Magna Carta Legacy

The manuscript

Returning to the story of Magna Carta, once King John had sworn the agreement with the barons, the scribes made numerous copies of the charter, probably in the king’s chancery at Windsor castle. This was the government office that created and archived official documents, and it travelled with the king. These copies of Magna Carta were distributed throughout England to inform people what had happened. Four copies have survived, as well as several later versions. In an era long before paper, documents were handwritten with quill pens dipped in ink, on parchment (also called vellum). Parchment is much more durable than paper and was made from sheepskin soaked in a bath of lime, stretched taut as it dried on a frame and then scraped to produce a smooth writing surface.

There is no way of telling what the ‘original’ document was like, since the surviving copies all differ. The best-known one, on display in the British Library, measures 514 x 343mm and has 52 lines of writing. The others are a fraction smaller or larger with up to 86 lines of writing. The text is in medieval Latin, a form of the language of ancient Rome that would continue to be used for centuries in spheres such as the law and the church.

The final addition to each copy was the king’s great seal, which was done by the sealer of the king’s writs. A large carved sealstone was pressed into softened beeswax mixed with resins, leaving behind an impression of the design. This wax seal became hard and was an authentication of the document. The only surviving seal is a blob of wax from a copy of Magna Carta that was later damaged in a fire.

Magna Carta seal

The remnants of the Magna Carta seal

The contents

Magna Carta had 63 clauses covering five main topics – the protection of the rights of the English Church, the feudal rights of the barons, administrative and financial matters, a group of clauses that attempted to force the king to keep his oath, and a group of general principles. Although Magna Carta came to symbolise the roots of freedom, the actual document is preoccupied with concerns that seem strange today, but illuminate medieval life. The 33rd clause states: ‘Henceforth all fish-weirs shall be completely removed from the Thames and the Medway and throughout all England, except on the sea coast.’ Fish-weirs were fish traps of wooden stakes and basketwork laid across tidal rivers, a source of aggravation because they obstructed boats carrying goods upstream, curtailing trade and inflating prices.

It is within the ‘general principles’ that the most important freedoms are contained. For example, one of the shorter clauses says: ‘No man shall be compelled to perform more service for a knight’s fee or for any other free tenement than is due therefrom.’ This and similar clauses were an attempt to guard against oppression and extortion. Other clauses established liberties that are more easily recognisable today, such as: ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice’. Another clause stated that ‘No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land’ – in other words, nobody shall be imprisoned or punished without a fair trial. However, the charter did not guarantee the rights of most men and women of England.


The barons had secured a legally binding document that was both a peace treaty and a charter granting them the freedoms and privileges they had been demanding and curbing the king’s power. John’s response was to send messengers to the pope asking him to annul the charter since the concessions had been forced from him under duress.

The rebels decided to offer the crown to Prince Louis, eldest son of King Philip II of France. They already held London, and a rebel force also took over Rochester castle to delay John advancing on London from his base at Dover. Just 130 days after the agreement at Runnymede, on 13th October 1215, John arrived outside Rochester castle with its huge stone keep. The rebels kept the gates firmly shut, and a long siege began. This was the start of a civil war that would determine the balance of power between the monarch and his subjects for generations to come.

Rochester Castle

A 19th-century depiction of Rochester Castle

The Rochester rebels surrendered on 30th November, and John next took the fight into East Anglia. He was reluctant to tackle the rebel stronghold of London and delayed too long. The following year, in May 1216, Prince Louis and his army landed in Kent and rapidly took control of the south-east. Within months there was stalemate, with John holding the Midlands and the rebels in command of the south and east, but then fate took a hand. In early October John fell ill with dysentery and died at Newark Castle on 18th October 1216, a year-and-a-half after the events at Runnymede.

More Magna Cartas

The reasons for the insurrection were removed at a stroke. The rebels were happy to accept John’s 9-year-old son as the new monarch, and he was crowned King Henry III on 28th October. Only a month later, Magna Carta was reissued with minor changes on behalf of the underage king in order to bring the civil war to an end. The army of England’s would-be king, Prince Louis, was routed at Lincoln several weeks later.

With peace finally restored, King John’s charter was reissued in November 1217, but it was revised and split in two. The three clauses relating to forest laws were significantly expanded to create a separate ‘Forest Charter’. This was important because the royal forests were subject to a separate law system. The king could afforest (enclose) any land at his will, a process that had started with the New Forest after the Norman Conquest. One-third of all England’s land was deemed to be royal forests, where harsh forest laws prevailed, with terrible penalties for offences like disturbing game animals. King John had been obsessed by hunting, and these royal forests were mercilessly exploited by kings for the income from resources like venison, timber for building and fuel, the sale of grazing rights and rents from newly cultivated land. The 1217 Forest Charter was designed to reform such behaviour.

The remaining clauses of John’s Runnymede charter were also revised, forming a ‘Great Charter of Liberties’. In Latin, this was ‘Magna Carta’ (sometimes spelled Magna Charta), the first time this label had been used, though decades later the name was applied retrospectively to John’s original charter.

As the young Henry III grew up, he dreamed of restoring the continental empire of his ancestors, but he needed to raise more money. In 1225, when asked to confirm the Forest Charter and Magna Carta, he agreed only after the barons had conceded a tax on every householder of one-fifteenth of the value of all their personal goods. Even though Magna Carta, along with the Forest Charter, would be confirmed many more times, it was this 1225 version that became the definitive Magna Carta in the centuries to come, not John’s original charter.

The story of Magna Carta did not end there, but continued its fascinating progress. If King John could have looked forward 800 years, he would have been astonished to see Magna Carta as the most celebrated manuscript of all time. Far from being a failure after his treacherous rejection of the document, it has provided a constant symbol of freedom through the ensuing centuries, and its influence was carried by the colonists to the United States of America. The concept of Magna Carta is a linking thread throughout British history and beyond – a worldwide icon of liberty.

Magna Carta memorial

Part of the monument at Runnymede erected by the American Bar Association