Medieval Runnymede setting for Magna Carta

Magna Carta 800

The 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta is planned on a grand scale

2015 it is 800 years since King John Lackland met on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth day of his reign with a select group of magnates, barons, bishops and abbots from the realm and gave a charter “in the meadow that is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines.” In its essence it was a document – a treaty – by which the feudal barons attempted to limit the powers of the king and protect their privileges (liberties). In the following months this charter was copied at least 40 times and sent to major strongholds and cities to proclaim the contents of this peace-accord to the rest of the realm. Even so civil war broke out, and the charter was soon sought repealed by the king. In October 1216 during the war, the king sought to cross the wash in Lincolnshire but was caught in the tidal waves. Soon after he died and some of the magnates rallied behind his 9-year old son to avoid a French take-over. At the coronation in 1216 the redacted charter was finally reissued, but this time as a coronation charter. It was at this point the charter was transformed into legislation. This later laid the ground for a series of reissues during the middle ages and later. It was this coronation charter which later – in a series of redactions – came to be known as the “Magna Carta” and which subsequently metamorphosed into the nearest thing the English have to a constitution. Nonetheless it is the 1215 date and the original first charter, which is generally referred to as the “Magna Carta”.

King John tomb worchester Cathedral
King John tomb worchester Cathedral

Today all its clauses but four have been repealed and the document is revered more for its totemic status, than its actual legal importance. As such, though, it is fiercely venerated by the English. Accordingly it will be duly celebrated all around the world in 2015; not least since it is considered an important inspiration not only for the legal systems in the former colonies and the commonwealth, but also since it was a major inspiration for the constitution of the United States of America. Which by the way exhibits a 1297 reissued redaction of the charter in its National Archives, acquired for the sum of $21.321.000 in 2007 in New York at Sotheby’s.

The four copies
If there ever was an absolutely “first” original, it has long since disappeared. However, there exists four copies of the original charter from 2015 and an additional nineteen copies of the redactions carried out in 1216, 1227, 1225, 1297 and 1300. Added to this should probably still be some charters all but forgotten in the dusty archive of some old English castle. The latest cropped up in 1989!

Worldwide celebrations
Naturally the 800th anniversary is planned as a worldwide event. With panel discussions, open lectures, academic conferences and travelling exhibitions the year is topped up with a whole week of celebrations in November: Parliament Week will be a UK-wide programme of events and activities, which according to the website hopefully will “inspire, engage and connect people with the democratic process”. Of the more humorous variety is the endeavour of the committee to get the Pope to repeal his bull from 1215, which was issued at the request of King John, who claimed he had been forced to sign and on those grounds sought to have the charter annulled.

Of the more serious happenings are the erection of a new exhibition space in Lincoln and a new visitor-centre at Runnymede, which is planned by JDD Consulting

Magna Carta set for 21st century treatment
For the scholarly community, however, it may seem more interesting to note that researchers at King’s College in London last year succeeded in getting funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council in order to examine and write a clause-by-clause commentary on its content in a hundred years (the last stems from the 700th anniversary in 1915). Researchers at King’s College London will collaborate in an examination of the 1215 Magna Carta, which will result in the first clause-by-clause commentary on its content in a hundred years. In the three-year project

David Carpenter, Professor in Medieval History at King’s, will work with historians from the Universities of East Anglia, Oxford and Christ Church, Canterbury. They will also work on the first ever commentary on the 1225 Charter, the version that passed into law.

The £910,000 project will see the team scouring over 300 archives in the UK and abroad in order to investigate who wrote the manuscript, whether the clauses were obeyed and the document’s role in marking a watershed between a lawless and lawful government. They will also analyse its continued significance in the 21st century.

At the University of East Anglia, where the project is based, Nicholas Vincent (Principal Investigator) and Hugh Doherty (a former King’s student), will collect all the original charters and letters of King John, throwing entirely new light on the making and meaning of the Charter. At a special event at the British Library all four of the extant copies of the charter from 1215 will be placed side-by-side to give the scholars an opportunity to compare them close up.


A translation of the Magna Carta found at the Medieval Internet Sourcebook

Magna Carta set for 21st century treatment

The four Magna Cartas from 1215 united

The plans for the new exhibition centre in Lincoln


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