The sealing of Magna Carta was a turning point in British constitutional history, but are we marking its anniversary on the correct date? Was it really sealed on 15 June 1215? Two historians debate...


Yes, it is – Professor David Carpenter

The date 15 June seems fixed by Magna Carta itself. King John ends the Charter by stating that it has been “given by our hand in the meadow which is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines on the 15th day of June in the 17th year of our reign”.

This conclusion appears in all four surviving originals of the 1215 Magna Carta, and in the letter issued by Archbishop Langton and his fellow bishops setting out and guaranteeing the final text. The “given by the hand” formula is standard in royal charters: it indicates the day and place on which the ‘giver’ – either the king or a chancery official – authorised the drawing up and sealing of the charter in question, perhaps indeed by handing the final draft to the clerk who was going to write it out. King John, therefore, authorised the writing out and sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15 June 1215.

That all seems clear enough, yet distinguished historians have argued that the 15 June date is nothing more than “fictitious”. In their view, it took several more days for the details of the charter to be hammered out, and it was not till 19 June that John authorised its issue. If they are to be believed, we should not be celebrating the anniversary of Magna Carta on 15 June.

The argument for a later date for Magna Carta was propounded by Sir James Holt in both the first and second editions (1965/1992) of his magisterial book Magna Carta. His opinions have not gone unchallenged. In a paper in 1996 and in my own book Magna Carta, recently published in the Penguin Classics series, I have sought to vindicate the 15 June date. The debate, however, continues.

In their introduction to the third edition of Holt’s Magna Carta, which appears this year, George Garnett and John Hudson – two of Holt’s former pupils – have revived and reinforced his arguments. Garnett and Hudson are formidable historians. Their arguments are powerful, and need to be taken very seriously. Everyone, moreover, would agree that the evidence permits differences of view, and prevents absolute conclusions.

If it is any comfort to those gathering this year at Runnymede, I still think the most likely scenario is that John did indeed authorise the writing out and sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. But others may come to a different conclusion.

What, then, are the arguments against the 15 June date? The most central is that it was not till 19 June that peace was actually made between John and his opponents. On this day, it’s said that John’s opponents reentered his allegiance. This, so the argument goes, is incompatible with the charter being agreed on the 15th, for, if it was, there is an inexplicable hiatus before the peace on the 19th.

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What, then, are the arguments against the 15 June date? The most central is that it was not till 19 June that peace was actually made between John and his opponent

The two events must surely have been more or less simultaneous, since John would never have granted the charter to those still in rebellion against him. Magna Carta, therefore, cannot have been issued earlier than 19 June. How, then, to explain its 15 June date? Here it is worth saying that chancery practice was not set in stone. Indeed, it is possible that the date in the charter recorded not its authorization, but some other event. This is what Garnett and Hudson believe.

Their reconstruction is as follows: On 10 June, King John renewed the truce covering the negotiations, until the morning of 15 June. This created a ‘deadline’ for the reaching of some sort of preliminary deal. The deal was indeed achieved, and can be seen in a “penultimate draft of the charter” (preserved in a later copy) dated to 15 June, and “given” by John not at Runnymede, but at Windsor.

The charter was now in place, however much there was still disagreement over some details. It was this “penultimate draft” that gave its date to the charter, although negotiations continued until a final settlement was reached on the 19th. As evidence for their continuation, Garnett and Hudson cite a later copy of the charter, which bears the date 16 June and still has detailed differences from the final authorised version.

Part of the original Magna Carta from the issue made in 1300 by King Edward l to the borough of Sandwich in Kent. The document was discovered in the archives at Kent County Council's Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone. (Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)

Set out like this, the arguments against 15 June seem formidable, yet I believe they can all be countered. Take the truce being prolonged on 10 June until the morning of the 15th. This seems to fit as well, if not better, with the deadline being for the charter itself to be agreed, rather than simply some sort of preliminary deal.

One also wonders why four days later, on the 19th, it was thought worth recalling, in the date of Magna Carta, what had happened on the 15th. After all, the 15th, in Garnett and Hudson’s own account, had been a day of failure; a day when it had not been possible to reach a final agreement. Debate continued over the size of the baronial inheritance tax, the scope of the chapter on fines, and the ban against John appealing to the pope.

These were important and contentious issues. In Garnett and Hudson’s scenario it took another four days before agreement could be reached. It is hard to see why, when that at last happened on the 19th, the charter was given the date of “some sort of preliminary deal” four days earlier rather than the date of the final deal itself.

It is also difficult to see how the “penultimate draft” (if indeed it was that) could have been taken as the authorisation of the final charter, thus providing another reason for preserving its date. There are significant differences between the two: on the final charter the baronial inheritance tax is raised from 100 marks to £100; the chapter on fines is widened in scope, and most importantly of all, the king is no longer banned from appealing to the pope.

There is no problem about these details having been changed on the morning of the 15th, but once they were and the charter was agreed, John must then have authorised its issue in its final form. If that authorization took place later than 15 June, why does the charter not say so? It is not as though the dating clauses in royal charters were frozen and formulaic. The place and date changed constantly. Yet at Runnymede, if Garnett and Hudson are right, the document whose text was solemnly guaranteed by Langton and the bishops, was given the correct place for its authorisation (Runnymede) but was left with the wrong date – one four days too soon. As I have said, chancery practice varied, and such a contradiction is not impossible, but no strong grounds have been advanced for thinking it took place in this case.

If, then, there remain reasons for accepting the 15 June date for Magna Carta, how does one explain the four-day delay before the peace? My explanation here is that, having accepted the charter on the 15th, the baronial leaders found it very difficult to bring the general body of barons and knights encamped at Runnymede in behind the settlement. Hence the hiatus.

Garnett and Hudson discount this hypothesis. The leaders, they point out, were not isolated, and were well able to carry their followers with them. Yet this idea is at odds with the Crowland chronicler, who says that some of the Northerners, on the pretense they had not been at Runnymede, went home and resumed the war. Evidently they were dissatisfied with the deal struck.

Indeed, so little was there coherence and consensus, that at the time John authorised Magna Carta, the barons had been unable to choose the 25 of their number who were to enforce it. As the charter makes clear, that choice was still in the future. In these circumstances, it is easy to believe that it was not till the 19thh, after indeed John had made further concessions, that peace could at last be proclaimed.

Why then was John prepared to authorise and issue the charter before the peace? Surely he would never have granted liberties to those still in rebellion against him. But in authorising the charter on 15 June, he was doing no such thing. The nearest parallel is 1216 when his son, Henry III, issued his first version of Magna Carta, although half the kingdom was in rebellion against him. Neither king was making concessions to rebels. It was only when rebels returned to the king’s allegiance that they would enjoy the liberties granted in the charter.

After the baronial negotiators at Runnymede had agreed the charter’s terms, John perhaps assumed that the peace would go through at once and without difficulty. But, deeply suspicious as he was, perhaps he also had doubts – hence the stipulation that it would only be “after the peace” that he would dismiss his mercenaries. John hoped and believed the charter would bring peace, but if it was rejected he would at least have split the baronial party, embellished his reputation as a benevolent king, and established the best possible position for continuing the war.

A possible sequence of events on 15 June is thus as follows: early in the morning (sunrise was before 5am), John moved from his base at Windsor castle to Runnymede, three-and-a-half miles away. The negotiations were concluded and John authorised, or “gave by his hand”, the final charter. If this was before noon, there was just time for the clerks to write out the charter (it reportedly took about eight hours) before the end of the day, even if they were based at Windsor rather than at Runnymede.

On the other hand, it is equally possible that finished charters did not appear until the 16th. That would certainly have been the case if the negotiations did not conclude until late on the day before.

This brings us finally to the question of why there are copies (as opposed to originals) of the charter that bear the date 16 June. Many later copies were made of the 1215 charter – they are found in monastic registers, chronicles and legal collections. Some of these copies are of the final, authorised version, while others are variants containing what seem to be material from drafts. Both types can have as a date either 15 or 16 June.

The explanation for 16 June is most probably that it was the date given to unofficial copies of the charter written up on that day. Occasionally even in official chancery practice, royal documents bore the date on which they were written, rather than the date on which they were authorised. That one copy with a 16 June date still has the baronial inheritance tax at 100 marks rather than £100 could indicate discontent with the settlement that had just been reached.

On the other hand, it is just as likely that unofficial copies were made from draft material without any precise awareness of how it differed from the final, authorised version. Whatever the truth here, variant copies with the 16 June date provide a slender basis for thinking that formal negotiations were still ongoing.

A great debt is owed to Garnett and Hudson for reviving and re-invigorating the debate over the date of Magna Carta. I hope many will be encouraged to test out the rival hypotheses. I cannot give any absolute assurance that the great and good are marking the anniversary of Magna Carta on the right day. On the balance of the evidence and argument, however, I believe that yes, they are!

David Carpenter is a professor of medieval history at King's College London, and author of Magna Carta (Penguin Classics), which came out in paperback in January. To find out more, click here.

No, it is not – Professor George Garnett

As Jim Holt knew well from his experiences in the army during the Second World War, when you are under sustained attack it is very important to be in the right company. Redoubtable an historian though David Carpenter is, most especially of Magna Carta, it is difficult to conceive of a more formidable comrade-in-arms than Holt. In that, John Hudson [co-author of Magna Carta, 2015] and I take some comfort.

When we were invited to produce a third edition of Holt’s classic work, we decided that we would make no changes to his text, other than to correct obvious mistakes. We would confine alterations, amplifications, disagreements, and new directions to an extensive editors’ introduction. There, we would be at liberty to differ from the text that he had last revised in 1992.

Like Holt himself, we were much impressed with David Carpenter’s recent work on Magna Carta, which has, since we wrote the introduction, culminated in his massive yet immensely readable book. Unlike Holt, we were initially minded to agree with Carpenter about a central aspect of this work – his re-dating of the document itself. This might appear to be a matter of pedantic, scholarly detail; but it is not. On the question of the date depends an assessment of how negotiations proceeded in those 10 crucial days approaching midsummer 1215 – days for which the chronicle record is strikingly sketchy.

Magna Carta memorial at Runnymede. (Photo by Peter Lane/Alamy)

Carpenter’s meticulously argued revision all seemed so beautifully simple: the date in the dating clause of the extant engrossments of 1215 was the date of the document, Monday 15 June 1215. When something seems simple and obvious once it has been explained, it is generally right. On this particular issue, we envisaged that we would be disagreeing with Holt in our introduction, rather than elaborating or supplementing him.

But as all historians know well, there is all the difference in the world between finding something plausible on reading it, and formulating an argument on paper. There is no better (because no more painful) way of thinking something through. At this point I should come clean, and admit that the section of our introduction about dating was written by me (though – like this response – read, criticised, and approved by John Hudson), so I must take primary responsibility for it. And the more I agonised and reformulated, the more I thought that Holt was right after all. This is why.

A charter was envisaged as the diplomatic form of the settlement in that much amended, apparently incomplete, but sealed (though undated) negotiating document now known as the ‘Articles of the Barons’. The articles takes the form of a petition, not a charter. Stephen Langton appears to have stuffed it into his pocket – or whatever passed for the archbishop of Canterbury’s pocket in the 13th century– as a souvenir after it had been superseded in the rush of events. For complicated reasons it is likely (though not certain) that this document was sealed on the king’s behalf on Wednesday 10 June, although it was quite unprecedented for petitions to the king to be sealed on the king’s behalf.

The point was to prove that the king had accepted this statement of capitula (‘heads’, though now by scholarly convention ‘articles’) of agreement, as the basis for further negotiation. The document was the work of a single scribe – very probably a royal Chancery scribe – and it was evidently the product of a great deal of previous haggling. There are no scratchings out, but the scribe left space for insertions, and he evidently laid it out in such a way as to make it easy for readers to find particular chapters quickly.

It was therefore a late draft, but designed to facilitate further work. For whatever reason, there was no time or inclination to draw up a fairer copy for sealing. Everyone was in far too much of a hurry.

Now although it is not absolutely certain that 10 June was the date of the articles, it is certain that on that day the king prolonged a truce for his opponents until the morning of 15 June. Truces were usually measured in units of whole days. That this one was not suggests that on 10 June, as the articles was probably being sealed at Runnymede, it was anticipated that something dramatic would have happened (or not) by midday at the latest on 15 June.

Although it is not absolutely certain that 10 June was the date of the articles, it is certain that on that day the king prolonged a truce for his opponents until the morning of 15 June

By inference, the purpose of the truce was to enable negotiations to proceed only up to that deadline, on the basis of the petition that the king had unprecedentedly allowed to be sealed. The reason why that particular deadline had been set so punctiliously is now irrecoverable. It may well have seemed sacrilegious to stipulate that a truce should expire on Trinity Sunday, but that would not explain why the truce should not be allowed to run for the whole of the following day. After all, the previous truce, issued on 8 June, had been set to expire at the end of 11 June. Its replacement’s expiry point on 15 June must have been agreed at Runnymede on 10 June. So must the fact that the articles twice mentioned that the envisaged agreement between the king and his opponents would be recorded in a charter.

The text of that charter, we contend, was the draft copied into a late 13th-century statute book that VH Galbraith unearthed in California in 1967. It is demonstrably a draft from June 1215, because it contains several provisions that are intermediate between those in the articles and those in the surviving engrossments of Magna Carta of 1215.

Moreover, the scribe’s minor errors reveal that he was copying unthinkingly, not confecting something new. Like those engrossments, its dating clause records that it was “given by [King John’s] own hand” on 15 June, but unlike them, at Windsor – presumably in the royal castle – rather than “on the meadow which is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines”. We have suggested that this was the fruit of the negotiations covered by the truce issued on 10 June.

These had, in various respects, moved on from the details hammered out in the articles, and the whole draft settlement had by now been recast in charter form, as the articles had ordained. If I am right, this draft was ready by the expiry of the truce on the morning of 15 June. Stephen Langton could slip the now superseded articles into his pocket.

But if the date in a later copy is to be taken seriously, why discount the date given in all four surviving engrossments of 1215? One reason is a matter of practicality. Many of the details shared by all those extant engrossments represent further amendments to the draft text dated to Windsor on 15 June, and if I am right, probably in the morning. These details are likely to have been the subject of very intense negotiation in the following hours and days.

We know that John was at Windsor Castle to celebrate Trinity Sunday on 14 June; that he commuted to Runnymede, three-and-a-half miles away, on 15 June, presumably after lunch, and that he returned to Windsor that evening. Would it have been possible during that very busy day to have negotiated on the basis of the draft text, and agreed substantial and detailed revisions to it, to be authorised in an amended text cleared for issue by the king on the meadow at Runnymede that very same afternoon?

The most authoritative estimate of the time needed to copy out an engrossment of Magna Carta is eight hours, so it is inconceivable that any were ready for sealing that day on the meadow, even if we imagine that the Chancery clerks carted all their paraphernalia back and forth with them in the king’s train.

The physical impossibility of producing engrossments in the time available does not in itself preclude the agreement that afternoon to amendments to the morning’s draft. Yet despite the propensity of negotiations to accelerate towards their conclusion, and the possibility of a sudden breakthrough, it seems highly unlikely that so much could have been settled in a few hours, given the eyeball-to-eyeball nature of the wrangling which had been going on for many days.

Furthermore, another 13th-century copy of a putative draft, added to a contemporary legal collection, is dated 16 June; it shares one, and only one, of the intermediate variants of the Windsor draft. All the other variants of the previous day’s draft have been amended to the form found in the final engrossments. If the date may be trusted, and if the copy is reliable – palaeographers date the hand in which it is added to the collection early in the century, so it is a very early copy – this suggests that negotiation continued into 16 June, by which point some of the contentious provisional settlements of the previous day had been further amended.

It is difficult to conceive of circumstances in which a version antecedent to the final one should have been produced on the day after the final one had been definitively settled. But before too much weight is placed on this evidence, it needs to be repeated that the date in this copy is written in larger letters than the rest of the clause, and appears to have been inserted by a different scribe.

The other reason for rejecting 15 June as the date on which the final text of Magna Carta was authorised is not a matter of textual detail: however far negotiations had got by that date, there was still no formal peace between the king and his opponents. They had renounced their bond of faith with John, and so were not his men. They were assembled in arms on the meadow. They would not become his men again until Friday 19 June, when the “firm peace” first predicted in a writ of 18 June (and therefore already pre-arranged by that date) was established by the renewal of homage.

There is plenty of evidence that 19 June was the day on which homage was re-done, and therefore peace renewed. It remains, as Holt argued, inconceivable that John would have authorised the issue of the charter while his enemies were, formally speaking, still at war with him (though they would also have needed reassurance that once they had renewed their homage, John would not be able to renege on the agreed charter).

The oath prescribed in cap 63 Magna Carta, to be taken by the barons as well as the king, secured the terms of the settlement. Cap 62, which provides a pardon for all beaches of peace committed between Easter 1215 and the “re-establishment of peace”, strongly implies that these oaths were sworn only after the renewal of homage. If all this is true, and the final text was authorised on 19 June, the question remains why it preserved the Windsor draft Charter’s date of 15 June, if not its place.

The answer must be that the draft charter was accepted on 15 June as the basis for the settlement. This had not happened in Windsor Castle, where the draft was written up, but at Runnymede in the afternoon, where John had accepted the articles five days before. The articles had now been reformulated as a charter, as John’s opponents had long been demanding, but the fine-tuning that remained to be done took several further days, while other contentious matters not covered by the charter – castles, hostages, etc – were also being thrashed out.

It is striking that most of the last-minute alterations incorporated in the charter shifted the terms in the king’s favour, so he evidently had skillful negotiators acting on his behalf. When these parallel negotiations had been completed, the final version of the charter was retrospectively dated from the point at which the draft had been accepted as the basis of the settlement in the requisite charter form. The Windsor draft thus played the part of a heavily revised articles, accepted by both sides as something approaching the final terms of the settlement. Unlike the articles, it was dated.

By 15 June, negotiations had reached a stage that rendered unnecessary the renewal of the truce that had expired that morning. The retrospective dating of the final charter served to bridge the gap between the acceptance of the Windsor draft at Runnymede on the afternoon of 15 June and the final settlement – a gap during which the refinement of the terms continued.

David Carpenter himself seems to accept something of the sort, when he writes that on 15 June “[t]he Charter was now in place, however much there was still disagreement over some details”. Adamant as he is that there was no “original”, it is difficult to conceive precisely what form of charter was, in his view, “now in place” on 15 June. Nevertheless, thanks to his unearthing of numerous later copies of the 1215 charter, it may well be possible to re-construct some of the details of these intense negotiations, if some of the variations can be interpreted as evidence of intermediate drafting. As Holt wrote in 1992, “[d]raft versions of the Charter constitute the most intriguing problem of all.” But there is no space to begin that exploration here.

One of the lessons of this anniversary year is that key pieces of evidence can still come to light – a whole engrossment of the reissue of 1300 was found by Nicholas Vincent in Kent Record Office. It may well be that something else will, and that it will demonstrate either that David Carpenter is right, or that I am right, or that neither of us is right! What we should celebrate is the interest the anniversary has provoked in a type of medieval history that has been dismissed by some current historians as outdated, indeed obsolete – the sort of thing in which Victorians were interested, and which we sophisticated moderns should have moved beyond.

What we have been reminded about is how central these matters were to the way in which people thought in 13th-century England. And the current disagreement between David Carpenter and myself demonstrates that many important questions remain to be settled; that there is still much work to be done. Attempting to settle them will reveal still more about medieval political thinking and practice.

George Garnett is a professor of medieval history at the University of Oxford. He is the co-author (with John Hudson) of a revised edition of John Holt's classic study of Magna Carta


This article was first published on HistoryExtra in June 2015