The Magna Carta from Lacock Abbey

Introduction to Magna Carta

What is Magna Carta?

Magna Carta is Latin for Great Charter. Magna Carta is a royal charter. A royal charter is a legal document issued by reigning King or Queen. The BBC was set up by royal charter in the 1920’s.

Magna Carta was sealed by King John in 1215. It was revised by his son, King Henry III in 1217 and re-issued in 1225.

Magna Carta guarantees basic human rights to the people of England. Some of these are still recognizable today: bailiffs should seize “chattels” (possessions) not land in settlement of a debt, debts die with the debtor, regular courts to try cases, standard measurements for wine and beer, trials cannot be brought without evidence, no-one can be unlawfully imprisoned, the Magna Carta rights apply to all men.

Four original copies still exist. Two copies are in the British Library and the other two are in Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals. One copy is on permanent display in the British Library’s Treasures Room.

Why does St Edmundsbury celebrate the Magna Carta?

Bury St Edmunds is a founder member and trustee of the Magna Carta Trust. The Trust was formed in 1957 to commemorate and promote the rights given by the charter.

The five “charter towns” are all trustees: City of London, St Albans, Canterbury, Bury St. Edmunds and Runnymede. Each town has a link to the charter. The Abbey was where the Barons met and decided to make King John sign it.

Each town takes it in turn to host a celebration of the charter every three years. The first celebration was in 1959 and was a ten-day pageant held in the Abbey Gardens in June. Bury also has held the celebrations in 1974, 1989 and 2004. A special celebration to mark 800 years since the Barons met at Bury St Edmunds was held in 2014.

What is the link to Bury St Edmunds?

The motto of the Borough of St. Edmundsbury, Sacrarium Regis, Cunabula Legis, means Shrine of a King, Cradle of the Law. The King is St. Edmund, King of the East Angles, who was killed by invading Danes in 869. His shrine stood for centuries in the medieval Abbey of St. Edmund, and from him the town derived its name. Cradle of the Law refers to the tradition that in 1214 the barons of England met in the Abbey Church and swore that they would force King John to accept the Charter of Liberties later known as Magna Carta.

The shields of those nobles can be seen around the ceiling of the St Edmundsbury Cathedral. They were put up in 1967, financed by an American organisation called the Dames of the Magna Carta. One clause of the Magna Carta says that 25 barons would be elected to a commission which would monitor the King's compliance with the charter. The names of those 25 barons are recorded on a plaque on a column of the ruined Abbey in the Abbey Gardens.

Broadly speaking, what happened?

King John succeeded his brother Richard I in the year 1199. He lacked his brother’s military prowess and he spent much of his reign attempting to recover lost English possessions in France. To finance his military campaigns, he resorted to harsh taxation of his subjects, which provoked growing unrest.

While there was some hope of military success abroad, the discontent was contained, but defeat at the Battle of Bouvines in July 1214 marked the end of English hopes of regaining Normandy.

Opposition to King John intensified, and he was no longer able to resist the barons’ demand that their liberties be confirmed. On 15 June 1215, at Runnymede, he agreed to a document that later became known as Magna Carta. He did not sign it: indeed there is no evidence that he could write, but within days copies bearing his seal were produced by the royal chancery.

Four originals of this document survive, one in Lincoln Cathedral, one in Salisbury Cathedral and two in the British Library.

A full year by year account of the period from 1199 up to the adoption of Magna Carta is available by returning to the Magna Carta homepage.

What did Magna Carta say?

The constitutional importance of Magna Carta lies in the fact that it placed limits upon the absolute power of the King and made him subject to the law.

The most famous of its sixty-three clauses said that no free man could be imprisoned, outlawed or exiled except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land, and that justice could not be sold, delayed or denied.

It also contained clauses relating to the treatment of heirs and widows and to the payment of debts.

It provided for uniform measures of wine, ale, corn and cloth throughout the realm.

It confirmed the liberties of the Church and of all cities and towns and it sought to regulate the conduct of all local officials such as sheriffs, bailiffs and constables and ensure that they knew and observed the law.

A translation of the Magna Carta is available by returning to the Magna Carta homepage.

What happened next?

King John had been forced to agree to Magna Carta, and he immediately attempted to have it annulled by the Pope, who issued a papal bull saying that it was ‘as unjust and unlawful as it is base and shameful’.

A period of civil war followed, which ended with the sudden death of King John from dysentery in October 1216.

After his death, Magna Carta was reissued with changes in 1216, 1217 and 1225, and the document of 1225 became accepted as a statement of law.

After the 1217 re-issue, it became known as Magna Carta, or great charter. In the later medieval period, it was reissued several times and confirmed frequently.

In the early seventeenth century, a period of particular conflict between king and subject, Magna Carta assumed a new importance. Sir Edward Coke, the Lord Chief Justice, said that it was ‘declaratory of the principal grounds of the fundamental laws of England’ and it formed a basis for the Petition of Right (1628).

The clauses of Magna Carta were also echoed in early American colonial charters, in the American Declaration of independence (1776) and in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

Three of its clauses still stand on the English Statute Book, including its most famous one protecting free men from arbitrary imprisonment and prohibiting the sale, denial or delay of justice. These clauses can be read by returning to the Magna Carta homepage.

Prepared for the St Edmundsbury
Website by David Addy
August 1998

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Updated 3 September 2004 and 18th May, 2014 Go to Home Page