The editors of a recent collection of articles on Magna Carta assert “it is difficult to think of a legal document that exceeds it in historical importance and breadth of legacy.” This article will focus on Magna Carta as a legal document. In so doing, it will also examine its surviving material forms as rare, if not priceless, manuscripts and consider the question of what makes these manuscripts “original” Magna Cartas. As will be apparent, there are multiple Magna Carta manuscripts that can claim to be “originals.” Why this is so is a matter of historical circumstance, tradition, and scholarly conventions.
The first issue of Magna Carta dates to June 1215. It resulted from negotiations between the monarch and rebellious English aristocrats on the brink of civil war. The document that became known as Magna Carta was issued under the royal seal. Employing the first-person plural “royal we” of King John, its last line begins, “Given by our hand” and ends by referring to a specific place and time of its issue: “in the meadow that is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign.”
It seems there was no single original Magna Carta document produced at Runnymede on June 15. If there ever were one, not only does it no longer exist, but there is no historical record of it ever having existed. June 15 is the specific date referenced in the 1215 manuscript to its issuance. It represents the date when the meeting between the parties at Runnymede occurred, rather than when the document itself—in multiples, scholars estimate from 14 to 40 copies—was first produced and sealed. It was subsequently backdated to memorialize the event and date of agreement, a common practice with medieval charters. Magna Carta scholar Nicholas Vincent has defined such charters as “any letter or proclamation, generally written on a single sheet of parchment, awarding rights or property.”
The 1215 Charter was handwritten in Latin on a single piece of sheepskin parchment approximately 18 inches square—about the same surface area as a 27" computer monitor or TV screen. Its text runs to less than 4,000 words—somewhat shorter than that of the original 1787 U.S. Constitution.
Scholars believe that multiples of the 1215 Magna Carta—as of subsequent reissues—were produced and disseminated across the realm. Only four of these first issues, however, survive. Two are in the British Library and one each in Salisbury and Lincoln. Of these, only one, a “Cotton” charter from the British Library, still has its original beeswax seal affixed to the manuscript. However, it was badly damaged in a 1731 fire. The Lincoln Magna Carta was the first Charter to travel outside the United Kingdom, when it came to the United States in 1939 for display at the New York World’s Fair and then remained in Washington, D.C. and Fort Knox for safekeeping throughout World War II.
Representing a would-be peace treaty between the king and rebellious nobles, the 1215 Charter did not survive its year of issue. Pope Innocent III, who King John had accepted as his feudal overlord, annulled the charter within 10 weeks of its issue. In the midst of virtual civil war, the king suddenly died in October 2016. The charter was reissued the following month and sealed by the Pope’s legate and royal regents acting on behalf of the new king, John’s nine-year-old son, Henry III. This Magna Carta was shortened to about 2,500 words and revised from the 1215 issue. Based on the revised 1216 Charter, a second reissue was made in 1217 and a third in 1225, when Henry III reached the age of maturity. The 1225 issue was the version incorporated into English law in 1297, when Henry III’s son Edward I became king and again reissued Magna Carta.
An “issue” or “reissue” of Magna Carta has an accepted meaning. It signifies that the manuscripts were produced in multiple originals by the English royal chancery, or writing office, officially sealed on behalf of the king, and then physically distributed to counties throughout the kingdom. To differentiate them from mere “copies,” original Magna Cartas are also properly termed “exemplifications” or “engrossments. ” An “exemplification” signifies an officially sealed document to which witnesses attest. An “engrossment” refers to a manuscript written in large (“engrossed”) or ornamental characters. Accordingly, Magna Carta originals are both exemplifications and engrossments.
In addition to the four originals of the 1215 first issues, one original from 1216 and four more each from 1217, 1225, and 1297 survive. Although Magna Carta was also reissued in other years during the thirteenth century, no originals survive from those reissues. Just two of the extant 17 are today preserved outside England, both dating from Edward I’s issue of 1297. They are in the national capitals of Australia (Canberra) and the United States—the latter is publicly displayed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
All of these 17 original Magna Cartas were issued in the thirteenth century—the 1200s. In addition to these 17, however, there are also 6 dating from 1300. In 2011, a manuscript from Faversham, England, previously thought to be a copy, was authenticated as an original 1300 Magna Carta exemplification, joining five other known issues from that year, all of which are in the United Kingdom. This Faversham Magna Carta has been valued at $20 million. After 1300, Magna Carta was never again reissued—written by scribes working in the royal chancery office, affixed with the king’s seal, and then physically disseminated throughout England. Instead, it was simply “confirmed.” English kings confirmed Magna Carta dozens of times in the centuries following the thirteenth, corroborating its status as an exemplary written Charter of good governance and recognition of the lawful liberties of English subjects.
Magna Carta exemplifications consist principally of tightly written Latin text without much illustration. None formally organize its parts. In comparing the issues of 1215 and 1225, the eighteenth-century English jurist William Blackstone developed a numbering convention, which we follow today. Similar divisions were used even by medieval lawyers, but the numbering was not effectively standardized until Blackstone. By tradition, the various short sections are commonly called “chapters.” The 1215 Magna Carta has 63 chapters and the shorter 1225, just 37. The famous, oft-cited clause that begins “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned,” which appears in all issues, is numbered chapter 39 in the 1215 Magna Carta and 29 in the abbreviated 1225 issue.
Paradigmatic Legal Document
Magna Carta is arguably the paradigmatic legal document in the Anglo-American tradition. When it was incorporated into English law after 1225, it literally became a part of statute books and readily assumed what would become its traditional “first” position, which it would retain in English law books published through the centuries. In that sense, it became the “Genesis” of Anglo-American law. Inscribed in our history, Magna Carta exemplifies the legal document as interpretable text— law as fundamentally written.