniversary. You can see everything from one of the four original copies to Cabinet papers proposing that Magna Carta be gifted to the USA, with annotations by Sir Winston Churchill. The City of London is the only place to be directly named in the charter. While you’re in the Capital why not walk in the footsteps of the group of Barons who first demanded a charter from King John.  The City of London is running daily free walks from 1 June – 20 September.

More information on the exhibition at The British Library and access to a trove of online resources. 

4. Canterbury

Canterbury Cathedral Interior, Bell Harry Tower (1503) by Jeffery C Johnson

Canterbury has close connections to the Magna Carta with the accession of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1207, who became implacably opposed to King John.  After you’ve visiting the imposing cathedral, take a walk to the Grade II listed Beaney House of Art and Knowledge which has special displays to mark the anniversary.

Magna Carta events at Canterbury Cathedral.

5. Runnymede

Magna Carta Memorial, Runnymede

It was in Runnymede, on the banks of the River Thames, where King John signed the Magna Carta. The land, looked after by the National Trust, is now a beautiful landscape. Be sure to seek out the Grade II listed memorial to JFK designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe. Visitors reach the memorial by treading a steep path of irregular granite steps, symbolising a pilgrimage.

Visiting information for the riverside site of the sealing of Magna Carta

Who were the scribes that wrote Magna Carta?

It is a conundrum that has puzzled scholars for centuries, but now experts from the Magna Carta Project have established the scribe of at least one and possibly two of the original Magna Cartas of 1215.

The opening lines of Lincoln Cathedral's copy of the 1215 Magna Carta

The discovery by scholars at the University of East Anglia and King’s College London of who wrote the Lincoln charter – and probably also the Salisbury charter – was announced as part of the 800th anniversary of the creation of Magna Carta. Authorised on June 15, 1215 by King John, Magna Carta asserts the fundamental principle of the rule of law, but the new finding of who actually put ink to parchment points to the church as the impetus behind the charter’s production.

Four original charters setting out the text of Magna Carta are known to have survived since the unpopular king ratified it at Runnymede, in a short-lived effort to make peace with a group of rebel barons. Two of these 1215 charters are held at the British Library, one is held at Lincoln Cathedral and one at Salisbury Cathedral. All four original charters have been granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

The Magna Carta Project, based at University of East Anglia and King’s College London, has undertaken detailed work on the four surviving 1215 charters. The project, supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), also works closely with curators at the British Library and an expert at the University of Cambridge.

In recent weeks, following an exhaustive search and examination of the handwriting, the researchers have established that the Lincoln and Salisbury charters were written by scribes working outside the king’s own writing office.

It was not the king’s efforts that gave birth to these charters, but the efforts of the church. The Lincoln charter was written by a scribe who produced several other documents for the Bishop of Lincoln. The Salisbury charter was probably produced by a scribe working for the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury.

Professor Nicholas Vincent, professor of medieval history at University of East Anglia and the Magna Carta Project’s principal investigator, explains, “To have found and identified the work of these scribes, 800 years after their writing, is a significant achievement, certainly equivalent to finding needles in a very large haystack.

“But it also has important historical implications. It has become apparent, not least as a result of work undertaken for the Magna Carta Project, that the bishops of England were crucial to both the publication and the preservation of Magna Carta.

“King John had no real intention that the charter be either publicized or enforced. It was the bishops, instead, who insisted that it be distributed to the country at large and thereafter who preserved it in their cathedral archives. We now find at least two cathedral churches, Lincoln and Salisbury, each producing its own Magna Carta, supplying the time, the scribe and the initiative to get the document copied.

Crucially, Professor Vincent said those aware of Magna Carta in the 13th Century “would have seen not a royal charter but something produced, published, preserved and even physically written by the English church.”

He adds that “what contemporaries would have seen in Magna Carta, both as text and as physical artifact, was an ecclesiastical document.  This serves as an important reminder of the ways in which our modern ideas of freedom, democracy and the rule of law emerged from a close co-operation between church and state.

“Bizarrely enough, Magna Carta is the product of a situation far closer to that which elsewhere in today’s world we might associate with the enemies of modern liberal democracy, with Sharia law, or with those systems in which church and state are indistinguishable.”

Professor David Carpenter, professor of medieval history at King’s College London and a member of the project team, said “These exciting discoveries dovetail perfectly with another major finding of the project, namely that one of the two originals of Magna Carta now in the British Library was sent in 1215 to Canterbury Cathedral and can be known as ‘The Canterbury Magna Carta’.

“We now know, therefore, that three of the four surviving originals of the charter went to cathedrals: Lincoln, Salisbury and Canterbury. Probably cathedrals were the destination for the great majority of the other original charters issued in 1215.

“This overturns the old view that the charters were sent to the sheriffs in charge of the counties. That would have been fatal since the sheriffs were the very people under attack in the charter. They would have quickly consigned Magna Carta to their castle furnaces.

“The church, therefore, was central to the production, preservation and proclamation of Magna Carta. The cathedrals were like a beacon from which the light of the charter shone round the country, thus beginning the process by which it became central to national life.”

Prof Rick Rylance, chief executive of the AHRC, added “Understanding the wider context of documents such as the Magna Carta helps us to learn from our past and enhance our understanding of the society we live in today. The Magna Carta Project demonstrates the importance of this and inevitably, the formative influence of the UK’s experience on institutions the world over. The exhibition is eye opening.”

Click here to go to the Magna Carta Project website

Unique digital platform to explore Magna Carta through art

By Ian Richards

Young people from around the world will collaborate with leading contemporary artists through a unique digital platform exploring the global significance of Magna Carta through art.

The project was launched at Lincoln Castle yesterday on the eve of the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the ‘Great Charter’.

Magna Carta is recognised as the foundation of constitutional democracy and the source of many of the civil liberties enjoyed in free countries today, from trial by jury to fair taxation. The city of Lincoln possesses one of only four surviving originals of the 1215 Magna Carta and is unique in also holding one of only two originals of the related 1217 Charter of the Forest. is an initiative led by the University of Lincoln in collaboration with regional arts organisations, businesses, schools and the city and county councils. It is supported using public funding from the National Lottery through an Exceptional Award from Arts Council England and a host of national and international partners. It provides a unique digital platform where, through the universal language of art, young people between the ages of 14-24 will discover, experience and participate in debating humanitarian ideals across borders, religion and race.

Professor Mary Stuart, Vice Chancellor at the University of Lincoln and Chair of the Lincoln Cultural and Arts Partnership, said, “Magna Carta is not just a story about medieval barons and kings – it is about a vision to stand against injustice to shape a better, fairer society. That is an ideal that resonates with many people around the world today.

“Art has a profound role to play in enabling us to understand and articulate how we feel about complex issues in constructive and thought-provoking ways. is a unique opportunity for young people to connect across borders, working with contemporary artists across many genres to give their own interpretation of Magna Carta’s modern day relevance and produce a body of work which will inspire new generations.”

Peter Knott, Area Director, Arts Council England, said: “Exceptional Awards are an opportunity for the Arts Council to invest in really outstanding ideas or opportunities of national significance which don’t come along every day. We’re committed to making sure children and young people are able to access and enjoy great art and culture and this new digital platform will be an exciting place for cultural and artistic exchange for young people in Lincoln and beyond. Ambitious in its reach, we are sure this project will inspire creativity and debate linked to the celebrations taking place this year for the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.”

The platform, created by Cultureshock Media, will draw together a rich variety of newly created artistic content alongside existing materials into a digital House of Culture. Artworks, animation, film, photography, music, spoken word and written content inspired by the themes of Magna Carta will be created and curated by young people, supported by project directors Sukhy Johal and Ann Jones.

Visitors to the site will be encouraged to add their own artistic input by connecting with artistic networks around the world or uploading their own content. There will be forums for debate and discussion, libraries of downloadable materials and integration with social media. This will be supported by live events and six digitally themed artist commissions that will stimulate engagement over the two year life of the project. was launched in a special event at Lincoln Castle on Sunday 14th June 2015, with digital and live art performances in Lincoln Castle’s Victorian prison that brought to life the digital platform, with a call to arms to the young project champions. Questions posed related to the meaning and relevance of power, rights, freedom and responsibilities in the digital age. The project will culminate in November 2017 on the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest with a final creative commission celebrating a new Magna Carta created by the global audience of young people.

Click here to visit

You can also follow them on Twitter @1215today 

Learn more about Magna Carta:

Magna Carta in Context

King John and the Making of Magna Carta – Lecture by Carolyn Harris

715 year old copy of Magna Carta discovered

Ten Short Videos about the Magna Carta

Magna Carta in the 20th century, by Alexander Lock

Magna Carta Celebrates Its 800th Birthday! – from the British Library’ Medieval Manuscripts Blog

The Full Text of Magna Carta – from the Medieval Sourcebook

And our tag for Magna Carta

10 Things You Need to Know about Magna Carta

1 Response to Magna Carta

  1. Pingback: On This Day | Megan's Medieval Museum

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