The Magna Carta Project

The date of Magna Carta 1217

There has always been a puzzle about the date of Magna Carta 1217. None of the four surviving engrossments have a ‘giving’ clause with its attendant place and date of issue. That is equally true of one of the two engrossments of the accompanying Charter of the Forest. The other engrossment of the Forest Charter, that now at Durham, although damaged clearly ended with the statement that it has been given by the legate Guala and the regent, William Marshal, on a day in November in the second year of the king’s reign, so November 1217. Since Magna Carta has the same preamble as the Forest Charter and, from internal evidence, the two were clearly conceived together, it seems safe to date Magna Carta itself to November 1217.  The reason why the four surviving engrossments of Magna Carta and one of those of the Forest Charter were left without a ‘giving’ clause may be because they all date from a circulation of the Charters in 1218.1

Probably it would be both safe and wise to leave the subject at that. However, since the efforts to provide a more precise date have depended on copies of the Charters, something more is ventured here. Nearly all modern printed texts of both Magna Carta and the Forest Charter have them issued at St Paul’s on 6 November 1217.

The most authoritative statement of this, when it comes to the Forest Charter (from which the date in Magna Carta, as we have seen, derives), is found in the text published in Statutes of the Realm (Record Commission, 1810), i, p.21.  This ends (with abbreviations expanded) as follows:

‘Datum per manus predictorum Domini Legati et Willelmo Marescalli apud Sanctum Paulum Londoniis Sexto die Novembris, Anno Regni nostri secundo.’

The table of contents to Statutes of the Realm explains that the words placed here ‘in the Italic Character’, ‘destroyed by time or accident’ in the original, have been ‘suggested’ by copies of the Charter. We will say something about these copies in a moment, but first it should be observed that the statement of the surviving text, as indicated by the non-italicized letters, is not accurate. The text indicates that the ‘S’ in ‘Sexto’ is found in the Durham engrossment. Yet it clearly is not. Instead, both in the engraving produced in Statutes of the Realm and in the excellent photograph in N. Vincent, The Magna Carta (Sotheby’s, New York, 2007), p.75, the letter appears to be a ‘Q’. The space, moreover, between the first letter, whatever it is, and ‘Novembris’ is certainly too long for ‘exto, whereas it would accommodate ‘uattuordecimo’ or ‘uintodecimo’.

What then of the text derived from the copies? Here the table of contents in Statutes of the Realm reads as follows.

‘The Words and Letters requisite to Supply the Deficiencies are suggested from Copies of the Charter of the Forest in Lib. X fo.18, at the Exchequer at Westminster; in the Black Book of the Cathedral of Christ-Church Dublin; and in the Domesday Book of the Cathedral of York.’     

Significant words here are ‘are suggested from’. They contrast with the deficiencies made good in other Charters, where the missing words are said, in the Table of Contents, to be ‘supplied from’ copies. The ‘suggested’ seems rather to imply that the italicized words in the Forest Charter may not correspond exactly to what is found in the copies. This is, in fact, all too true. Indeed not one of the copies cited (if I have identified them all correctly) have the Charter being given by the legate and William Marshal. The York Domesday Book (L2/ 2a), fos.282-283v and 331-2 has two copies of the Forest Charter. Both are said to be sealed by the legate and the Marshal, but neither has a ‘giving’ clause or a date. The copy in the Black Book of Dublin (f.167v) has neither a sealing nor a ‘giving’ clause, and ends with the statement ‘ut supra in fine alterius carte’. This refers back to the copy of the 1217 Charter (f.166v), which is in fact a hybrid text combining elements from 1217 and 1225. Here, however, we do now find the Charter being  given at St Pauls on 6 November but the ‘givers’ are not the legate and the Marshal. Instead the giver is Richard Marsh, bishop of Durham, the king’s chancellor. The final copy cited in support of the reading is that of the Charter of the Forest in Lib. X fo.18, at the Exchequer at Westminster. I am grateful to Drs Paul Dryburgh and Jessica Nelson of The National Archives for suggesting that the reference is to E 164/ 9-11, since these are Statute Books which were used by the makers of Statutes of the Realm. I cannot, however, find any reference to the Forest Charter in E 164/ 10. It does appear, however, in E 164/ 9 between fos.xviii verso and xix (so this matches up with the cited folio). However, the copy of the Forest Charter there has no sealing and ‘giving’ clause and again simply refers back to the earlier copy of Magna Carta. Here, in what is again a hybrid text, the end is the same as in the Dublin copy. In other words, the Charter is given on 6 November at St Pauls by Richard Marsh.

Since the Durham engrossment of the Forest Charter shows there was a giving clause, that William Marshal was one of the givers, and that there was space in the damaged section for another name, it was reasonable (and almost certainly correct) for the Statutes of the Realm to supply the legate’s name, the more especially as he sealed the Charter with the Marshal and, with him, gave the earlier Charter of 1216. It was wrong, however, to indicate that the reading was supported by the cited copies. More egregious was the insertion of the 6 November date. This was taken from copies of Magna Carta to which copies of the Forest Charter were linked (although the ‘giver’ was Marsh) and thus had some warrant, but it had no justification in a copy based on the Durham engrossment where, as have seen, the first letter of the date was probably ‘Q’ and was certainly not ‘S’. To print the ‘S’ as though it appears in the  Durham engrossment was at best wishful thinking.

It is difficult to know how to interpret this evidence. If engrossments of Magna Carta were issued in November 1217, as surely they were, it is not impossible that Marsh appeared in them as the giver on 6 November. The copies mentioned above, in which he features as such, are but two of a much larger company.2  That all of these are hybrid versions, with elements from 1217 and 1225, is not necessarily fatal to the hypothesis. On the other hand, the fact that the legate and the Marshal appear as givers in the November 1217 Forest Charter suggests that they acted as ‘givers’ for Magna Carta as well. That the Forest Charter in question was destined for Marsh’s own see at Durham, and thus might above all have been one he would ‘give’, slightly strengthens the case. If the legate and the Marshal did act, then the copies in which Marsh appears as ‘giver’ presumably derived from drafts. There is, however, one further complicating factor. The Durham Forest Charter was given by Guala and the Marshal at St Paul’s apparently on 14 or 15 November. Yet this is an impossible date because by then they had left London. One can only suppose that here the clerk was dating the Charter by the day of its engrossment rather than the day of its ‘giving’. 6 November, by contrast, was a day when Guala and the Marshal could indeed have given the Charter at St Pauls. If they did so, however, few engrossments were circulated for no copies have so far come to light of Magna Carta and the Forest Charter with them as ‘givers’, either on 6 November or on any other date. By contrast, as we have said, there are numerous copies with Marsh acting on 6 November. On the other hand, at least the legate and the Marshal do appear in one engrossment. Marsh appears in none. It is possible that new discoveries will shed more light on this puzzling subject.

In what follows I include examples of the 1217 Charter of the Forest. None of the copies have a ‘giving’ clause and thus a date.


D. A. Carpenter, The Minority of Henry III (London, 1990), pp.73-4.


Marsh appears chiefly as giving Magna Carta but see below for him giving the Charter of the Forest.

The Copies of Magna Carta