The Magna Carta Project

Copies of Magna Carta in the Century After 1215

by David Carpenter



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 1225.1  Much more obscure is just how many unofficial copies of the Charters survive in the century after 1215. Yet the subject is central to the question of just how well the actual details of the Charters were known.  One aim of the Magna Carta project, therefore, has been to start the process of discovering and analysing copies.


A fundamental conclusion is already clear. The Charter, in its first phase, was far more than simply a vague symbol of good government. Its detail was well known and carefully studied. Numerous copies were made of the Charter in its various  incarnations.  Sometimes, especially with the 1215 Charter, these  copies were made from actual engrossments. In other cases, it is clear copies spawned copies. All told, the following census has a record of 116 copies of the Charter. Of these, while some are on single sheets of parchment, the majority are in cartularies, chronicles and unofficial collections of legislation and other legal material often called by historians (and called here) ‘statute books’.   The distinction between cartularies, chronicles and statute books  is not always clear cut as some volumes are hybrid in their nature. But, roughly speaking, around fifty copies are found in cartularies, around forty in statute books and around ten in chronicles. Thirty-one copies derive from the issue of 1215,  seven, associated with St Albans are hybrids of 1215 and 1217, six come from the Charter of 1216, twelve from the Charter of 1217, and thirty-seven from that of 1225, while eighteen are hybrids of 1217 and 1225.  Another five copies have the 1225 text but with chapters from the 1215 Charter, omitted in the subsequent versions, put back in.


The high number of 1215 copies might seem surprising. Whereas the charters of 1217 and 1225 were sent by the government to all the counties, King John had no wish to do the same; far better to keep quiet about the Charter’s pernicious contents.  Fortunately, the Magna Carta project has shed some light on how the 1215 Charter nonetheless became known.   Engrossments were sometimes written by episcopal rather than chancery scribes.2  The thirteen of which we have record were probably sent to the cathedrals, where they were far safer than had they gone to the sheriffs, the very people under the Charter's attack.3 Knowledge of the Charter was also spread through unofficial texts, many of them deriving from drafts produced by the negotiations at Runnymede. Indeed, of the thirty-one 1215 copies, twelve may descend from such sources.4


The small number of copies known from the Charter of 1216 is probably explained by its issue in the middle of a civil war (see Magna Carta 1216).  The much greater number of 1225 copies, compared to those of 1217, is explained by the very different quality of the two versions. The 1225 Charter was clearly superior for it was now a consensual document, part of a bargain between the king and his kingdom. As the Charter itself stated, it had been issued of the king's 'spontaneous and free will' in return for a tax conceded by everyone in the kingdom.   Significantly, most of the hybrid copies probably derive from 1217 texts altered to include these vital elements from 1225. The consensual nature of the 1225 Charter was also revealed in its witness list where, for the first time, all the great and good of the land found a place, whatever their side in the civil war. This made such an impact on the copyist at Cerne Abbey in Dorset (see Magna Carta 1225), that he wrote out the list in large letters, separating out bishops, earls, and barons, and decorating the whole with the occasional illuminated letter. He thus transformed what might have been a boring list of names into something full of meaning. He also celebrated the new charter by writing out its date  and place of issue in capitals:  DATA APUD WESTMONASTERIUM UNDECIMA DIE FEBRUARII ANNO REGNI  NOSTRI NONO.


The great majority of the copies surveyed were made in the hundred years after 1215, but occasionally later copies have been included. Almost certainly there remain many  to be discovered in  cartularies and statute books.  At present only one copy of the Charter is known in a secular cartulary, that belonging to  the Northamptonshire knightly family of (see Magna Carta 1225), but, in part at least, this reflects the way ecclesiastical cartularies are far more likely to survive. As it is, the religious institutions  with copies of the Charter  are dotted across England from  Tynemouth and York  in the north to  Glastonbury and Exeter in the westNumerous copies were also preserved in London.


It is clear from the number of copies that the 1215 Charter remained well known. It was neither superseded by later versions nor invalidated by the papal nullification. (The papal bull to that effect was never copied.)  There were some comments to the effect that the Charter had never been implemented, but that did not effect its validity.5 The heading to a copy in a Salisbury Cartulary said that the 1215 Charter was to be 'inviolably observed'.6 The copying thus kept alive the radical chapters  omitted in the watered down Charters of Henry III.  In its chapter twelve, the 1215 Charter stated that taxation needed the common consent of the kingdom. In chapter fourteen, it laid down how the assembly giving such consent should be summoned.  It was to these chapters that the barons appealed in 1255 when they thought parliament had been improperly summoned.7   Likewise in 1265 Simon de Montfort's constitution  echoed, down to some of its phraseology, the security clause of 1215, where  twenty-five barons were empowered to force the king to keep the Charter.8  

This chapter, as  Nigel Saul has shown, also  resonated with the opposition to Richard II.9


As the Cerne abbey example shows, the copying of the Charters was far from mindless. While some copies were written out in plain unadorned text, many others have the separate chapters  distinguished   by illuminated  paragraph marks and first letters.  The chapters can be numbered and their contents described both in marginal annotations and in tables at the start, thus giving a remarkable picture of the sheer range of the stipulations.10  Pointing hands and annotations likewise draw attention to chapters of particular interest: 'note concerning London' is found against the London chapter, not surprisingly in a London copy. The heading to a copy of the 1215  Charter in a Salisbury  cartulary drew attention to the chapter on weights and measures, a particular concern giving the importance of the Salisbury fair.  Description of the Charter in headings and its position in sections dealing with ecclesiastical liberties show its especial importance for the church.11


In a way familiar to students who studied, in days of old, Stubbs's Select Charters Illustrative of English Constitutional History, some of the copyists were fascinated by differences between the various versions.  When Matthew Paris at St Albans at last obtained a full copy of the 1215 Charter, he took great pains to correct (not altogether successfully) the version he had inherited from Roger of Wendover. In one statute book, there is a remarkable version of the Charter of 1225 with some of the missing chapters of 1215 being silently included.  As a result the Charter ended up with fifty-eight chapters rather than thirty-seven!12 Another copy on the same lines re-introduced the very chapters on consent to taxation appealed to by the barons in 1255.13 The copies also show an awareness of the changes made to the 1217 Charter in 1225.  Thus at Cerne abbey, its copy of the 1225 Charter was supplemented with  passages omitted from the Charter of 1217. In a London cartulary, the Charter of 1217 was followed by the sections added in 1225. Contemporaries  could see significance  in what might otherwise  seem mere tidying up of  the Charter's organization. The abbeys of Burton and Cerne both indicated they thought the clause  'saving to everyone the liberties they had before' was better in its 1217 position than in that to which it was moved in 1225.14  


All of this shows the value of viewing copies in the original, rather than relying on printed texts and summaries. Even when they exist, the latter often miss marginal comments, and say nothing about the appearance of the text.  With their decoration and fine hand writing some of the copies are works of art.


The search for copies of Magna Carta is ongoing so the following census is very much a preliminary statement.15 It begins with of the 1215 Magna Carta and then goes on to the copies of the Charters of 1216, 1217 (with a section about the Charter’s date and authorization) and 1225. There is a brief addendum about copies of the Charter issued by Simon de Montfort in 1265, copies which seem to indicate significant changes were made to the text. I also include discussion of a copy made in the seventeenth century from what may have been a now lost engrossment of the 1215 Charter.16  I give a full table of contents below. The census does not include the  numerous copies of Edward I's confirmations  of the 1225 Charter issued in 1297 and 1300. In compiling  the census  I have been greatly helped by information supplied by Sophie Ambler, Paul Brand,  Susan Reynolds  and Nicholas Vincent. The order within the various sections and subsections is for the most part alphabetical according to the place where a cartulary or chronicle was written. Where provenance is unknown, as in the case of most statute books, the ordering is alphabetical according to the current archive.17  


  For the engrossments, see N. Vincent, Magna Carta: Origins and Legacy (Oxford, 2015), pp. 206-230. The classic work on the Charter remains J.C. Holt’s Magna Carta (Cambridge, first edition, 1965, second edition, 1992, third edition, 2015). In what follows I give references to both the second and third edition.


  N. Vincent and D. Carpenter (with the expert guidance of Teresa Webber), ‘Who did (and did not) write Magna Carta’,


  That the engrossments went to cathedrals was first argued in by I. W. Rowlands, ‘The text and distribution of the writ for the publication of Magna Carta, 1215’, English Historical Review, 124 (2009), pp.1422-31. 


  For full discussion of the question of the drafts and the light they may throw on negotiations at Runnymede, see D. Carpenter, Magna Carta (Penguin Classics, 2015),  pp. 9-21, 344-7.


  See 1215 Magna Carta, (London’s Liber Custumarum MS B).


  See 1215 Magna Carta, (The Registrum of Lincoln cathedral, A Salisbury cathedral cartulary).


Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, ed. H.R. Luard, 7 volumes (Rolls Series, 1872-83), v, pp.520-1;  J.R. Maddicott,  The Origins of the English Parliament 924-1327 (Oxford, 2010), pp. 198-9, 471. 


  D.A. Carpenter, 'The secret revolution of 1258' in Baronial Reform and Revolution in England 1258-1267, ed. A Jobson (Woodbridge, 2016),  pp.41-2.


  N. Saul, ‘Magna Carta and the politics of the reign of Richard II’, For later study of Magna Carta, see Sir John Baker, The Reinvention of Magna Carta 1216-1616 (Cambridge, 2017), and Selected Readings and Commentaries on Magna Carta 1400-1604, ed. Sir John Baker (Selden Society, 132, 2015).  


  I have given the example found in the chronicle of Merton Abbey in full; see below pp.52-3.


  See 1215 Magna Carta, (Canterbury Register E; The Lincoln Registrum; Salisbury Liber Evidentiarum C).


  See 1225 Charter with Chapters from the Charter of 1215 (The Merton College Magna Carta). Here and elsewhere I have followed the conventional numbering of the Charter going back to Blackstone. For a discussion of the numbering see my Magna Carta (Penguin Classics, 2015), pp.22-3, 423.


  See 1225 Charter with Chapters from the Charter of 1215 (BL Harley 79). In the notes BL stands for British Library.


  See Magna Carta 1225.


  I had hoped to carry out further investigations and also check some of the details in the following census but, in the circumstances of 2020, that has been impossible.  I have not numbered the copies in the expectation more will be found.


  See 1215 Magna Carta (the Selden Magna Carta).


  With the 1215 and 1216 Charters I have collated all the copies word for word with the surviving engrossments, or in the case of 1216 the one surviving engrossment. I have not done the same with the copies of the 1217 and 1225 Charters and may therefore have sometimes missed significant variants.

The Copies of Magna Carta