The Magna Carta Project

The number of original engrossments surviving from the various versions of Magna Carta issued between 1216 and 1225 has long been known. There are four from the Charter of 1215, one from the Charter of 1216, and four apiece from the Charters of 1217 and 1225. Much less known, before the work of the Magna Carta project, has been the number of copies made of these Charters in the century after 1215.1 The subject has some importance. Indeed, it is central to the question of how well the Charters, in their various incarnations, were known in the first phase of their history. It may also throw light on the negotiations which produced the Charters. V.H. Galbraith showed, in a study of one copy of the 1215 Charter that, in places, it followed what seemed to be a discarded draft rather than the final authorized version. This naturally makes one wonder whether the same is true of other copies. As will be seen, it is.  

Just occasionally there are reasons for thinking that a copy has been made from an actual engrossment. In other cases (especially in variant versions) it is clear that copies spawned copies. Apart from a few on single sheets of parchment, the  copies are found in chronicles, cartularies, and unofficial collections of legislation and other legal material often called by historians (and called here) ‘statute books’, although there is sometimes an overlap between these three types of source.2

The search for copies of Magna Carta in the numerous unprinted cartularies and statute books is ongoing. What follows is very much a preliminary statement, which I hope to update in due course. Any information from readers will be gratefully received. In respect of copies of the 1215 Charter, I have included all those of which I am aware. In respect of copies of the 1217 and 1225 Charters, I still have a good number to be inspected on a list compiled from catalogues and other printed material.3 For the most part, I have not included these in what follows because so often what is claimed does not match up with the copy when actually inspected. So, for example, a Charter claimed as 1225 very often turns out to be a hybrid with elements from both 1217 and 1225. In making the catalogue I have been greatly helped by information given me by Paul Brand, Nicholas Vincent, and Susan Reynolds and by the research of Sophie Ambler as part of the Magna Carta project. The catalogue stops at present with straight copies of the Charter of 1225. It does not, therefore, include the copies found within the later confirmations of 1265, 1297 and 1300. From 1265 there are very few examples. From 1297 and 1300 very many. Indeed, I have so far noted nearly forty of them.  Almost certainly many more will come to light. I hope to provide a list of this material in the second edition of this catalogue.

1

The great majority of the copies discussed below belong to the hundred years or so after 1215 but I also include some later examples.   

2

The statute books sometimes include registers of writs.

3

In particular I have let to look at some examples of the Henry III Charters mentioned in N. Ker, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1969-92) with volume 5 (indexes and addenda), ed. A. Watson and I. Cunnningham (2002).

The Copies of Magna Carta