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Magna Carta - a cornerstone of modern democracy.

Magna Carta, the ‘Great Charter’, has been described as the most famous document in English history.

What prompted the Magna Carta to be written?

In the years leading up to 1215, King John had demanded increasing levels of taxes from his knights and barons. Resentment grew into rebellion, and the barons took up arms against the king.

Articles of the Barons

The rebels presented John with a number of demands, known as the ‘Articles of the Barons’. These were aimed at limiting the King’s powers and safeguarding the rights, privileges and liberties of the clergy and nobles.

These demands were sealed – the equivalent of being signed - by the barons and John at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Establishing that no-one – not even the king – was above the law, they eventually became the document that we know today as Magna Carta.

Although declared null and void only weeks after being sealed by King John, Magna Carta was reissued by his successors and written into the laws of the land in 1297. It remains an enduring and iconic symbol of the struggle for rights and liberties around the world.

The Magna Carta at Durham Cathedral

We have three issues of Magna Carta, although it is not entirely clear why. Like other royal charters, issues of Magna Carta were distributed around the country to sheriffs and bishops. They were read out in public, in county courts and churches, to make sure the people heard about them.

The bishops of Durham, together with many local noble families, deposited important documents with the Priory at Durham for safekeeping. The legal status of the Palatinate, outside the authority of the crown, also made Durham very aware of English law and encouraged good record keeping.

Many cathedrals seem to have kept the most recent version of Magna Carta and disposed of earlier, outdated issues. However at Durham these were carefully stored away for future reference.

Have they always been at Durham?

We believe so. Our monks were copying the text of the 1225 Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest into a record book (cartulary) in the archive not long after they were issued.

References on the back of the documents indicate that the monks had also catalogued them into the archive at around that time.

Magna Carta - November 1216 issue

The earliest of the Durham Cathedral copies of Magna Carta dates from November 1216. It is the only known copy of this issue to survive.

Its seals are missing, but the text states it was sealed by William Marshal and Cardinal Guala Bicchieri, acting as regents on behalf of the young King Henry III. It contains 42 clauses. There are 61 in the earlier 1215 issue.

Magna Carta - 11 February 1225 issue

Issued by King Henry III on 11 February 1225, this became the final and definitive version of Magna Carta. One of four originals to survive, the document bears the great seal of Henry himself, introduced in 1218. It states that it was issued spontaneously and of the King’s own free will.

It has only 37 articles and so is a shorter version than that issued in 1216. This text became the final and definitive version of Magna Carta. It was this version that was entered onto the first Statute Roll in 1297, becoming part of English law.

Magna Carta - 28 March 1300 issue

The final Magna Carta at Durham is the issue of 28 March 1300, the last version to be issued under the King’s seal. Seven examples of this issue survive, of which Durham Cathedral’s example is the best, in near-perfect condition. It still bears the great seal of King Edward I.


The Charter of the Forest at Durham Cathedral

We also possess three issues of the Charter of the Forest. This charter granted rights to land, food, and fuel to a wide cross-section of English society – from barons to commoners.

Origins of the Charter of the Forest

The 1215 and 1216 Magna Carta included clauses restricting the extent of ‘royal Forest’ and limiting punishments.

When Henry III reissued the document in 1217 he separated and expanded these clauses into a new document – the Charter of the Forest.

Charter of the Forest - 1217 issue

Only two issues of the 1217 Charter of the Forest survive. Tthe other is in the collection of Lincoln Cathedral. It was sealed by William Marshal and Cardinal Guala Bicchieri, acting as regents on behalf of the young King Henry III. On the Durham issue Cardinal Bicchieri’s seal is still attached, but Marshal’s is missing.

Charter of the Forest – 1225 issue

When Henry III issued his new version of the Magna Carta in 1225, he also issued a new version of the Charter of the Forest. This is one of three surviving originals and, like the Magna Carta, bears Henry’s great seal.

Charter of the Forest – March 1300 issue

After 1217, whenever Magna Carta was reissued it was accompanied by the Charter of the Forest. This is the Charter of the Forest issued by King Edward I in 1300 and features his great seal. Five examples of this issue survive today.

Who was in charge of implementing the Charter of the Forest?

Issued alongside each new version of Magna Carta, like other royal charters the Charter of the Forest would be distributed to sheriffs and bishops to be proclaimed publicly in the county courts and churches.

However, Forest law was administered separately from the rest of the country, with its own Forest Courts and officials, known as verderers or foresters.

In the Palatinate of Durham, the forests were subject to the authority of the bishop, rather than the king, but followed the same pattern of administration.

More than just trees

 A royal Forest was an area of hunting ground set aside for the king’s use. It could include woodland, moorland, heath and even villages. Subject to its own special Forest Law, penalties for those found hunting, gathering wood or building in the Forest were severe – heavy fines, mutilation or death.