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Magna Carta

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Magna Carta is known as the first charter to limit the power of the king and to uphold the rights of the individual.

When King John agreed to the barons’ demands for peace at Runnymede in 1215, copies of the charter were made and sealed. They were distributed to sheriffs, cathedrals, and important religious houses throughout England. Lincoln Cathedral’s Magna Carta is one of only four surviving originals.

The Bishop of Lincoln, Hugh of Wells, was present at Runnymede, along with Lincolnshire’s Cardinal Archbishop Stephen Langton.  12th century Lincoln was a place of learning and quite possibly where Langton’s ideas took shape. Langton is credited with influencing the terms of the charter. In the years leading up to 1215, King John had angered Pope Innocent III by not recognising Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. As a result, the Pope put all of England under a papal interdict, withholding the sacraments – a severe punishment.  Meant to be a short-term measure, the Interdict lasted for five years, from 1209 to 1214, before King John agreed to the Pope’s demands.

In the stormy years after King John’s death, Magna Carta was re-issued as a royal pledge in 1216, and again in 1217, when the Charter of the Forest was issued with it. This charter amplifies clauses in Magna Carta concerning the rights of people living in royal forests. Two 1217 Forest Charters survive; one belongs to Lincoln Cathedral and the other, to Durham Cathedral.

Down the centuries, ‘the charters’ were invoked as a rallying cry at key moments when the king exceeded his powers, or due process of Law was violated.  It gave the American colonists ammunition against King George III, and it had a direct influence on the United States Bill of Rights and Constitution.  Its influence is worldwide.

Where can Magna Carta be seen?

The 1215 Magna Carta is currently displayed in the David PJ Ross Vault at Lincoln Castle. Like the cathedral, the castle was established by William the Conqueror. In 1068 the king ordered the building of a castle, and in 1072, a cathedral, both within Lincoln’s Roman walls. The castle was founded as a seat of justice, and the Crown Court still operates there.

Follow the link to the Visit Lincoln website to help plan your visit to both the Cathedral and Castle with our Joint Ticket offer.

Why the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta?

I quote from our forthcoming book:

‘In a sense, Lincoln is where the story of Magna Carta begins and ends.  A young Lincolnshire cleric called Stephen Langton studied at the schools of Lincoln Cathedral, and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. He instilled in Magna Carta his ideas on just kingship. But King John renounced Magna Carta within weeks of agreeing to it.  He cut a swathe through Lincolnshire in a civil war to save his throne.  Illness ended his life in Newark Castle, a residence of the bishops of Lincoln.  Fighting continued, until the climax was reached in a battle in Lincoln which defeated the French prince and rebel barons, asserting the succession of John’s son Henry III to the English throne.’

I also quote from Nicholas Vincent’s brilliant Very Short Introduction to Magna Carta:

‘A fourth and final original was brought to light at Lincoln Cathedral, printed in facsimile in the Statutes of the Realm in 1810, and henceforth used as the basis for most of the editions of Magna Carta published over the past two centuries. Its particular quality lies in the fact that it is written in an ‘official’ hand and has remained at Lincoln since the time of its first issue.’

Who does Magna Carta inspire?

Magna Carta sometimes travels abroad, where it acts as an ambassador for the Cathedral and City of Lincoln, promoting the principles enshrined in the document.  Recent exhibitions were at the Constitution Centre in Philadelphia and the Reagan Library in California. The Forest Charter stays in Lincoln.

The links with the United States are very important. At the outbreak of WWII it was being exhibited at the Library of Congress in the USA and it was held for safekeeping in Fort Knox for the duration before being handed back, having been seen by an estimated 15 million Americans. In 2013 The Dean of Lincoln addressed the Baronial Order of Magna Charta in Washington.

Each June, Lincoln Cathedral hosts a lecture on Magna Carta and its relevance today. Recent speakers include Terry Waite CBE; Rt Hon Frank Field MP; Baroness Butler-Sloss; Lord McNally; and most recently Baron Norton of Louth who asked the question: Is there still a place for the Barons?. This year’s lecture was given by Lord Phillips on 14 June. Follow this LINK to a report of what he said about Magna Carta: Myth and Reality.

Nationally and internationally, the Magna Carta 800th Committee is organisation and co-ordinating a whole raft of events to mark this significant anniversary. Follow this LINK to their website.

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