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Magna Carta 1215-2015

14th century copy of Magna Carta at SJCThis year marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Created in 1215 by King John in response to the demands of his barons it was regarded at the time as quick fix to the political crisis the kingdom faced.  

The great charter’s enduring significance was that it founded the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law.

Despite Magna Carta’s enduring legacy as a foundation for modern democratic constitutions much of the document had either been repealed or re-written within 10 years of its issue.

Many of the original clauses tackled unique and regional issues and objections relating to his rule. But, within these clauses was hidden the concept that the absolutism of the monarchy could be challenged – something which would prove useful in the future.

Documents such as the United States Bill of Rights (1791) and many other constitutional documents around the world, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) reflect Magna Carta’s clause on the rights of ‘free men’ to justice and a fair trial.

Once the charter was ‘signed’ with the Great Seal, the royal clerks went to work making copies of the agreement for circulation throughout the kingdom.

It is not known for certain how many official copies of the 1215 Magna Carta were originally issued, but four copies still survive: one in Lincoln Cathedral; one in Salisbury Cathedral; and two at the British Library.

Over the years a number of partial copies have been discovered usually as part of another document. It has recently come to light that a copy of the 1300 Magna Carta and the Forest Charter is held in the College’s Archive Collection (SJAC/D98/46 in 38 clauses). It is part of a roll from the early to mid-14th century stitched together with a lawyer’s copy of the assize of bread and ale.

14th century copy of Magna Carta at SJC

For more information on the Magna Carta celebrations see:

The British Library: Magna Carta

The Magna Carta Project: The University of East Anglia


This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 28 January 2015 by the Archivist.