Post-classical history

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Magna Carta: The Documents

Magna Carta is a document approximately 3,550 words long, written in Latin.1 ‘Magna Carta’ means in English ‘Great Charter’. It was the Norman Conquest that replaced English with Latin as the language of record. Latin was thus the language of the huge number of documents produced by the government of King John. It was also the language of the monastic chroniclers who wrote the history of his reign. For the official version of Magna Carta to have been in other than Latin would have been inconceivable.2

Latin was not, however, the normal spoken language either of King John or of the barons and knights who shaped the course of events in 1215. That was French. In order to broadcast the Charter to such an audience, it was quickly translated into French, thus bringing us closest to the language used during the negotiations at Runnymede before it was turned by clerks into the lapidary Latin of the Charter. A later translation shows how Magna Carta was described in French: ‘la graunt chartre des fraunchises’ – ‘the greatcharter of liberties’.3 It was likewise in French that the two accounts of John’s reign designed directly for consumption by the lay aristocracy were written.4 It is here that one comes closest to the actual language used by King John, his remarks at turns cutting, at turns conciliatory, often fixing attention by a direct address or by the use of his favourite oath, ‘Segnour …’, ‘Ha, Robiert’, ‘par les denz Dieu’ (‘by the teeth of God’).5

This does not mean that John and his nobles were ignorant of Latin, making the Charter, in its official form, a closed book to all but churchmen. John’s father, Henry II, according to his clerk Walter Map, spoke Latin as well as French and was for practical purposes ‘litteratus’, which certainly meant he could read. The same was probably true of John and many of his barons and knights.6 Barons might also speak English, at least to communicate with their social inferiors. Among the knights, English sat alongside French as a naturally spoken language. The peasantry, who formed the great bulk of the population, were exclusive English speakers. It indicates the circles in which the Charter moved that it was translated into French both in 1215 and several times later in the thirteenth century. It was not until 1300, as far as the evidence goes, that the Charter was proclaimed in English. The first written English translations only appear in the sixteenth century.7


King John never described the charter that he issued at Runnymede in June 1215 as ‘magna carta’. Nor, at the time, did anyone else. In the document itself and in letters issued soon afterwards, John spoke simply of his ‘carta’ (‘charter’). So did the English bishops when they issued a letter authenticating the final text. When, in 1216, the rebel John de Lacy surrendered to the king, he forswore ‘the charter of liberties which the lord king has granted in common to the barons of England’.8 Contemporary chroniclers wrote in exactly the same terms.9 How, then, did the term ‘magna carta’ come into being? The answer is that it came into being as a result of a clerk’s second thought.

In November 1217, at the end of the civil war, the minority government of John’s son, Henry III, issued a new version of the 1215 Charter, one that amended the version it had issued at the start of the reign in 1216. Alongside the new Charter, it also published a quite separate charter regulating the running of the royal forest. Some months later, in February 1218, the government ordered the two charters to be proclaimed throughout the country. No original of this order is known to survive, but a copy was made on the chancery close roll. As it first appeared there, the order reminded the sheriffs (the king’s local agents) of a new clause ‘at the end’ which stipulated that all the unauthorized castles built during the war should be destroyed:

you are to cause the charters to be observed in all points, and you are especially to implement, without any delay, what is placed at the end concerning the destruction of unauthorized castles, built or rebuilt after the beginning of the war, according to what is contained in the greater charter [in maiori carta].

Here the term ‘greater charter’ was being used to distinguish Henry III’s 1217 version of the 1215 Charter from the shorter Charter of the Forest. The text in the close roll did not, however, remain like this, for very soon afterwards the clerk made an alteration. At the end of the entry, he crossed out ‘in the greater charter’ (‘in maiori carta’) and wrote instead ‘in the same charter’. This referred back to an insertion that he had made above the line between ‘at the end’ and ‘concerning the destruction of unauthorized castles’. The insertion was ‘magne carte’, which was ‘magna carta’ in the genitive case, hence ‘of magna carta’. The passage about the castles was thus to be found ‘at the end of magna carta’.

The text now ran:

you are to cause the charters to be observed in all points, and you are especially to implement, without any delay, what is placed at the end of magna carta concerning the destruction of unauthorized castles, built or rebuilt after the beginning of the war, according to what is contained in the same charter.

Almost certainly, the explanation for this change is that the clerk was working from a draft of the order, which was subsequently altered, and so he altered his copy to bring it into line. It is, therefore, a scribal insertion above a line in the chancery rolls, prompted by the second thoughts of a drafting clerk, that the name Magna Carta enters history. It appeared not to proclaim the greatness of the document but to distinguish it from its smaller Forest Charter brother.10

The future of the term ‘magna carta’ (it was rarely capitalized) was far from assured. In 1225, when Henry III issued new versions of both charters, he did nothing to insert the term ‘magna carta’ into the larger one. Instead he simply called it, as before, ‘our charter’. Thus, although the Charter of 1225 became the final and definitive version of Magna Carta, the one with legal force, the name by which it became known to history never actually appeared in the document at all. Its establishment depended entirely on how the Charter was described elsewhere. Here initially ‘magna carta’, as the preferred term, had to vie with the ‘maior carta’ (‘greater charter’) initially used in 1218. Thus the Charter of the Forest, in its 1225 version, referred to the liberties conceded not in ‘magna carta’ but ‘in maiori carta’. Likewise, in a proclamation of 1225 the government referred to the liberties ‘in the greater charter’ and ‘in the lesser charter’ – ‘in maiori carta’, ‘in minori carta’.11 Neither ‘maior carta’ nor ‘magna carta’, however, seems to have penetrated the minds of contemporary chroniclers when they mentioned the Charters of 1225. At St Albans abbey, Roger of Wendover described one as a charter of ‘common liberties’ and the other as a charter about ‘the liberties of the forest’.12

The term ‘magna carta’, however, remained in the field and gradually conquered. Henry III himself, in a letter of 1225 to the bishop of Durham, referred to the liberties conceded in ‘our magna carta’.13 In 1237, when Henry confirmed the Charters of 1225, he described them as his ‘magna carta’ and his ‘charter of the forest’.14 In the same way, Matthew Paris, who had by then taken over from Roger of Wendover as the chronicler at St Albans abbey, wrote of the king promising to maintain ‘the liberties of magna carta’.15When the 1225 Charters were again confirmed in 1253, with the bishops solemnly excommunicating all who transgressed them, the term ‘magna carta’ is found in general use in both government proclamations and the accounts of chroniclers.16 It was not universal. Contemporaries continued to speak of ‘the charter of common liberties’ or just the ‘charter of liberties’.17 Nonetheless, in 1297 and 1300, when Edward I confirmed again the 1225 Charters in widely circulated letters, he referred to ‘the magna carta of the lord Henry, formerly king of England, our father, about the liberties of England’. A clerk at the exchequer drew a splendid picture of Edward, imposing in his crown, with a straight nose and big jaw, pointing to his order ‘for the observance of the great charter’ – ‘pro magna carta observanda’.18 The term ‘magna carta’ was now firmly fixed in the public mind. By this time too, one may be sure, ‘great’ was no longer simply a way of distinguishing it from the Forest Charter. It referred to the greatness of the Charter itself.

This gradual establishment of the term ‘magna carta’ was, however, establishment for the Charter of Henry III. ‘Magna carta’ was very rarely applied to the Charter of King John. Instead, when it was copied in the thirteenth century the latter document was given such titles as ‘the charter of Runnymede’, ‘the provisions of Runnymede’, ‘the charter of King John which is called Runnymede’, or indeed simply ‘Runnymede’. In this, it was being brought into line with other legislation that was often associated with its place of issue. Thus legal collections might begin with ‘the provisions of Runnymede’, continue with Henry III’s ‘magna carta’, and then have the statutes of Merton (1236), Marlborough (1267), Westminster (1275) and so on.

Against this tide confining the term ‘magna carta’ to the Charter of Henry III, there were, in the thirteenth century, just a few contrary streams. The chief was at St Albans abbey, where Roger of Wendover took the view, in fact erroneous, that Henry III’s Charter of 1225 was identical to John’s of 1215. This seemed all the more the case since the only text of the Charter that Wendover provided was one issued in John’s name, although in fact it was a conflation of the Charters of 1215, 1217 and 1225. Likewise Wendover, or his source, had concocted a version of the Forest Charter which had it granted by John, rather than by Henry III.19 It was hardly surprising, therefore, that in the 1250s Matthew Paris could describe the 1225 Charter as the ‘magna carta of King John, which King Henry III swore to uphold …’.20 It was doubtless in the same spirit that the Articles of the Barons (a precursor of Magna Carta) were catalogued in the muniments of the archbishop of Canterbury as ‘the articles of the magna carta of liberties under the seal of King John’.21

These contrary views, did not, however, have much immediate purchase. The St Albans’ texts, which contained Wendover’s version of John’s Magna Carta and of his Charter of the Forest, had very little circulation. Instead, the work by Wendover and Paris that did gain wide currency was the Flores Historiarum. This certainly had Henry, in the 1250s, confirming the ‘magna carta which King John conceded’, but the impact was rather lessened by the omission of any reference to John’s Charter from the accounts of either 1215 or 1225, as also by the failure to provide any texts of the Charters at all.22 The general view, exemplified by the lawyers of the Tudor period, remained that Magna Carta had begun with Henry III.23

It was in the later part of the sixteenth century that all this changed. In 1571 Archbishop Parker published Matthew Paris’s Chronica Majora, which for John’s reign was essentially Wendover’s chronicle with Paris’s additions. This exposed the historians Stowe and Holinshed, and the lawyers Coke and Selden, to the view that John’s Charter was the same as Henry III’s. For those reading Paris and Wendover, therefore, there appeared to be only one Magna Carta, that of King John. It had been conceived as a bulwark against John’s tyranny. Now, it could be a bulwark against the tyranny of the Stuarts.

It was not until the work of the lawyer William Blackstone, published in 1759, that the versions of the Charter issued in 1215, 1216, 1217 and 1225 were finally distinguished, and their separate texts established. In the process, Blackstone showed that John had never issued a ‘Charter of the Forest’. Blackstone, however, made no effort to deprive John’s Charter of the name and status of ‘Magna Carta’. His transcription of John’s Charter was headed in capital letters ‘MAGNA CARTA REGIS JOHANNIS’. Subsequent historians have all followed his lead, without feeling much need for excuse or even explanation. Indeed, the Charter of Henry III, which once held centre stage, has dropped into the background, receiving nothing like the study devoted to the Charter of King John. W. S. McKechnie’s Magna Carta, first published in 1905, was thus, as the subtitle stated, ‘A commentary on the Great Charter of King John’. So was J. C. Holt’s classic Magna Carta, which was first published in 1965 to coincide with the 750th anniversary. This book is no different. It too places the 1215 Charter centre stage. Technically, to be sure, there was no ‘Magna Carta’ in 1215. The name had yet to be invented. Yet without the Charter of 1215, there would have been no subsequent versions and no definitive version of 1225. While the latter is not identical with John’s Charter, it retains a large proportion of its contents. Contemporaries themselves recognized the importance of the 1215 Charter, for they copied it many times in the thirteenth century. When Matthew Paris finally obtained an authentic text, he strove to correct the botched version he had found in Wendover. When he described the Charter of 1225 as ‘the magna carta of King John, which King Henry III swore to uphold’, he was technically incorrect, but right in spirit. The Charter of 1215 is deservedly hallowed by the name Magna Carta.


Was there a final, authorized text of Magna Carta in 1215? No such text was recorded on the rolls of the chancery to which we have referred, although they had reams of other business from 1215. Yet a final, authorized text there was. At the end of the Charter, John declared that the bishops would issue ‘letters patent testimonial’ to the ‘aforesaid concessions’. These letters testimonial were in fact letters affirming and guaranteeing the final, authentic text of the Charter. We know this because, although no originals survive, one did reside in the royal exchequer in the early fourteenth century, when it was copied into a volume of important documents known as ‘The Red Book of the Exchequer’.24 The letter, as recorded there, was issued in the name of the archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Dublin, six other bishops, and Master Pandulf, the representative of the pope. This imposing body of ecclesiastics had featured at the start of the Charter in the list of those on whose advice John said that he had acted. They now made public their ‘inspection’ of the Charter ‘under this form’, the whole text of the Charter being then set out. The aim of the inspection was made clear in the conclusion to the letter: ‘so that nothing can be added or taken away or diminished from the foresaid form, we have placed our seals to this writing’.25 The copyist of the letters testimonial made a few mistakes in his transcription. One was particularly silly, for he wrote of all who ‘wish’ (‘voluerint’) to swear to support the Charter being compelled to do so, instead of all who ‘do not wish’ (‘noluerint’).26 Elsewhere, however, he was careful to correct his slips, so adding ‘letters’ above the line to correct an omission in chapter 14 and squeezing in the ‘or’ (‘aut’) that he had omitted in chapter 40. We can be confident that the letters testimonial of the bishops, bar a few obvious mistakes, preserve the final, authorized text of the Charter.


Although there was a single authorized text, there was no single original Magna Carta. Rather, John issued a number of originals, all with equal status. It is usual to call these originals ‘engrossments’, an engrossment being a document written out (or engrossed) so as to make a formal and legal record of a transaction. It is thus distinct from what is simply a copy of such a document, which in itself has no authority. John ended the Charter with the statement that it had been ‘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’. The ‘given by the hand’ formula – ‘data per manum’ in the Latin – was usual in royal charters, and indicated when, where and by whom authorization had been given for the final engrossment. So John authorized Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15 June in the seventeenth year of his reign, which was 15 June 1215.27 The engrossment was followed by the sealing, which gave the Charter its final authentication. One of the most often repeated errors about Magna Carta is that it was ‘signed’ by King John. The vision of John working his way through a pile of Magna Cartas, grimly scribbling his name at the end, is certainly attractive, but it is a fantasy. Royal documents at this time did not receive the king’s sign-manual. Magna Carta, like all royal charters, was validated by attaching the king’s seal, not his signature. It was the seal that distinguished the original engrossments from simple copies, accurate or otherwise. As the chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall put it, the Charters were ‘of one tenor validated by the royal seal’.28

The sealing itself was the work of a special official, the bearer of the seal. He would have placed the silken cords or parchment tongue, with which the seal was to be attached to each Charter, into the sealing apparatus along with the soft wax that came in a variety of colours – white, green, red, yellow. The apparatus was then tightened so that it pressed the wax between the two halves of the silver deal die, and produced John’s magnificent double-sided seal. The apparatus itself and its operator do indeed appear in some modern depictions of the scene at Runnymede.


Almost certainly some engrossments of the Charter were immediately written out and sealed. At the very least the baronial negotiators needed one as proof of their achievements. In the days and weeks that followed, more engrossments were produced for distribution around the country, a process which was still going on as late as 22 July. Just how many there ultimately were is a matter of debate. If, as could be argued, each county got an engrossment, along with London and the Cinque Ports, then there were around forty Charters, beyond those made immediately at Runnymede. If on the other hand (as is argued in Chapter 12), the Charter was distributed not to the counties but to the bishoprics, the number produced was much smaller, being something upwards of thirteen.

Historians have long accepted that four original engrossments survive of the 1215 Charter. Two of these are now displayed in the British Library and were part of the stupendous collection of medieval documents made in the seventeenth century by Sir Robert Cotton. These are conventionally known as Ci and Cii. The other two engrossments are preserved at Lincoln and Salisbury, and belong to the cathedral archives. Like most documents in this period, all four Charters were written on parchment, a writing material prepared, by an elaborate process, from sheepskin. The four are different in shape and size. Ci and Salisbury are taller than they are broad. They thus have more but shorter lines of text than Cii and Lincoln, which are broader than they are tall. To be exact, Ci has 86 lines, Salisbury 76 lines, Cii 52 lines, and Lincoln (the most nearly square) 54 lines.29 No particular significance attaches to these differences in dimension. It was normal for royal charters, and indeed for later versions of Magna Carta, to be issued in different shapes and sizes. Probably the clerks either took whatever size of parchment was at hand, or cut it themselves into the size with which they felt most comfortable.

The reasons for deeming the four Charters authentic are threefold. First, all are written in hands compatible with a date in the early thirteenth century; second, all have texts in their essentials the same as that found in the letters testimonial of the bishops; and third, and most important, all have evidence of sealing.

It has been asserted that Ci and Cii are the work of the same scribe, but this plainly is not the case.30 In fact, all four Charters had different scribes, which is not surprising given the length of the document, and the numbers that had to be produced. According to a calculation by J. C. Fox, based on the testimony of ‘an experienced law stationer’ about rates of copying ‘in an old engrossing hand’, the Charter would have taken about eight hours to write out.31 Ci, Cii and Lincoln are all in hands typical of clerks working in King John’s chancery. The clerks were using, however, not the most formal chancery hand, such as that found in some royal charters, but one a step down, a quicker, more ‘cursive’ hand (to use the technical term for it) – again not surprising given the amount they had to write out. It may be that when the Magna Carta Project’s collection of original King John charters has been completed and sifted, the hands of the three Magna Carta scribes will reappear in that corpus. They may also be found elsewhere, for such hands were certainly not confined to the royal chancery. The hand in the Salisbury Charter is different from those in the other three Charters. It is far more ‘bookish’ in form, being similar to those found in texts such as bibles and psalters, as opposed to royal documents. This, however, is no reason to doubt its authenticity, as has occasionally been done.32 It would not be surprising, under the pressure of business after Magna Carta, if the king’s clerks called in or were made to accept outside help. Of the four Charters, Lincoln’s (in my view) is the most finely written. It is the only one where the clerk elegantly spaced out the words on the last line (as was sometimes done in royal charters) so as to make that line complete. In all the other examples, part of the last line is left blank. After the LincolnCharter, simply as a work of art (as many royal charters are), comes Ci, and then the more workaday Cii. The Salisbury hand is the most formal and thus, to my mind, the least idiosyncratic and engaging.

The texts of the four originals are, as we have said, in their essentials identical. The variations are recorded in the notes to the Latin text of the Charter, which is given in the next chapter.33 The most obvious difference is that the scribes of Ci and Cii mistakenly omitted some short passages, and had to write these in at the bottom of the Charter with an indication as to where they should go. There are three such corrections in Cii, and five in Ci, three of which overlap with those in Cii. The two original to Ci may be no more than the scribe correcting his own mistakes, but the three corrections that the two Charters have in common presumably arose from their being copied from a similarly misleading draft. A collation of the texts again shows the Salisbury Charter to be the odd one out, since it has over thirty readings not found in the other engrossments, over twice as many as in the Lincoln Charter, which has the next highest score. Nearly all Salisbury’s differences, however, like Lincoln’s, are minor and do not affect the sense. They arise from such things as the insertion or omission of individual words like ‘et’ and ‘de’, from variations in word order and from differences in tense, Salisbury often preferring the future indicative to the present subjunctive. There are only three mistakes in Salisbury which verge on the significant: namely the omission of ‘elongatus’ (‘dispossessed’) from chapter 57; the omission of the name of Henry, archbishop of Dublin, from chapter 62; and the statement, in chapter 61, probably through a slip of the pen, that breaches of the Charter should be referred to the king’s justices, rather than his justiciar. None of these were as serious as the mistakes in Ci and Cii, and, if they were spotted, they were evidently considered not worth correcting. If the other variations were down to Salisbury’s scribe, as opposed to being found in the draft from which he was working, they are no more than might be expected from an outsider unused to routine copying of royal documents. The overall impression is that all four engrossments were written carefully and with a proper sense of the Charter’s importance. Certainly it was not a case of the scribes all going in different directions. Thus when either the Lincoln or Salisbury Charter did go it alone, the other engrossments and the bishops’ copy nearly always agree against them.

We now come to the most important feature of the Charters, when it comes to judging their authenticity, namely their sealing.34 Here Ci stands above the others. It is the only one that has preserved its seal, albeit now reduced by a fire in 1731 to no more than a diminished and featureless roundel of wax. The Cottonian sub-librarian, however, testified that he had seen the seal before the fire and recognized it as indeed King John’s. The end of the parchment tongue that attached the seal to the Charter still protrudes from the wax, although the current attachment is the result of repair. The Lincoln Charter has no surviving seal but, by an arrangement so as to bear the weight of the seal, which is found in other royal charters (and probably once in Ci), the parchment is folded at the bottom. In the centre of the fold there are three holes in the form of a pyramid through which the cords holding the seal once ran. In the case of Salisbury, the seal was probably attached to the Charter by cords hanging from two holes rather than three. This would explain the two gashes in the parchment at the bottom of the Charter, which were made, one may suppose, when the seal was removed by a clumsy wrench. The Salisbury Charter has no fold, but that may well have been trimmed off at some point after the seal was removed.

Finally Cii. Here there is evidence of sealing because at the bottom of the Charter, in the centre, there is a slit, through which the seal tag would have run. The seal was thus attached in the same way as in Ci, rather than with the cords of the Lincoln and Salisbury Charters. Given its current situation, there is certainly insufficient parchment beneath the slit in Cii to create a fold for bearing the weight of the tag with the seal, but we have to remember that the Charter was probably cropped when it was bound into a volume of the Cotton collection.35 Ci also has two smaller slits at its base, to the right of the central slit that had the tag. ‘From their appearance,’ Fox wrote, ‘they might … be taken for the work of John’s own hand – stabs with a knife or a dagger – the visible evidence of his fury against the barons.’ They are, disappointingly, far more likely to be the result of incisions made by Robert Cotton’s bookbinder.36

What of the origins and history of the four originals? The Lincoln Charter has ‘LINCOLNIA’ written twice on its back. Since the hand seems the same as that which wrote the actual text, this suggests the Charter was destined for Lincoln from the start. That it was kept in the cathedral archives is indicated by shelf marks on its back. It is also very likely to have been the source for the copy of the 1215 Charter found in the cathedral’s fourteenth-century register.37 The Lincoln Charter, more recently, has had an adventurous, not to say dangerous, time. It was sent to the USA in 1939 for the New York World Fair and, trapped across the Atlantic by the outbreak of hostilities, was exhibited at the Library of Congress in Washington. A scheme to give the Charter permanently to the USA having fallen through, it was returned to Lincoln after the war. It was subsequently toured around Australia, in the hope that it would make money for Lincoln cathedral. Since no money was made and the cathedral ended up in debt, Lincoln was perhaps lucky to get the Charter back. Before one of its last trips, I myself saw the specially made bomb-proof container in which it was to wing its way again across the Atlantic. The Lincoln Charter is now displayed not in the cathedral but in the castle, thus ending up ironically in the one place in 1215 where (as we will see) it was not meant to go.

The Salisbury Charter has had a less exciting history. It has no destination mark on its back, but seems to have remained in the cathedral archives throughout its history, although for a period no one could find it. As a result it did not contribute to the official text of the Magna Carta published in the Statutes of the Realm in 1810. It is now displayed in the chapter house as the centre of a Magna Carta exhibition.

We know virtually nothing about the provenance of Cii, save that Cotton acquired it in 1629 from a barrister, Humphrey Wyems.38 Cotton’s second Charter, Ci, is quite another matter.


In May 1630, Sir Edward Dering wrote to Cotton from Dover castle (where he was lieutenant) as follows:

I haue heere ye Charter of K. John dat. att Running Meade: by ye first safe and sure messenger itt is your’s. So are ye Saxon charters, as fast as I can coppy them: but in ye meane time I will close K. John in a boxe and send him.39

If only an original of Magna Carta, let alone John himself, could be obtained so easily in a box today! At the Sotheby’s New York auction in 2007, an engrossment of the 1225 Charter in Edward I’s confirmation of 1297 fetched $21,321,000. The subsequent history of Ci has been sad indeed. Cii, Lincoln and Salisbury are all in reasonable condition, and perfectly legible, despite the darkened cabinets in which perforce they have now to live. Ci is quite different. It was first of all caught up in the great fire that swept through the Cotton collection in 1731. This, however, left the text perfectly legible, as is clear from an engraving made and marketed by John Pine in 1733, where the charter was attractively surrounded by the ‘hand-coloured’ shields of the Magna Carta barons. Despite his commercial interest and acumen, there is no reason to suppose that Pine’s engraving was other than accurate. Indeed it was certified as such at the time, when only nine letters in the main text had to be supplied by reference to Cii.40 The chief damage seems to have been to the seal, which appears featureless, although Pine’s engraving shows it was then red, as opposed to its current darkish hue. All thus might have been well but for further intervention in 1834. The villain of the piece here, exposed by Andrew Prescott, was the restorer Hogarth. It was almost certainly his misplaced efforts that reduced Ci to no more than a parchment sheet on which hardly a single word is readily discernible.41 How fortunate then that the text lives on in Pine’s lovely engraving, showing Ci to have been, despite its corrections, a really beautiful exemplar of the Charter.

The fact that Ci was sent to Cotton from Dover castle has led to repeated suggestions that it was an engrossment despatched to the Cinque Ports, of which of course Dover was one. This idea seemed supported by the fact that a letter in John’s name, dated 19 June 1215, was indeed sent to the officials of the Cinque Ports informing them of the peace ‘which you can see from our charter, which we have ordered to be read and obeyed in your bailiwick’. The implication is that the officials of the Cinque Ports, like the sheriffs to whom the letter was also sent, were to receive engrossments of the Charter. In fact, however, there are reasons to believe that this never happened. Even if it had, Ci was not the Charter that was sent to the Ports. Instead its destination was Canterbury cathedral. The possibility that Ci had a Canterbury provenance was first put to me by Julian Harrison and Nicholas Vincent, this on the grounds that Sir Edward Dering had certainly obtained the Anglo-Saxon charters (which he likewise mentioned in his letter to Cotton) from thatsource.42 Following up this suggestion, I had a brainwave, namely that of collating Ci, as found in the Pine engraving, with the copy of the 1215 Charter preserved in the late thirteenth-century Register E of Canterbury cathedral, a register that is still in the cathedral archives.43 Was there any evidence that the text in Register E was copied from Ci? If there was, it would come close to proving that Ci was in the Canterbury archives at least in the late thirteenth century. I had not much hope of any very conclusive results, but I was wrong. As I went through the Charter it became clearer and clearer that the text in Register E was indeed copied from Ci.

The evidence is set out in Appendix II. It turns on certain mistakes and oddities in the E text, which are readily explicable if it was copied from Ci. Most conclusive of all is the passage where the scribe of E got to one of the sections in which Ci had omitted some words from its text and had added them in at the bottom. Here E’s scribe became confused over just what needed to be included, and copied in text from the bottom of Ci belonging to a different insertion. He then realized his error, and had to start the passage allover again. These and other indications come close to proving that E was copied from Ci and thus, as I say, that Ci was in the archives of Canterbury cathedral in the late thirteenth century. One can offer several hypotheses as to how it got there, but by far the most likely is that it was sent there in 1215 itself, just as the engrossments now at Lincoln and Salisbury were probably despatched to their cathedrals. If this is right, three of the four known originals of the 1215 Charter were preserved from the start at cathedrals. The significance of this form of distribution we will discuss in Chapter 12.


What historians call the ‘Unknown Charter’ is a list of concessions said to have been made by King John. They are undated but probably represent baronial demands put together in the immediate period before Magna Carta. The name the ‘Unknown Charter’ derives from the document being indeed unknown to English historians before 1893. The Unknown Charter survives on a single sheet of parchment now preserved in the Archives Nationales in Paris, where it is classified as J.655. On the sheet, it follows a copy of the charter issued by Henry I after his coronation in 1100.44 Both the Coronation charter and the Unknown Charter are written by the same scribe, who made some errors in both texts, some of which he corrected. Although it cannot be proved, my feeling is that he was copying a document in which the two were already together. As we will see, the Coronation Charter itself played a very important part in the build-up of baronial demands in 1214–15. Just when the copy was made we cannot know, but the hand, an everyday business one, is certainly compatible with a date in 1215 or soon afterwards. It is not at all impossible that the document entered the French royal archives as part of the material taken out of England by Prince Louis after he gave up his claim to the English throne in 1217.45 Whatever the truth here, there is no reason to doubt the Unknown Charter’s authenticity. Its twelve chapters are important evidence for the development of baronial demands in 1215. Doubtless there were other, similar schedules now lost. By the time negotiations began at Runnymede, however, all these had been consolidated into one comprehensive document, the Articles of the Barons.

The Articles of the Barons survive as an original document. By the middle of the thirteenth century, they were in the archives of the archbishop of Canterbury. Probably they were taken from Runnymede by Archbishop Langton himself.46 The Articles remained in the archiepiscopal archives until the fall of Archbishop Laud in 1640, when with other documents they were spirited away to prevent their capture by his parliamentary enemies. After various travels, which they were lucky to survive, they finally reached the British Museum in 1769. They are now on display in the British Library alongside the Library’s two originals of the 1215 Charter, Cii, and Ci or the Canterbury Charter as we will now call it. The Articles of the Barons consist of a single sheet of parchment with the heading ‘These are the chapters which the Barons seek and the lord King concedes’. What ‘concedes’ really meant in this context we will discuss later. That John had, however, agreed the Articles in some way was made clear by one vital feature, a feature that gave them an authority which the Unknown Charter completely lacked. This was that, although not couched in any way as a formal charter issued in John’s name, the Articles nonetheless bore his seal. This was attached by a parchment tongue inserted into the fold at the bottom of the document, much as was the case in Cii and the Cantebury Charter. The seal, made of white wax, is now detached and displayed separately. However, it was in place in an early nineteenth-century engraving. Judging from the hand, the Articles could have been written out by one of John’s chancery clerks, although, as we have said, such hands are not exclusive to the chancery. The precise point at which John agreed the Articles is unknown, for the document is undated, but it was probably on 10 June, at the start of the final negotiations at Runnymede.47

Underneath the heading, proclaiming John’s consent, the Articles contained forty-eight separate chapters, unnumbered but each beginning a new line, distinguished by a paragraph mark. These take up seventy-four lines. Then, after a four-line gap, there follows the security clause, in which twenty-five barons are permitted to force John to keep the Charter. This takes up another fourteen lines, making eighty-eight in all. Some of the chapters are couched in terms of what the king shall or shall not do. Others just state what is to be without reference to the king (so ‘justice’ is not to be denied). The Articles were the foundation for Magna Carta. All forty-eight of the chapters have corresponding chapters, or parts of chapters, in Magna Carta, often employing the same or similar phraseology.


The Charter of King John was copied many times in the century after its concession. It is found (in whole or part) in chronicles, monastic cartularies and unofficial compilations made by lawyers of legislation and other legal texts known as statute books. Sometimes the copy was made, as in the case of Canterbury’s Register E, from an original engrossment; sometimes it was made from another copy. One cannot always be sure which. Not all the copies, however, are of the final, authorized text. Instead, some seem to contain elements from drafts circulating at Runnymede.

One of the earliest copies of the Charter is that preserved in the cartulary of the leper hospital of Saint Giles at Pont-Audemer in Normandy. The copy is remarkable in being that of a French translation of the Charter. The copy itself is in an early thirteenth-century hand and must have been written within a few years of 1215. The translation was probably made in 1215 itself.48 Another early copy of the Charter was that made by Roger of Wendover at St Albans. It dates to soon after 1225. Wendover did not, however, possess a complete text of the 1215 Charter. He had the beginning and the security clause at the end; for the rest he, or his source, inserted sections from the Charters of 1217 and 1225. Wendover’s security clause, moreover, differs from that found in the Charter, notably by placing the castellans of four strategic castles under the orders of the twenty-five barons appointed to enforce the Charter. Wendover does not have a great reputation for accuracy, but he cannot have made this up. In all probability he was using a rival draft of the clause aimed at imposing tougher restrictions on the king.

When Holt brought out the first edition of his Magna Carta in 1965, Wendover’s version of the security clause was the only known evidence for drafts. This was soon to change. In 1967, V. H. Galbraith published an article about a copy of Magna Carta which he had found in a late thirteenth-century statute book preserved in the Huntington Library in California.49 This differed from the authorized version of the Charter in various ways and was, so Galbraith argued, in fact a draft. The absolutely key evidence here came inthe chapter on fines and amercements, where the phraseology was far closer to that in the Articles of the Barons than it was to that in Magna Carta.50 Again, this was not something a clerk could have made up. It seemed, therefore, that the Huntington copy preserved a version of the Charter in which some features of the Articles had yet to be changed into the form found in the authorized version of the Charter. Since the Huntington copy was given by the hand of King John on 15 June not at Runnymede but at Windsor, Galbraith argued that it was, in fact, the penultimate draft, being made before John moved later in the day to Runnymede for the last negotiations and the agreement of the final text.

Galbraith, on his return to England from America, seems to have made no effort to follow up his discovery by examining other copies of the Charter. In that sense he was like a tourist who looks at sights abroad but neglects those at home. To be fair, Galbraith had the excuse of age. He had retired from the Regius Chair at Oxford University back in 1955, hoping, vainly as it turned out, that A. J. P. Taylor might be his successor rather than Hugh Trevor-Roper. Holt himself was a great admirer of Galbraith (rightly so), but he too steered clear of the field of copies. In the second edition of his Magna Carta, published in 1992, he commented in an Appendix on Galbraith’s findings (which he accepted), and observed that ‘draft versions of the Charter constitute the most intriguing problem of all’. He also said there could be more of them, but then left it at that.51

I cannot claim any particular virtue myself in this area of historical endeavour. I became interested in copies of Magna Carta not to find drafts but to see the different ways in which it was divided up into chapters, the divisions often being more emphatic in copies than in the original engrossments. It was reading through a copy of the Charter in a cartulary of Peterborough abbey, preserved in the Society of Antiquaries in London, with this end in view, that I suddenly noticed chapters in a different order and text in different words from that found in the authorized version.52 It was only then that I thought of Galbraith and started to compare his Huntington copy with the Peterborough one. Although most of Peterborough’s variations were different from Huntington’s, they did have one sovereign point in common, namely the text of the chapter on fines and amercements. In the Peterborough copy, as in the Huntington, this manifestly came from the Articles of the Barons rather than Magna Carta. There was also one other chapter (on the dismissal of John’s foreign agents) where the Peterborough word order, here unlike Huntington’s, seemed closer to that in the Articles than to that in the Charter.

Inspired by this finding, I set out to find more copies of the 1215 Charter with the idea of testing, by word-for-word collation, whether they were in fact copies of the authorized version. One thing quickly became apparent, namely not to trust statements in catalogues, for these sometimes claimed a copy as being of the authorized text when it turned out to be no such thing. Editors evidently had merely glanced at the text, instead of actually reading it through. The search for copies of the 1215 Charter remains ongoing but, at the time of writing, I have found over thirty examples from the hundred years after 1215.53 Nearly half of these are of the authorized version, barring obvious mistakes. The others are variants, seven associated with St Albans, and one a unique single-sheet copy now in the Bodleian Library. Ten are all linked to the Huntington/Peterborough family through the treatment of the chapter on fines. There is, however, only one incomplete copy which follows Huntington in being ‘given’ at Windsor rather than at Runnymede on 15 June. All told the copies seem to preserve at least five different versions of the Charter. One cannot, of course, assume that all the variations derive from drafts. Some may be mistakes or improvements made in the process of transmission. Nonetheless, it is noticeable that they often occur in chapters that we know were changed during the negotiations at Runnymede. Arguably, the copies shed new light on the tense and tortuous debates that finally produced the Charter. They certainly suggest that unofficial texts made an important contribution to spreading knowledge about it.

Enough about the copies, illuminating although they may be. Let us now turn to the text of Magna Carta itself.

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