Post-classical history


Runnymede today is an atmospheric and evocative place. The great meadow stretches out beside the Thames, and one can easily imagine it filled with the pavilions of King John and the tents of the barons during those June days in 1215 when Magna Carta was being negotiated. John ended the Great Charter with the statement that it was ‘Given by our hand in the meadow which is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June, in the seventeenth year of our reign’, which meant that it was on 15 June 1215 that he authorized the Charter’s writing out and sealing. The great jets taking off from London’s Heathrow Airport often come up over Runnymede, and then turn to fly down its whole length, slowly gaining height as they disappear into the distance. It is as though they are carrying the Charter to the four corners of the world.

The Charter has indeed become one of the most famous documents in world constitutional history, regarded as a fundamental protection against arbitrary and tyrannical rule. In some ways, this illustrious history is as undeserved as it was unintended. Magna Carta, as originally conceived, certainly did not offer equal protection to all the king’s subjects. It was, in many ways, a selfish document in which the baronial elite looked after its own interests. While, moreover, the Charter is usually regarded as firing its salvoes at the king, it was also (a major theme of this book) firing at sections of society. It discriminated against unfree peasants, who formed the largest section of the population. It also discriminated against women. It revealed tensions between barons and their knightly tenants. The towns, like the knights, got far less from the Charter than they might have hoped. Magna Carta shows the king’s subjects in conflict with one another as well as in conflict with the king.

Yet Magna Carta did assert a fundamental principle. That principle was the rule of law. Henceforth, the king was to be bound by law, the law the Charter made. He was thus restricted in a whole series of ways, for the Charter had no fewer than sixty-three chapters. Most significant of all were chapters 39 and 40. In chapter 40, the king was not to sell, deny or delay justice. Under chapter 39, no free man was to be imprisoned or dispossessed save ‘by the lawful judgement of his peers’ or ‘by the law of the land’. Thesetwo chapters are still on the statute book of the United Kingdom.1 To be sure, in 1215, it was only the ‘free man’ who benefited from chapter 39. It offered nothing, therefore, to the unfree peasant. The chapter still reads ‘free man’ today. In course of time, however, the chapter became more socially inclusive. Legislation in 1354 defined ‘free man’ as a ‘man of whatever estate and condition he may be’. The legislation also made clear that treatment according to the law of the land meant treatment according to due legal process. Other legislation interpreted ‘lawful judgement’ by peers as meaning trial by peers (that is social equals), and so trial by jury.2 While, moreover, chapter 39 read ‘no free man’, ‘man’ here, from the start in 1215, could be understood as meaning human being, and thus as applying to both sexes.3

In terms of the principles it asserted, therefore, the Charter was rightly called in aid by the parliamentary opposition to Charles I, and by the founding fathers of the United States of America. In the twentieth century it was appealed to by both Mahatma Gandhi and by Nelson Mandela.4 It still features in political debates in Britain today. A Guardian newspaper leader in 2005, protesting about the proposed ninety-day detention period in terrorist cases, was headed ‘Protecting Magna Carta’.5

That Magna Carta was to have an illustrious future hardly seemed likely in 1215. Little more than a month after Runnymede, John asked the pope to quash the Charter. His baronial opponents too seemed to abandon it. Giving up hope of restricting the king, they decided to replace him altogether and offered the throne to Prince Louis, the eldest son of the king of France. The result was a civil war, not the peace that Magna Carta was supposed to bring. When John died at Newark, during the night of 17–18 October 1216, as a great storm battered the town, his heir was his nine-year-old son, Henry III, while Louis controlled more than half the country. In this desperate situation, Henry’s governors effected a complete change of policy. In order to tempt rebels into the young king’s allegiance, they immediately issued, in the king’s name, a new version of Magna Carta. They did so again in November 1217, having won the civil war, this time in order to consolidate the peace. And then Henry issued the Charter for a third and final time in 1225, in return for a grant of taxation. It was the 1225 Charter that became the definitive version. Confirmed many times under Henry III and his son Edward I, by the end of the thirteenth century it had achieved iconic status.

Given the significance of the Charter of 1225, it might be wondered why the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta is being celebrated in 2015 and not in 2025. Celebrations in 2025 will certainly be in order, but those in 2015 easily deserve first place. Although there are important differences, the Charter of 1225, in its spirit, detail and much of its phraseology, replicates the Charter of 1215. Without the 1215 original there would have been no 1225 version. This book is chiefly about Magna Carta 1215, although it also considers the impact of the Charter, in its various versions, in the thirteenth century.

I first encountered Magna Carta in 1968 in the chapter house of Oxford cathedral, a building, with its elegant lancet windows, which was being erected around the time John conceded the Charter. There I heard John Mason lecture on Bishop Stubbs’ Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History from the Earliest Times to the Reign of Edward the First. This was no longer a popular course by the time I took it, having been eclipsed by one on the Crusades. As far as I remember, there were only one or two other students in the audience. Yet I found the lectures, which climaxed with Magna Carta, enthralling. The documents themselves illuminated both constitutional history and the whole changing nature of English society. When I complimented Dr Mason on the series, he modestly (too modestly I think) said that the lectures were actually those of his old tutor, Sir Goronwy Edwards, who had been taught by T. F. Tout, who in turn had been taught by Stubbs himself. The lectures were followed by one-to-one tutorials with John (although it was many years before I called him that), in which we worked through the documents, and I wrote gobbets on many of Magna Carta’s chapter.6 Subsequently, revising for finals back at Westminster (where my father was a canon of the abbey), I worked late into the evening in the abbey’s muniment room, with its wonderful view over Henry III’s great church. There I cross-referenced in my copy of Select Charters the chapters of Magna Carta with their equivalents in the Articles of the Barons, the Coronation Charter of Henry I, and the Charters of 1216, 1217 and 1225. I have used my annotated copy of Select Charters ever since, although it has now lost its cover and is in a very dilapidated state.

The 1960s proved to be a very exciting time generally and especially so for those starting work on Magna Carta. This was because the subject had been transformed by two great books by J. C. Holt. The first was The Northerners: A Study in the Reign of King John, which appeared in 1961. The second was Magna Carta, published in 1965 to coincide with the Charter’s 750th anniversary. I acquired my copy of the latter on 27 March 1968, or at least that is the date I wrote into it. W. L. Warren, who in 1961 brought out a superb biography of King John, generously acknowledged that Holt’s books had so altered the landscape that ‘all earlier work [on the Charter] appears to be less than satisfactory’.7 Although my book often differs from Holt, it does so in the context of a profound admiration and respect for his work. Unlike previous historians of the period, Holt started not with the king but with a vast amount of research into the histories of baronial and knightly families. He focused on the north because it was the northerners, as they were called at the time, who took the lead in the rebellion that led to Magna Carta. Holt thus gained a unique understanding of the complex ties of lordship, neighbourhood, friendship and family that held together the local society on which John’s government impacted. He was also adept at deducing political ideas from statements in letters and law cases. And he expressed himself in what were often pithy and epigrammatic sentences: ‘Sometimes Magna Carta stated law. Sometimes it stated what its supporters hoped would become law. Sometimes it stated what they pretended was law. As a party manifesto it made a party case with scant regard for fact or existing practice.’8

The impact and authority of Holt’s work was such that for many years little was written about Magna Carta by anyone else. Indeed, when Holt brought out a second edition of Magna Carta in 1992, the major addition, a chapter on justice and jurisdiction, was the result of his own research.9 Knowing a second edition was on the way, I had myself sent Holt a small list of mistakes that I had found in the first edition. A postcard came back in reply pointing out that I had got the date of John’s death wrong in my Minority of Henry III (1990)! Nonetheless, when the second edition appeared, Holt did thank me in the preface for correcting errors ‘which were still buried deep in the first edition’.

Reading the second edition, I was struck by the account of events at Runnymede, as I had not been for some reason before, although it was much the same as in the first edition. Holt (in common with many historians) took the view that 15 June 1215 was not the true date of Magna Carta. Instead he thought it was only finalized four days later on 19 June. I felt this hypothesis was mistaken, and the first chapter of my Reign of Henry III (1996) sought to vindicate the 15 June date. Let us hope I am right about that, otherwise the celebrations in 2015 will climax on the wrong day. Chapter 2 of The Reign of Henry III went on to offer a critique of Holt’s new chapter on justice and jurisdiction. In a letter of reply, Holt, while not saying he agreed, congratulated me on the ‘tough thinking’ about the date of Magna Carta, and wrote that ‘Cheney would have liked this, and Galbraith would have relished it’. High praise indeed! On the other hand, he thought that the chapter on justice and jurisdiction was ‘almost totally misconceived as your brighter students will be able to tell you in a moment’. I was not persuaded by his comments, but this is a good example of how historians can look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions.10

This book differs from Holt in its interpretation of several individual chapters in the Charter.11 More significantly, it also gives what is sometimes a very different narrative of the events of 1214–1215, quite apart from the actual date of the Charter. Where Holt was sceptical as to whether there had been a revolutionary meeting of the barons at Bury St Edmunds in 1214, I argue that one certainly did take place, but not at the time usually ascribed to it. I also argue that John was forced to make further concessions at Runnymede, having granted the Charter, something one can only appreciate after establishing its true date. I give a completely new account of how the Charter was implemented in the localities. In addition, I bring out the importance of the Oxford council in July 1215, and suggest it was there that John took the decision to abandon the Charter. The book also offers a fresh perspective on Magna Carta by using it as a window into the nature of, and tensions within, English society in the early thirteenth century.

Some of what I say has depended on new discoveries. I have, I hope, been able to prove that one of the four extant originals of the 1215 Charter, that preserved in the British Library and known as Ci, was sent to Canterbury cathedral, where indeed it remained until it was stolen in the seventeenth century. It should thus be known as the Canterbury Magna Carta. This exciting finding adds to our understanding of how the Charter was distributed and publicized. I have also discovered a copy of a letter in which King John sets out the terms of the treaty that he forced on William the Lion, king of Scots, in 1209. This reveals a stunning fact, hitherto unknown, namely that John was trying to assert overlordship over the Scottish kingdom. The Scottish involvement in Magna Carta and much else about Anglo-Scottish relations in the thirteenth century become clearer in this context. In the course of my research, I have attempted to collect and analyse copies of the 1215 Magna Carta made in the hundred years after Runnymede, something never done before. Many of these turn out to be variant texts, and seem in places to preserve drafts made at Runnymede. They help cast new light both on the course of the negotiations and on how knowledge of the Charter was spread. In Chapter 2, I provide a Latin text and translation of the Charter, which for the first time indicates how the conventional divisions into chapters do not always correspond with the divisions in the four originals.

Since Holt’s second edition, much important work has been published about the reign of King John, Magna Carta, and the wider political and social setting. I hope I have put it to good use. We know far more about the Anglo-Norman realm, the scale of royal revenue, the development of parliament, the nature of the knightly class, the role of the king’s household knights, the position of women and the structures of magnate power. We also know more about the intellectual climate of the period, to which John’s archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, himself made a notable contribution. There is much about Langton in this book.

I owe a great debt to the Magna Carta Project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council: Its ‘Principal Investigator’, to use the official term, is Nicholas Vincent, of the University of East Anglia (UEA), while the co-investigators are Paul Brand of All Souls College, Oxford, Louise Wilkinson of Canterbury Christ Church University and David Carpenter of King’s College London, that is to say myself. The original ‘Researchers’ were Hugh Doherty and Henry Summerson, with Hugh being replaced by Sophie Ambler on his appointment to a lectureship at UEA. The British Library is also involved, where Claire Breay and Julian Harrison are organizing a great Magna Carta exhibition for 2015. One focus of the project’s research is to collect, analyse and publish on the project’s website all the original charters and letters of King John, scattered as they are across many archives in Britain and abroad. Several hundred of these have now been found. Nicholas Vincent has also discovered, this time as a copy rather than an original, a baronial letter from 1215 that I have used extensively in my chapter on the enforcement of the Charter. The discovery was made one wet Friday afternoon in the Lambeth Palace Library, and I was lucky enough, through Nick’s email, to get there in time to see it with him. A memorable moment! Another focus of the project is to write the first chapter-by-chapter commentary on the 1215 Charter since W. S. McKechnie’s in 1905, and the first chapter-by-chapter commentary ever on the definitive Charter of 1225. The bulk of the work here is being done by Henry Summerson, and his commentaries are likewise appearing on the project’s website. Henry and I have not always agreed about the meaning and significance of individual chapters, but, as my footnotes show, I am hugely indebted to his commentaries both for information and for interpretation. Many other scholars have helped by giving their advice on individual points and by reading sections and chapters of the book. I thank them all at the appropriate place.

Many celebratory events for the 800th anniversary of the Charter in 2015 have been planned and coordinated by the Magna Carta 800th Committee, chaired by Sir Robert Worcester: Much historical work, explaining the significance of the Charter, has been done by Nigel Saul of Royal Holloway College, and I have often been helped and entertained by discussing matters with him. Parliament’s own celebrations in 2015 both for Magna Carta and for the 750th anniversary of the 1265 parliament of Simon de Montfort have been organized by Caterina Loriggio. I have been lucky enough to be on the relevant Speaker’s Advisory Committee chaired by Lord Bew and Sir Peter Luff.

At Penguin I owe a great debt to my commissioning editor, Simon Winder, and to Anna Hervé, editorial manager of the Penguin Classics series, and Penelope Vogler, publicist. I am also greatly indebted to my copy-editor, Richard Mason, and to the proofreader Stephan Ryan. The book could not have been written without the MA students at King’s College London who have taken my MA course on Magna Carta over the years. Many of the ideas and approaches in the book have been developed and tested in our discussions.

David Carpenter
King’s College London
June 2014


1.     See ‘Magna Carta repeals’: Chapters 39 and 40 of the 1215 Charter became chapter 29 of the definitive Magna Carta of 1225. The latter appears on the statute book in Edward I’s confirmation of 1297. The other chapters still on the statute book are chapter 1, giving freedom to the church and announcing the concessions to the realm, and chapter 9, protecting the liberties and customs of London and those of other cities, boroughs, towns and ports, including the Cinque Ports. Although the other chapters have been repealed, this was often because, as Richard Godden has pointed out to me, their contents were covered by later legislation.

2.     Thompson, First Century, pp. 90–92; Holt, Magna Carta (1992), pp. 9–10.

3.     For the use of homo in this sense see Glanvill, p. 106, a reference I owe to John Gillingham.

4.     This later history of the Charter is fully explored in the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition of 2015.

5.     The Guardian, 5 November 2005:

6.     In the cards he sent me, John, who was a kind but quite shy man, avoided, or so I thought, signing off either as ‘John’ or as ‘John Mason’, by always scrawling his initials ‘JFAM’.

7.     Warren, King John, p. xiv.

8.     Holt, Magna Carta (1965), p. 205; Magna Carta (1992), pp. 300–301.

9.     Holt seems to have missed Thomas Keefe’s important article ‘Henry II and the earls’.

10.   John Hudson, in his Oxford History, p. 853 note 47, observes that ‘overall the differences of [Carpenter’s] position and that of Holt are limited’. This is true when it comes to the course of justice under John. The debate chiefly concerned what happened under Henry III.

11.   Holt told me he disliked talking of the ‘clauses’ of the Charter, and I have followed him in speaking of ‘chapters’.

Note on the Text

The Text and Translation of Magna Carta

The Latin text and English translation of Magna Carta may be found between pp. 36 and 69.

Glossary of Terms

A glossary of terms found in Magna Carta is placed at the end of the book between pp. 461 and 470. This includes an explanation of pounds, shillings, pence and marks, for which see also p. 26.


In the endnotes, works by authors writing in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries appear for the most part under either the name of the author, or, in the case of chronicles where the author is unknown, under the place where the chronicle was written. Occasionally they are also cited under an abbreviated form of the title of the work. Record sources are cited by an abbreviated form of the published title, so PR for Pipe Roll and F for Foedera. Full references to all these sources can be found in the Bibliography. References to unprinted sources are given in full in the endnotes, where BL stands for the British Library and TNA for The National Archives at Kew. Secondary sources are cited by the surname of the author and a short form of the title, italicized in the case of books, placed within inverted commas in the case of articles. Full details may be found in the Bibliography under the name of the author.

Capitalization and Surnames

After some hesitation, I have employed lowercase for offices and institutions: so ‘chancellor’ and ‘chancery’. As for surnames, where they refer to identifiable English places, the place is put in its modern form, preceded by ‘of’: so Robert of Ropsley (Lincolnshire). However, I have not applied the rule where it conflicts with established usage: so Hubert de Burgh not Hubert of Burgh (Norfolk). Where places cannot readily be identified (at least by me), I have used a contemporary form, preceded by ‘de’: so Laurence de Tybridge. Identifiable places in France are likewise put in their modern form, preceded by ‘de’: so Engelard de Cigogné (dép. Indre-et-Loire).

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