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The Great Charter of Liberties or Magna Carta agreed between King John and his barons at Runnymede in 1215 is one of the most famous documents in history. It is considered the foundation of English common law and much of its world wide importance lies in the interpretation of the clauses from which grew the right of the freedom of the individual or habeas corpus.

No free man shall be arrested, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or in any way victimised, or attacked except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land

This right is most famously contained in the American Bill of Rights embodied in the constitution of the United States of America.

The charter agreed at Runnymede was only the beginning of the story. Magna Carta went through a number of revisions and reissues before being enshrined in English statute law in 1297.

The most significant revision of Magna Carta was issued by Henry III in 1217. Hereford Cathedral is fortunate to possess one of these 1217 charters, only four of which survive.

For a full translation of Hereford Cathedral's 1217 Magna Carta, please click here.

The Story of Magna Carta 1215–97

On his accession in 1199 King John inherited enormous wealth and a huge kingdom covering England, Ireland, parts of Scotland and lands in France stretching from the channel to the Pyrenees. He squandered this inheritance by mismanagement, expensive wars, heavy taxation and his harsh treatment of opponents and supporters alike. He alienated the church and his leading, most powerful, subjects who withdrew their support provoking civil war.

January–June 1215: The Barons’ Demands

The barons sought a remedy for the perceived wrongs and abuses of the king by demanding that John agree to a charter confirming ancient liberties. They renewed and increased their demands while also continuing military pressure seizing control of London in May. John finally agreed to meet with the barons at Runnymede, near Windsor, in June.

15 June 1215: Magna Carta

The famous Great Charter (Magna Carta) of Liberties agreed between King John and his barons on 15 June at Runnymede was in effect a peace settlement between the King and his most powerful subjects. It followed the custom of previous English monarchs in confirming existing liberties and privileges of his subjects but went much further in including terms that attacked or curtailed the king’s sovereignty.

July 1215 – Sept 1216

Far from achieving peace neither party seemed fully committed to abiding by the terms of Magna Carta. King John appealed to the Pope, Innocent III, who cancelled the charter in August 1215, declaring it ‘as unlawful and unjust as it is base and shameful’, and so only a few weeks after it was agreed Magna Carta was a dead letter.

Armed conflict was renewed and the barons invited Louis, son of the French king, to give military support and claim the English throne. A year of civil war followed fought throughout England.

October 1216: The Death of King John

King John died on 19 October in Newark, leaving his nine-year-old son, Henry, as his successor. John’s remains were taken to Worcester Cathedral for burial near the shrine of St Wulfstan.

October 1216: The Accession of Henry III

On accession Henry III’s position as a minor was very vulnerable. He had only a handful of powerful supporters left from his father’s court and until he came of age he would have to govern through regents. Over half the country was under rebel and French control. It was feared that since the rightful coronation church, Westminster Abbey, was in rebel held London the barons might crown Louis as King of England. So Henry was hastily crowned in Gloucester on 28 October.

November 1216: Magna Carta Reissued

On 12 November, as a political expedient and in the hope of attracting more supporters or averting civil war, Magna Carta was reissued. This version of Magna Carta was issued in a shortened form omitting more than 25 of the 63 clauses contained in John’s charter.

November 1216 – September 1217: Civil War

Henry III’s government not only survived, it enjoyed military and naval successes defeating the rebel barons and driving out the French forces under Louis. A peace treaty was agreed in September which declared a general amnesty.

November 1217: Magna Carta Reissued

As one of the first acts of the new settled government the 1216 Magna Carta was reissued with further revisions. A separate Charter of the Forest was also issued. This regulated forest rights and law incorporating and expanding on seven clauses from the 1215 Magna Carta. These charters were issued through Henry’s regents, William Marshal and Guala, the papal legate.

Magna Carta 1217–1297

When Henry came of age in 1225 he issued Magna Carta in what was its final form ‘of his own free will’ under the King’s Great Seal. It contained minor changes and an enlarged final clause guaranteeing the terms.

It is the 1217 issue of Magna Carta which is displayed. This version is arguably just as significant as the 1215 charter in that it remained materially unchanged through various reissues and confirmations until in 1297 it was enshrined in the written law of England.

Terms of Magna Carta

Many of the terms of Magna Carta were designed to protect the customary rights of the barons from the king, although those clauses relating to the regulation of the legal system and trade, the standardisation of weights and measures and the liberties of the Church had a wider application. The most famous clause by which no freeman is to be imprisoned, dispossessed or exiled without a fair trial was of limited significance at the time when under the feudal system of the 13th century the majority of the population was not free. The real importance of Magna Carta lies in the interpretation of the principle of this clause by later generations.

A selection of the clauses in Magna Carta
  • The Church of England shall be free and all her rights and liberties inviolate
  • 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 other way, nor will we condemn him but by lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land
  • Feudal laws relating to service, inheritance, wardship and rights of widows defined
  • Liberties and customs of the city of London, Cinque Ports and all other Boroughs, Cities and Ports confirmed
  • Assize, county and hundred courts regulated
  • As an aid to navigation and trade, all fish weirs to be removed from throughout England, except on the sea coast
  • Standard weights and measures for wine, ale, corn and cloth set
20 June 1215: King John’s letter sent from Runnymede to the Sheriff of Gloucestershire

Copies of Magna Carta were made, sealed and distributed throughout the kingdom along with a letter from the king requiring the terms of the charter to be broadcast. Hereford Cathedral holds the only extant copy of this letter, which is known as the King’s Writ. The sheriff was instructed to choose twelve knights of the shire who were literate and versed in the law to disseminate the contents of Magna Carta to all officials, foresters, warreners, keepers of the rivers and all bailiffs. All were required to keep the King’s peace and not to violate the contents of the charter.

For a full translation of King John’s letter, please click here.