Magna Carta

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 today?

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.

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