Curator's Choice: The Magna Carta at the British Library

Dr Claire Breay interviewed by Ben Miller | 15 October 2011
a photograph of a smiling woman with shoulder length brown hair
Dr Claire Breay, Lead Curator of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts at the British Library.
Curator's Choice: In her own Words…Dr Claire Breay Lead Curator of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts at the British Library in London looks after the two copies of Magna Carta, the famous charter issued by King John in June 1215, held there. Here, she tells us why it is such a powerful piece of British history…
a photo detail of the writing on the Magna Carta
© Courtesy The British Library
On principles
"It's the concept which makes Magna Carta so important today really, rather than most of the content. It established, for the first time, that the law was a power in its own right to which the King was subject, and that the King wasn’t above the law.

It was the first time in English history that the King's power and authority had been constrained through a detailed written document."

On the Barons
"Magna Carta, when it was issued, was trying to solve a political crisis where the Barons were in open revolt against the King and England was at risk of invasion from France, so King John agreed to it to try to placate the Barons and make peace.

It has very specific demands embedded in it which draw on the document known as the Articles of the Barons, which is the unique draft of the Barons' demands. This document is very significant because it was actually present at Runnymede when the King met the Barons in 1215 and would have been handled by them.

When the terms of Magna Carta had been agreed, the Barons renewed their oath of allegiance to the King, signifying that peace had been made."

On the four copies
"There wasn't a single Magna Carta document that was sealed at Runnymede – sometimes people find it a bit hard to understand why there are four original copies, but the original agreement that King John made with the Barons was an oral agreement.

The Magna Carta documents were written up in the form of a medieval charter after the event by the king’s scribes. Like all medieval charters, they’re written in the past tense because they’re recording something that’s already happened.

Many more than four would have been drawn up because they were sent to the sheriffs, who were the King’s main administrators in the counties, and to the bishops in their dioceses. The other two surviving copies are owned by the cathedrals in Lincoln and Salisbury."

a detail from a medieval manuscript showing a king hunting on horseback
Illuminated manuscript showing King John on a stag hunt, De Rege Johanne (1300-1400)© Courtesy the British Library
On the feudal system
"Most of the clauses in Magna Carta are very specific and relate to the regulation of the feudal system, feudal payments and the operation of the justice system. Magna Carta regulated how far the King could go in setting the level of payments that were due to him from the Barons.

Convention dictated that these payments should be set within customary limits. King John had enraged the Barons by completely setting aside customary practice, and so the Barons used Magna Carta to try to reassert it.

Most of the clauses in Magna Carta relate to the highest levels of 13th century society. In 1215, most of the population were villeins, the unfree peasantry, and they are almost invisible in Magna Carta."

On the impact of war
"King John's father, Henry II, greatly extended the Angevin Empire by military conquest and marriage, so that it included most of the western half of France and parts of Ireland as well as England. He passed this empire on to his son, Richard I, who was succeeded by his brother, John. King John was not England’s greatest military leader and struggled to hold the empire together.

A series of military defeats led to the loss of huge areas of land in France. King John got caught in a vortex in which he lost land through military defeats, and also lost the income from that land, and so he needed to try to recapture the land but had fewer funds to draw on.

Then, as now, warfare was an extremely expensive activity, and so King John tried to extract ever increasing amounts of money from the Barons through feudal payments and taxes set at unprecedentedly high levels. This, on top of his ruthless treatment of those who opposed him, led the Barons into rebellion and to seek redress through Magna Carta."

On the Pope
"On display next to Magna Carta we have a document known as a papal bull, which shows what happened after Magna Carta was issued. As soon as King John was forced, in his eyes, to grant Magna Carta he appealed to the Pope, who was England’s feudal overlord at the time, to have it overturned.

a detail from an illuminated mansucript showing a pope wearing a Byzantine style hat
13th century Fresco of Pope Innocent III at the cloister Sacro Speco, from Wikimedia Commons
Somebody was sent to Rome to take John's appeal to the Pope and then came all the way back with this document.

Magna Carta was only valid for about ten weeks because the Pope, Innocent III, issued this document saying it was null and void and an affront to the King's authority. It’s great to be able to display it in the context of these other really important original Magna Carta documents."

On King John's death

"The history of Magna Carta might have been very different had King John not died unexpectedly in October 1216, about 16 months after it was granted. He died very suddenly, leaving his nine-year-old son, Henry III, on the throne.

Henry was obviously too young to rule in his own right, so the Regent, William Marshal, took charge. When Magna Carta had been revoked by the Pope in 1215, England had been plunged back into virtual civil war, so when Henry came to the throne, William realised that he needed to do something to get the Barons onside, in support of the young King's reign.

So what did he do? He issued a revised version of Magna Carta very quickly at the end of 1216, and then a further revised version in 1217. This showed that William and Henry III were ready to observe the limits set down in 1215 and to observe the rule of law.

And then, in 1225, Henry came of age and reissued a further revised version of Magna Carta under his own seal, and we have a copy of that 1225 issue on display here in the Library.

What's particularly interesting about the 1225 document is that it was this text which was confirmed by Edward I in his 1297 reissue of Magna Carta, and it was Edward's 1297 confirmation which ended up on the English statute roll."

On modern laws
"There were 63 clauses in the original Magna Carta issued in 1215, but only three of those are valid today. The first of these is a clause which states that the English Church shall be free and have all its rights and liberties unimpaired.

Another guarantees the rights and liberties of the City of London and other towns and ports, and then, right in the middle of the document, and not given any particular prominence, is what is now the most famous clause in Magna Carta.

It states, "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, except by the lawful judgement 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."

It's these words which have had meaning and resonance across time and in different countries. They are wide-ranging and enduring statements of principle which stand out very strongly from all the surrounding detailed clauses regulating feudal payments and the other very specific provisions in Magna Carta which are redundant today. 

They have been clauses that people have been able to look back to and use in subsequent centuries for their own purposes Even very recent debates about the length of detention without charge look back to Magna Carta."

On 800 years of history
"We're very excited about the forthcoming 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta in 2015, which we’re preparing for. We're planning to have a big exhibition here at the Library and we’re working with the Magna Carta Trust’s 800th anniversary committee which is coordinating a national programme of events and celebrations."

On a lasting popularity
"Magna Carta is the thing that surveys show visitors most want to see when they come to the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. In 2006 we created this new room in the gallery dedicated to Magna Carta which allows us to show it with the other related documents, and to provide more interpretation about the events of 1215 and the enduring legacy of Magna Carta.

The Treasures Gallery is free and open seven days a week."

  • Find out more about the Magna Carta, watch videos, read a translation and take a closer look on the British Library Website.
  • This is one in a series of stories and features developed for Parliament Week 2011. Running from October 31 until November 6 2011, the campaign explores how democracy affects citizens and how they can participate in it.
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