In February, 2015, the number of known surviving versions of Magna Carta from the thirteenth century increased to twenty-four with the announcement that an edition of Magna Carta from 1300 had been discovered in the archives of the English town of Sandwich. The document was found in a Victorian era scrapbook and although it is damaged with over one third of the script missing, initial estimates place the document’s value at over £10m. There are now seven known surviving versions of Magna Carta from 1300, the most editions of the Great Charter from a single year.
The discovery in Sandwich is particularly significant because a version of the Great Charter’s companion document, the Charter of the Forest, which was issued at the same time, was found along with Magna Carta. Surviving versions of the Charter of the Forest are even rarer than Magna Carta. In addition to Sandwich, only Oriel College at Oxford University and Durham Cathedral can lay claim to possession of 1300 issuances of both Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest. In contrast to the badly damaged Sandwich documents, the Durham Cathedral Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest are both in excellent condition with their text completely intact.
While Magna Carta is famous throughout the English speaking world, the Great Charter is not typically associated with the year 1300 in popular imagination. The classic image of the ratification of Magna Carta depicts a reluctant King John surrounded by rebel barons and churchmen at Runnymede Meadow in 1215. Magna Carta was in fact regularly reissued during the reigns of John’s successors Henry III and Edward I. Changes were made to the document over the course of the thirteenth century, removing clauses that reflected the unique political circumstances of John’s reign and emphasizing the provisions related to the rule of law. By 1300, the last year Magna Carta was formally reissued with the monarch’s seal, the document had transcended its times and developed into a foundation document for rule of law, trial by peers and freedom from arbitrary rule.
Edward I was a far more successful monarch that his grandfather, John, or his father, Henry III. He had imposing physical presence and was nicknamed “Longshanks,” meaning long legs, because at six feet, two inches, he towered over most of his subjects. Edward was the first English monarch since the Norman Conquest of 1066 to succeed to the throne without serious opposition from another contender. When Henry III died in 1272, Edward and his queen, Eleanor of Castile were on the 9th Crusade but there were no attempts to seize the throne in the new king’s absence. As well, in contrast to his immediate predecessors, Edward was a successful military leader, which was the one of the most important roles of medieval monarchs.
In addition to his military acumen, Edward was also a shrewd statesman and recognized the need to work with the barons, the church and the commons to ensure both social stability and tax revenues that were necessary to fight and fund his wars with Wales and Scotland. Although Edward had led the troops that had defeated and killed Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham (de Montfort being the driving force behind the first recognized parliament in 1265), he called parliaments with a similar broad composition to the de Montfort Parliament. In his personal life, Edward avoided the reputation for immorality that had defined his grandfather, John. His wife Eleanor accompanied him on his military campaigns and when she died in 1290, Edward commissioned the Eleanor crosses as a memorial and wrote to Cluny Abbey in Aquitaine requesting prayers for his late wife, “whom living we dearly cherished, and whom dead we cannot cease to love.”
Although Edward I was arguably the most successful ruler of the three thirteenth century English kings, he was criticized for acquisitiveness during his own lifetime and in contemporary chronicles for both anti-Semitism and oppressive treatment of the Welsh and Scots. A popular rhyme from Edward’s reign was “The king desires to get our gold/the queen, our manors fair to hold” referring to the taxes levied in order to fund Edward’s war and Eleanor’s growing landholdings. Edward’s determination to increase his revenues informed his decision to expel England’s Jewish population in 1290. The Edict of Expulsion enabled the king and queen to seize the property of the expelled Jewish population, which numbered around 2,000, and collect on debts owed to them. Jewish immigration to England was forbidden until the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s.
Edward was proud of his conquest of Wales and invasion of Scotland – his tomb in Westminster Abbey bears the inscription “Here is Edward I, Hammer of the Scots” – but he is now denounced for his harsh treatment of the Welsh and Scots. During Edward’s reign, Wales ceased to be an independent principality and England interfered with Scottish succession and invaded the country repeatedly. The most well-known depiction of Edward in modern popular culture is as the villain of Mel Gibson’s 1995 film “Braveheart,” plotting to deprive Scotland of its freedom.
For Edward I’s barons, the price of their financial and military support for the Welsh and Scottish campaigns was the king’s guarantee that he would call regular parliaments and observe the rule of law throughout England as codified in Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. According to one chronicler, the Worcester Annalist, the barons in parliament came to a consensus in 1300 that “when we have secure possession of our forests and liberties, often promised to us, then we will willingly give a twentieth, so that the folly of the Scots may be dealt with.” Edward duly reissued Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest in 1300 and versions of the document, engrossed with the king’s seal, were distributed throughout the kingdom.
By reissuing Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest numerous times over the course of his reign, Edward made a public statement that he was committed to the rule of law in England, challenging those who questioned his financial and military demands on his subjects. Edward I took measures to ensure the terms of both Charters were accessible to his subjects and rigorously enforced as part of the legal fabric of his kingdom. In 1297, an accompanying document known as the “Confirmation of Charters” made one of the earliest references to freedom from arbitrary taxation. In 1300, the Charters were reissued with “The Articles upon the Charters,” which provided guidance for local sheriffs regarding enforcement of the terms of each charter and decreed that both documents should be read aloud four times per year in county courts. Edward became so closely associated with both Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest that when he attempted to create new royal forests in violation of the Forest Charter, chroniclers of the period accused him of “perjury.”
Although reissues of Magna Carta were written in Latin, the language of the church and state bureaucracy through the Middle Ages, the document would have been read to ordinary people in Middle English, which combined elements of Old English and Norman French, the court language since 1066. The fourteenth century saw the transformation of Middle English from a vernacular tongue for commoners to a literary language with the writing of Geoffrey Chaucer, who composed the Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400. By the early 1400s, even the monarch and court were conducting business in English.
In the United Kingdom today, the provisions that remain on the statute books are from Edward I’s Magna Carta. For future generations of jurists and legislators, the 1297 Magna Carta served as a reference rather than that of the Charter imposed on King John in 1215. While the 1215 Magna Carta had sixty-three clauses that included names of individual officials who were to be removed from office and Welsh and Scottish prisoners to be released, the 1297 Magna Carta had just thirty-seven provisions, emphasizing the terms that transcended the political circumstances of any one year or reign.
Edward I’s reissues of Magna Carta became so influential that they obscured the 1215 Charter engrossed with John’s seal. When seventeenth century jurists analyzed Magna Carta, there was some confusion over whether John, Henry III or Edward I had first issued the Great Charter. Although Raphael Holinshed, whose histories informed Shakespeare’s plays, affirmed that John had been the first monarch to issue Magna Carta, the seventeenth century jurist John Cowell wrote in The Interpreter, a dictionary of legal definitions, that Magna Carta was “a charter containing a number of laws ordained in the ninth year of Henry III, and confirmed by Edward I.”
There are three provisions from the 1297 Magna Carta that remain part of English law to the present day: freedom for the Church, freedom for the City of London and Magna Carta’s most famous lines:
“No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land”.
“We will not sell, or deny, or delay right or justice to anyone”.
In the 1215 Magna Carta, these lines had been clauses 39 and 40 but in the 1297 Magna Carta, they were combined as a single principle, clause 29.
Although the year 1300 marked the last version to be issued under the seal of an English monarch, the rights and freedoms reiterated within continue to echo through the centuries. Edward I’s Magna Carta was a document more focussed on the broader principles concerning governance and rights than that of his grandfather’s. It is these broader principles that the world celebrates this year.