THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

15 June 2015

Magna Carta Celebrates Its 800th Birthday!

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.

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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.

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Nick

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

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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)

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

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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.

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