Magna Carta at 800

On 15th June 1215, Magna Carta agreed at Runnymede in Surrey. A contract between the barons and King John, it was designed to place limitations on the power of the latter. The 1215 agreement would ultimately not hold, and so the charter would be re-issued and renewed in slightly different formats in 1216, 1217 and 1225 under Henry III, and 1297 under Edward I.


One of Worcester’s 1225 copies, from MS Q.36 (c. 1300 – 1310) Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral Library (UK)

Only four original editions of Magna Carta – known as exemplifications – survive today. These were the editions that were made and used by the Royal Chancery, before being sent out to important officials across the country. The Bishop of Worcester would certainly have received the document, as did the Bishops of Lincoln and Salisbury, whose copies remain in their respective Cathedrals. The other two exemplifications are held by the British Library.


The Copy in Register A2, c. 1240. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Magna Carta was an extremely important document, and so it is little surprising that many copies of the original issue were made by the officials that received them. These copies are much more common than exemplifications, but are still precious documents from a time when literacy was scarce and not much was written down.

Worcester Cathedral Library holds two separate copies of the 1225 exemplification. The one in the monastic register A.2 was written at some point the 13th Century – while Q.36, a legal reference book, was likely written down between 1300 and 1310. The fact that the Magna Carta was still being copied years after it was issued perhaps demonstrates how important the laws within it were perceived to be at the time.


Documents would have been ratified with seals, like this 1303 mandate from Robert of Winchelsea, Archbishop of Canterbury. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Magna Carta would have been sealed and not signed. The convention of the day, as it had been for centuries, was to authenticate documents using a seal matrix pressed into hot wax, which would then harden upon drying. Authentication of documents using a hand-written signature – as we are familiar with today – didn’t become widespread until hundreds of years afterwards.


18th Century reconstruction of King John’s seal. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

It was therefore a little surprising when earlier this year the Royal Mint announced the release of a new two pound coin commemorating Magna Carta, showing King John with quill pen in hand!

Tom Hopkins


One thought on “Magna Carta at 800

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s