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Magna Carta

Image from the Magna Carta

Magna Carta 1215
British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106
Copyright © The British Library Board
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Magna Carta is often thought of as the corner-stone of liberty and the chief defence against arbitrary and unjust rule in England. In fact it contains few sweeping statements of principle, but is a series of concessions wrung from the unwilling King John by his rebellious barons in 1215. However, Magna Carta established for the first time a very significant constitutional principle, namely that the power of the king could be limited by a written grant.

King John's unsuccessful attempts to defend his dominions in Normandy and much of western France led to oppressive demands on his subjects. Taxes were extortionate; reprisals against defaulters were ruthless, and John's administration of justice was considered capricious. In January 1215 a group of barons demanded a charter of liberties as a safeguard against the King's arbitrary behaviour. The barons took up arms against John and captured London in May 1215.

By 10 June both parties met and held negotiations at Runnymede, a meadow by the River Thames. The concessions made by King John were outlined in a document known as the 'Articles of the Barons', to which the King's great seal was attached, and on 19 June the barons renewed their oaths of allegiance to the King. Meanwhile the royal chancery produced a formal royal grant, based on the agreements reached at Runnymede, which became known as Magna Carta (Latin for the 'Great Charter').

Four copies of this original grant survive. Two, including this one, are held at the British Library while the others can be seen in the cathedral archives at Lincoln and Salisbury.

All four copies declare themselves to have 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' (1215). Each differs slightly in size, shape and text. The few short words and passages written at the foot of the present document have been incorporated into the main texts of the Lincoln and Salisbury charters and may therefore represent last-minute revisions.

The original destination of the present document is unknown. It was given to Sir Robert Cotton by the barrister Humphrey Wyems on 1 January 1629, and according to one account had been found in a London tailor's shop. According to contemporary chronicles, copies were distributed to bishops, sheriffs and others throughout the land, but the exact number of copies sent out from the royal chancery in 1215 is not known.

Find out more about the history and legacy of Magna Carta, including a full translation, on our new website.

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