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55 posts categorized "Magna Carta"

04 July 2015

Happy Birthday, Declaration of Independence!

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Today is the 4th of July, the birthday of one of the most famous documents in the world, the United States Declaration of Independence. This year we are celebrating another very important birthday at the British Library, namely the 800th anniversary (yes, eight hundred years) of the granting of Magna Carta by King John of England in 1215.

But we do like to do things in style at the Library. And so, this summer, for the very first time in the United Kingdom, we have on display not only Magna Carta BUT ALSO Thomas Jefferson's own copy of the Declaration of Independence AND the Delaware manuscript of the United States Bill of Rights!!! These are all truly sensational documents in their own rights, each of them testament to the fight for establishing rights and liberties in various forms across the ages, and for attempting to limit the rule of tyrants.

We have kindly borrowed Jefferson's Declaration of Independence from New York Public Library, and it's a fascinating artefact. Made a few days or so after the Declaration was ratified by the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia on 4 July 1776, this manuscript preserves the original state of Jefferson's text, before it had been amended by his fellow delegates. Some of its words and phrases are underlined, and these represent passages which were omitted from the final version of the text. One of those omissions is highly poignant, since it contained Thomas Jefferson's proposal that the slave trade be abolished -- he described this trade in the manuscript draft on loan to us as an 'execrable commerce', and he labelled King George III a tyrant for presiding over the transportation of men from one hemisphere to another. It's extremely moving to see this manuscript in the flesh.


HRH The Prince of Wales and exhibition curator Claire Breay looking at the Declaration of Independence at the opening of the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition

And just for good measure, the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition also contains a manuscript of the US Bill of Rights. This is the copy sent to Delaware in 1790, which was then sealed and returned to the federal government. We have been extremely fortunate to borrow this item from the US National Archives in Washington, DC, and we are extremely grateful to both of our lenders, and to the law firm White & Case for making these loans possible.

Magna Carta Exhibition DSC00581 (credit Tony Antoniou)

The Delaware manuscript of the United States Bill of Rights, currently on show at the British Library

And did you know another thing? If you're a big fan of American constitutional history, we're sure you'd like to know that you can also see one of the original printed copies of the US Declaration of Independence at the British Library this summer. Known as a 'Dunlap' printing (after its printer, John Dunlap), our copy was discovered by an American researcher in the United Kingdom National Archives in 2009, and has kindly been loaned to us by our friends at The National Archives.

EXT9-93 US Declaration of Independence 1776

A Dunlap printing of the Declaration of Independence, found at the UK National Archives in 2009

So don't miss the opportunity to see all these magnificent documents alongside Magna Carta! It truly is a feast for anyone interested in the history of England and the United States of America. The exhibition is open until 1 September 2015, and you can buy tickets here. Alternatively, you can read more about these items in the exhibition catalogue and on our dedicated Magna Carta website.

Julian Harrison

Co-curator, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

15 June 2015

Magna Carta Celebrates Its 800th Birthday!

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The big day has finally arrived! Magna Carta, one of the most famous documents in the world is celebrating its 800th birthday. Granted by King John of England at Runnymede, a water meadow on the River Thames, on 15 June 1215, Magna Carta ('The Great Charter') established for the first time that everybody was subject to the law and nobody, not even our rulers, was above the law.


The only surviving photograph of King John signing Magna Carta at Runnymede in June 1215

So here are some Magna Carta facts and figures with which to impress your friends:

  • there are 4 surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, 1 of which belongs to Lincoln Cathedral, 1 to Salisbury Cathedral and the other 2 to the British Library
  • the documents are written on sheepskin parchment (note: Magna Carta was not written on moleskin as some people claim, you would have needed a pretty huge mole to have written 3,500 words of medieval Latin on it!)
  • 1 of the British Library's 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts was damaged in a fire in the 18th century, the other was found in a London tailor's shop in the 17th century (where it may have been about to be chopped up in order to line gentlemen's collars)
  • Magna Carta was originally a peace treaty between King John of England (1199-1215) and his rebellious barons; it was never intended as a blueprint for human rights
  • Magna Carta was annulled by the Pope just 10 weeks after it had been issued, being described as "shameful, demeaning, illegal and unjust" and declared "null and void of all validity for ever"
  • after Magna Carta was annulled, the barons rebelled for a 2nd time and offered the English crown to Prince Louis, son of the king of France; the French invaded England in late 1215
  • King John died in October 1216 and was succeeded by his 9-year-old son, Henry III; a new, revised version of Magna Carta was issued, securing the support of the barons and leading to the expulsion of the French
  • revised versions of Magna Carta were granted in 1216, 1217 and 1225, and the 1225 version was confirmed by King Edward I and entered onto the statute roll in 1297
  • Magna Carta was printed for the first time in 1508 (an English translation of the Latin text was published in 1534)
  • Sir Edward Coke (d. 1634) used Magna Carta in the 17th century to challenge the autocratic rule of the Stuart kings; Magna Carta was used at the trial of King Charles I in 1649, stating that nobody could have justice denied or delayed unto themselves
  • over the centuries Magna Carta has influenced and been cited by, among others, Sir Thomas More, William Penn, John Wilkes, Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, Helena Normanton, Nelson Mandela and Eleanor Roosevelt
  • between 1828 and 1969 most of Magna Carta's clauses were repealed by Parliament, on the grounds that they were obsolete (since they referred to feudal customs) or had been superseded by other laws
  • just 3 clauses of Magna Carta remain valid in English law, namely the clause confirming the liberties of the English Church, that confirming the liberties of the city of London and all other cities, towns, ports and boroughs, and this, the most famous clause of all: "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. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."

Here are some of the highlights of Magna Carta's year so far.

In February 2015, for the first time in history, the 4 surviving manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta were brought together for a unification event at the British Library, before being taken to Parliament for one day.







In March HRH The Prince of Wales opened our major British Library exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.





To date, the Magna Carta exhibition has been the most successful ever mounted by the British Library, and it remains open until 1 September 2015.

Magna Carta Exhibition DSC00567 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Magna Carta Exhibition DSC00590 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Magna Carta Exhibition DSC00595 (credit Tony Antoniou)


And in May we unveiled Cornelia Parker's new artwork Magna Carta (An Embroidery) at the British Library:

Cornelia-parker-with-a-fragment-of-magna-carta-an-embroidery-at-the-british-library-1 (1)


And here he is, King John, reputedly the worst king in English history!

Terry Jones


Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, featuring 2 of the original manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and US Bill of Rights and even 2 of King John's own teeth, is at the British Library until 1 September 2015.

14 June 2015

How The Forest Charter Was Saved From Destruction

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A short while ago we blogged about Magna Carta's smaller cousin, known as the Charter of the Forest. In 1217, Magna Carta's clauses relating to forest law were removed to a separate document, the Forest Charter. In our current exhibition we have on display a manuscript of the 1225 version of the Forest Charter, with the seal of King Henry III and its original medieval seal bag still attached. (You can also see it on our website and in the catalogue that accompanies our exhibition.) The Forest Charter is a beautifully preserved manuscript, but how has it managed to survive until the present day?

Forest Charter

The British Library's 1225 Forest Charter (Add Ch 24712)

A few days ago I was searching through our departmental archives, in quest of information about how the British Museum acquired our manuscript of the Forest Charter (Additional Charter 24712). I'd been prompted to do my search by Professor Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia), Principal Investigator of the Magna Carta Project, who is trying to determine the provenance of all the Magna Carta documents. I knew that the British Museum (the ancestor of the British Library) had acquired this item from a certain Mr Cain on 16 August 1875. But what I hadn't realised was the circumstances whereby Cain had acquired it, until I came across the following letter, bound in a volume of departmental correspondence ...

The letter itself is addressed to Edward Bond (d. 1898), Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum (1866–78), and it is signed by R. E. Cain. What it reveals about the Forest Charter, and its potential fate, is rather interesting.

1 Forest Charter Letter


41 Rathbone Place

August 10th 1875

Dear Sir,

I hasten to give you all the information I can in respect of "King Henry MSS" left with you last Saturday. In 1865, Cutten & Davis of Bassinghall Street sold the stock of a lithographer. Edwin Joseph Pennell of 4, Wood Street, Lambeth bought several lots, he bought Presses, stones & waste Paper. I helped him clear the lots and in the waste paper we found the MSS. left with you, insted [sic] of receiving 4/- for helping I chose rather to have the MSS. which he let me have, of cause [sic] you can write to Mr Pennell at Wood St if you like, I would rather you did not, for if he should find out I have sold the MSS. for £16-0-0 he will want £8-0-0 out of it but of cause [sic] I must leave this to you. I have tried to get the Catalogue from him but he says he cannot find it any where but I am as sure that it came from the sale at Cutten as I am sure of my own existance [sic]. I send you MSS book I bought at a book stall I believe it to be worth something, it's the best book on birds I have ever seen, if you can give me say £5-0-0 or anything less I should be pleased to part with it, I am known to Mr Butler, Francis Harray Esqr. St James's Street, Mr Waller Fleet Street, as always being on the look out for Autographs, MSS and old books.

Yours Faithfully

R. E. Cain

To Bond Esqr.

British Museum

P.S. I did think I should have got more than £16. I thought it would be worth about £40, but of cause [sic] you know the worth and I only think it's worth  R.E.C.


2 Forest Charter Letter

So piecing all this together, what can we deduce (apart from the fact that I'm beginning to sound a lot like Sherlock)? According to Mr Cain, the British Library's precious manuscript of the Forest Charter had been found among the waste paper of an unnamed lithographer, bought by one Edwin Joseph Pennell in 1865. Cain had asked to keep the document rather than receiving the 4 shillings he was owed for helping Pennell, and 10 years later he sold it to the British Museum for the more princely sum of £16. Note, however, Cain's rather defective negotiating skills — he believed the Forest Charter ("King Henry MSS") to be worth as much as £40, but he later offered a separate book of birds to the British Museum for around £5 "or anything less"! (The book of birds is now Additional MS 29892, and it dates from the 18th century.) Cain vouched for the fact the original sale had taken place at Cutten & Davis of Basinghall Street (near the Guildhall in the City of London), but he could not procure a copy of the catalogue from Mr Pennell, and nor was he minded that the British Museum should approach Pennell, because otherwise he might demand a share of the loot!

All in all this is a pretty rum tale, and Professor Vincent has observed to me that the report of the alleged discovery of this manuscript reminds him of the British television series Steptoe and Son (set in a rag-and-bone shop). But, if we do take Mr Cain at his word, it does suggest that our magnificent Forest Charter had been thrown away in 1865, only to be rescued quite by chance among some "Presses, stones & waste Paper".

And this manuscript is not the only fortuitous survival among the British Library's collections. Also in our Magna Carta exhibition are two manuscripts of the original Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215. One of these two precious manuscripts was damaged in a fire in 1731 (and by a subsequent, failed attempt at restoration in the 19th century); the other was reputedly found in a London tailor's shop in the 17th century, where presumably it had been consigned as waste (I often tell our visitors that it would have been chopped up and used to line gentleman's collars). So our Forest Charter joins this lists of some of the greatest documents in history which nearly, but very nearly, didn't make it to the present day.

Julian Harrison


PS  We'd love to hear from our readers if they know anything further about the elusive Mr Cain, or Mr Pennell or the sale at Cutten & Davis in 1865. Get in touch with us via Twitter, @BLMedieval

PPS  Our exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, if you haven't heard, is the largest and most significant ever devoted to Magna Carta, and is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015

13 June 2015

The Magnificent Magna Carta Project

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The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has launched a film to publicise how the research undertaken during the three-year Magna Carta Project which they are funding has underpinned preparation for the Magna Carta exhibition and wider public programme at the British Library this year.



Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library, is a co-investigator in the project led by principal investigator, Prof. Nicholas Vincent from the University of East Anglia. Other co-investigators are Prof. David Carpenter from King's College London, Prof. Paul Brand from the University of Oxford and Prof. Louise Wilkinson from Canterbury Christ Church University.

Nicholas Vincent and David Carpenter have been members of the Library's advisory group which supported our development of the exhibition's themes and content. They contributed extensively to the catalogue, to our Magna Carta website and to a number of public lectures and debates in our conference centre. They have also been filmed and appear on screens in the exhibition and on our website. This partnership has helped to bring the research from the AHRC-funded project directly to the public through the British Library's exhibition and events programme.

Video-king-john-and-the-origins-of-magna-carta   Video-the-impact-of-magna-carta-in-the-13th-century
David Carpenter and Nicholas Vincent of the Magna Carta Project

The partners in the AHRC-funded Magna Carta Project were at the heart of our research day on 4 February 2015 during the week of the unification of the four 1215 Magna Carta documents. In the week of the Magna Carta anniversary itself, the Magna Carta Project will be holding a conference on 17-18 June at King's College London and on 19 June at the British Library, to present the research findings, together with a wide range of other papers, to mark the culmination of this three-year collaborative research project. The exhibition at the Library runs until 1 September 2015.


Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia), David Carpenter (King's College London) and Tessa Webber (University of Cambridge) examining the original manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta in February 2015

10 June 2015

Words on Sheepskin

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We have been overwhelmed by the critical response to our Magna Carta exhibition. We'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has already visited or has written to us about it, and we hope that many more people will do so before Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy closes on 1 September 2015. But readers of this blog may be aware that we're always happy to look at things from different angles, and Magna Carta is no different. We were recently approached by the poet Laila Sumpton, who had visited our exhibition and was keen to write a poem about it, reflecting on the nature of rights and our ongoing battle for them.

Laila poetry at KH

The poet Laila Sumpton speaking at Keats House

Here we publish Laila's poem. We hope it inspires you, much as Magna Carta as inspired people across the world in the 800 years since it was first granted by King John.


Words on sheepskin

We have rights, they are not given-

realised when inked, then acted.

We have rights destroyed, diluted, flouted,

then welded anew in rhetoric fires-

in a law maker wars that buffets our rights

between crown and barons, crown and commons,

with ‘boo’, ‘hurrah’ jousting over green benches.


Each decade rephrases our penalties,

our liberties, and the mound of cast-off laws

is growing- as the tailor re-fits skin

over bones and organs, then re-stitches

the tears on the cheek of Lady Justice,

adds to and weakens her muscles before

they argue and anoint her into being.

Whilst crowds gather to watch the few wielders

of libels, pamphlets and brazen placards

as they jump before all the king's horses

all the king's men; trying to put our lady

back together again.


Heirs of our rights were etched on a shield

held up by barons against a tyrant crown

laws as big as the sheep they were scratched on

with a few petering off down the legs

and into oblivion.

Above the shrivelled seal, of skeletal John

wrapped in robes with a sword pointing at God

shadows of former words proclaim that-


No free man is to be taken

without the lawful judgement of his peers.

That a woman’s word cannot imprison a man-

save on the death of her husband.

That all Welsh hostages must be returned.

That the Church of England shall be free.

That there must not be, under any circumstances,

any more fish weirs in the Thames of Medway.

That no town can be made to build a bridge,

unless they have an ancient oath to do so.

That widows can remain widows if they choose.

That wine, ale and corn should be measured

by the London quarter, everywhere.

That officials cannot partake as they please,

even if they do so in the London quarter.

That the City and their dragons can hold fairs

and be supreme, whilst no man, including the king,

most particularly the king, shall be above the law.


They scraped away gold, to reveal a wooden chair,

for below every polished floor is Earth,

and above each roof is sky-

so we still re-sole our boots

to march for the ghost and grandchild

of our Magna Carta.


Laila Sumpton


Laila headshot

Laila Sumpton (@lailanadia) is a member of the Keats House Poets and works in both the poetry and NGO world, hoping to bring the two together. She runs creative writing workshops at museums, charities, hospitals and universities and writes extensively about human rights issues. She co-edited 'In Protest- 150 poems for human rights', published by the University of London's Human Rights Consortium and is working on her first pamphlet with the working title of 'King Arthur in Kashmir.' 

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. The objects on display can also be seen in the exhibition catalogue and on our dedicated Magna Carta website.


08 June 2015

Magna Carta: My Digital Rights

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This week the public have the chance to shape a ‘Magna Carta for the digital age’, by voting for My Digital Rights clauses generated by school students from around the world. Launched with BBC Radio 1 earlier this year as part of the BBC’s Taking Liberties season, the project has been jointly conceived by the British Library, World Wide Web Foundation, Southbank Centre and British Council. The results will be published on Monday 15 June, Magna Carta Day.


In conjunction with the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and the 25th anniversary of the web, more than 3000 10 to 18 year olds, over half of whom are overseas, have taken part in Magna Carta: My Digital Rights. The project is part of the British Library’s Learning programme, supporting our major exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, and encourages young people to think about the issues of freedom and control raised by Magna Carta in the context of the digital age.

Young people have taken part in debates and workshops to consider a range of digital topics from cyberbullying to surveillance, and they have written their own ‘clauses’ in response. Since January the Library has received over 500 clauses from schoolchildren relating to freedom, privacy and access. The clauses from students are striking: rather than a call for freedom or openness, half of the submissions reveal a marked concern about safety and security online.

The clauses from students include ideas such as:

  • The web we want will be safe and secure and have the ability to block and report malicious activities
  • The web we want will allow freedom of speech but discourage bullying 
  • The web we want will not let companies pay to control it, and not let governments restrict our right to information
  • The web we want will be private and not allow the government to see what we do online
  • The web we want will be untraceable to strangers
  • The web we want will be protective of all people
  • The web we want will be a human right

The British Library also consulted a range of public figures, including human rights activists, technology experts and surveillance specialists, during the course of the project. The contributors, such as Shami Chakrabarti, Professor Sir David Omand, Caroline Criado-Perez and Simon Phipps, wrote articles and featured in films as part of the project. 

The public can now vote for their favourite clauses on the My Digital Rights website until Monday 15 June, Magna Carta Day, when we will unveil the ‘Top 10’ clauses that emerge.

06 June 2015

Space: The Final Frontier

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Our major Magna Carta exhibition contains 202 items, which we selected from a long-list of over 2,000 potential candidates. One of the items that didn't make the final cut was a curious book entitled Magna Carta of Space. Our researcher, Alex Lock, takes up the story.

Magna Carta for Space

Published in 1966 at the height of the Space Race, and only 5 years after the first manned flight into Space, Magna Carta of Space was an early attempt to codify an interplanetary Space law. Drafted by the distinguished aviation lawyer William A. Hyman, the elaborately illustrated book – and the law code it contained – was the culmination of a decade of passionate and voluble campaigning for a legally binding peace in Space. Hyman described it as ‘a humanitarian bill of rights for the world; the first complete statement of the principles of space law in skeletal form to appear anywhere’. That he named it after Magna Carta – the iconic document of 1215 – was testament to how important he believed was the codification of a new Space law.

8 Hyman pic

William A. Hyman (d. 1966) as photographed in his Magna Carta of Space

Although the ideas contained within Magna Carta of Space might appear at first sight a little eccentric, if not downright bizarre, they were a serious attempt to begin an international dialogue on Space law. And it worked. Upon its publication in 1966 the book was well reviewed by Life magazine, and it even went on to influence the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space convened in Geneva that same year.

3 pp 306_307

As outer space exploration was unprecedented, it was unclear what issues lawyers might face when legislating for the ‘final frontier’ and what, if any, jurisdiction they had for imposing an intergalactic law code. Furthermore, as so little was known about space, it was largely up to the legislators’ imagination as to what might be legislated for, forcing them to consider unique questions in the history of jurisprudence.

  • Do aliens have legal rights?
  • Who owns the stars, planets and moons?
  • Where does Space begin and a nation’s airspace end?
  • What is the role of private industry in Space?
  • Who will allocate radio frequencies and set standard time?

To these unusual questions Hyman sought to give answers – and this accounts for why the book looks so odd. Yet, it was a serious text, with serious aims, written by a serious and experienced lawyer.

4 pp 308_309

Hyman earnestly foresaw a near future where mail was delivered by rockets and missiles would be a popular mode of transport, connecting human colonies across the galaxy. To ensure the expansion of the human race into Space and to ensure international ‘cooperation and coordination,’ Hyman’s Magna Carta of Space attempted to outline the parameters by which space exploration and colonisation could be safely pursued. Article 6, for instance, declared that ‘Outer Space shall be used solely for peaceful purposes with freedom of exploration and exploitation thereof given to all peoples for the benefit of mankind.’ Hyman was also careful to demarcate Outer Space as a communal domain (Res Communis) separated from sovereign airspace by a buffer zone, named Neutralia, to which all ‘earthmen’ had access. Yet, while Magna Carta of Space encouraged exploration and colonisation, it did not condone imperial expansion and it sought to establish the legal rights of aliens. Article 18 stipulated that ‘The Peoples of the earth do hereby declare that they recognize the rights of sovereignty, ownership and control of any other planet by the inhabitants thereof’.

6 pp 362_363

Though ostensibly concerned with Space, Hyman’s priority was securing peace on earth. The book is a clear product of the Cold War and is a powerful polemic against nuclear weapons. Since the first successful launch of a satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957, both the USSR and the USA had developed the capability to launch nuclear missiles from Space, leaving a perpetual nuclear threat literally hanging over the world. The 19 articles of Hyman’s Magna Carta of Space are more concerned with restricting the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Space rather than legislating for peaceful extra-terrestrial exploration. Hyman’s book explicitly attempted to restrict the misuse of Space by belligerent nations, with articles 7 and 19 making provisions to ban ‘nuclear experiments in Outer Space’ and the prosecution of ‘War, in, by, or through space … forever’. As Hyman stated in his introduction, it was his expressed wish to create a Magna Carta of Space that was so ‘powerful’ it would ‘compel the proper use of space --- for peace’. An aspiration that we would all do well to follow. 

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is open 7 days a week at the British Library until 1 September 2015 (late night openings every Tuesday). Admission costs £12 for adults and concessions are available (under 18s enter for free).

Alexander Lock

02 June 2015

The Trial of Sir Thomas More

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What does Magna Carta have to do with the English Reformation? Answer: lots. Magna Carta’s first clause claiming that ‘the English Church is to be free and have its rights in whole and its liberties unimpaired’ became a fundamental clause for those who looked for historical precedents in their opposition to the English Reformation and Henry VIII’s religious settlement. ‘The liberties of the Church …guaranteed by Magna Charta’ were referenced by William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1532 in a speech to be delivered to the House of Lords in 1532, that also noted — in a veiled threat to Henry — that those ‘kings who violated them … came to an ill end.’ Warham, however, died before he was able to deliver this speech to Parliament. Had he survived to deliver it, it is likely that he would have come to an ‘ill end’ well before Henry VIII! Later, members of the popular uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 similarly looked to Magna Carta to justify their opposition to Henry’s reforms, demanding in their rough minutes from the conference at Pontefract, ‘That the Church of England may enjoy the liberties granted them by Magna Carta’. It is interesting to note that such invocations of Magna Carta appeared around the same time as the first publication of the Latin and English versions of Magna Carta in 1508 and 1534 respectively. Indeed, given these ever increasing appeals to Magna Carta by opponents of the Reformation, it is little wonder that Thomas Cromwell — Henry VIII’s chief minister — made it a priority to ‘Remembre the Auncyent Cronycle of Magna Carta and how libera sit cam[e] into the statute’. 

First printed Magna Carta

The first printed edition of Magna Carta, 1508

Of all those who invoked Magna Carta against Henry VIII, perhaps the most famous of all was its use by Sir Thomas More at his trial for high treason in 1535. Unable to accept Henry’s religious settlement and unwilling to swear to the Act of Succession, More was imprisoned on 12 April 1534 and tried the following year in July 1535. Though the outcome was a forgone conclusion, More delivered a forceful statement outlining his spiritual position, and invoking the first clause of Magna Carta. Quoting it in Latin, Thomas More told the court that Henry VIII’s reforms were ‘co[n]trary both to the ancient Lawes, & Statutes of our owne Realme not the[n] repealled, as they might well see in Magna Carta; Quod Ecclesia libera sit, & habeat omnia iura integra, & libertates suas illæsas’. Although based as it was on Magna Carta, this defence did not save him and More was beheaded on 6 July 1535.

G_1580-0001    G_1580-0016
The Mirrour of Vertue in Worldly Greatnes, 1626

That we know so much about More’s trial, and his use of Magna Carta in it, is due to the publication in 1626 of a book entitled The Mirrour of Vertue in Worldly Greatnes, or the Life of Syr Thomas More More Knight. Written by More’s son-in-law, William Roper, during the reign of Queen Mary (1553–58), this is reputedly the earliest personal biography in the English language. Marked for its candour, detail and strong loyalty to More, it has influenced all subsequent writing on the former Lord Chancellor. Although it was written by Roper in the 1550s, the accession of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) precluded the publication of this religiously sensitive biography. It was only published in 1626 by exiled English Jesuits at Saint-Omer who sought to mislead government agents by giving it the imprint ‘Paris’.


Thomas Cromwell's response to Thomas More's use of Magna Carta at his trial in 1535: ‘Item to Remembre the Auncyent Cronycle of Magna Carta and how libera sit cam[e] into the statute’

You can view the items described here in our major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, on display at the British Library in London until 1 September 2015. You can also read more about them on our dedicated Magna Carta website and in the book that accompanies the exhibition.

Alexander Lock