6 facts about Magna Carta

How much do you know about the medieval document Magna Carta? Here, we bring you the facts...

An illustration of the barons compelling King John to ratify Magna Carta, 1215. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
1

What is Magna Carta?

Magna Carta is a 13th-century document enshrining the rights, privileges and liberties of the clergy and the nobles, and placing limits on the power of the crown. Most of the 63 clauses deal with the administration of justice, and the detail of feudal rights and customs.

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An illustration depicting King John signing Magna Carta in 1215. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

2

When was it signed?

Magna Carta was signed by King John on 15 June 1215. The document was drawn up after his barons rebelled and forced him to agree to limitations on his power, because he had demanded heavy taxes to fund his unsuccessful wars in France.

Much significance was placed on Magna Carta in later years, but at the time it was primarily “a practical solution to a political crisis which primarily served the interests of the highest ranks of feudal society by reasserting the power of custom to limit despotic behaviour by the king”, the British Library explains.

King John hunting on horseback, 14th century. The contention that his badness was a later invention simply doesn't stack up, argues Marc Morris. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

3

Are any Magna Carta laws still in use today?

Only three of the original clauses in Magna Carta are still law. One defends the freedom and rights of the English church; another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns; and the third paved the way for trial by jury by stating that no man could be arrested, imprisoned or have their possessions taken away except by “the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land”.

Magna Carta was – and continues to be – significant because it placed limits on royal authority, and made clear that the monarch was not above the law.

An illustration from an 11th-century manuscript depicting a king and his minister doing justice, c1050. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

4

What was Magna Carta written on?

Magna Carta was written on parchment, which was made from dried sheepskin. The scribes who produced it wrote in medieval Latin and abbreviated words to save space on the parchment, says the British Library.

5

How many copies survive?

Many copies of the document were sent out to bishops and sheriffs across the country. The exact number is unknown, but four survive: one in Lincoln, one in Salisbury, and two in the British Library.

A c1850 satirical illustration of King John signing Magna Charta. (Photo by the Print Collector/Getty Images)

6

What happened after Magna Carta was signed?

By August 1215, Pope Innocent III had annulled Magna Carta, declaring it null and void and having been sealed under duress. King John died of dysentery aged 50 in October that year. But, says Magna Carta 800th, “over the course of the next 800 years, the idea of Magna Carta gathered momentum and assumed a greater authority in respect of the central key clauses concerning liberty and justice.

“These central clauses, usually referred to as 38 and 39, have not only stood the test of time, but have a potency of their own which has seen off hundreds of attempts at annulment, repeal, modification and suspension by successive monarchs and governments”.

Read more about Magna Carta by clicking here.

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This article was first published by History Extra in 2014