Happy 800th Birthday Magna Carta!

King John sealing Magna Carta

800 years ago today King John met the rebel Barons at Runnymede to sign and seal what would become known to posterity as Magna Carta, or the Great Charter. While King John may indeed have signed and sealed it on this day eight centuries ago, he had no intention of honoring it. He’d already made plans to appeal to the Pope to have the Charter nullified for having been signed under duress, which news he shared with his English subjects in early August of 1215 thus plunging the realm back into the turmoil of civil war. Fortunately for posterity, John would not outlive the conflict and upon his death in 1216, William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke and the newly appointed Regent to John’s son and now King, Henry III, reissued a revised version of the Charter. Marshall would again reissue it in 1217, and King Henry III would himself reissue it upon reaching his majority in 1225. It was only at this point in history that the Charter was titled Magna Carta in order to distinguish it from the Charter of the Forest clauses which had been reissued as a separate charter. Henry’s son, Edward I, would also reissue Magna Carta by having Parliament enact it in 1297 thereby securing its place in English legal history as the ‘first statute.’ It is in this later form that Magna Carta would come to be revered and appealed to as guaranteeing the rights of English, and later colonial American, subjects.

In honor of this 800th anniversary day, Georgetown Law Library is pleased to announce a small online collection of annotated late 16th and early 17th century imprints of the statutory compilation titled – Magna Carta cum Statutis. While all of Georgetown Law’s five annotated imprints have notations throughout in law-French, the professional language of English lawyers of the day, only three of them have extensive notations on the leaves containing Magna Carta and the 1608 imprint contains no notations about Magna Carta at all. The most extensive annotations are in copy 1 of the 1587 imprint that was signed by its owner on the title page – “Liber Richardi Bell de Grais Inn” [Richard Bell of Gray’s Inn’s book]. Complete images of all the leaves in these five imprints are available through Digital Georgetown.

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Bell’s notations on clause 29 (clauses 39 and 40 of the 1215 Charter), known today as the Due Process Clause.

We have also prepared a research guide on the history and legacy of Magna Carta. This guide includes links to treatises, articles, and books.

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