The Great Charter and Charter of the Forest


William Blackstone’s The Great Charter and Charter of the Forest contains the texts of 14 medieval documents, tracing the history of Magna Carta from the Articles of the Barons in 1215 to the confirmation of the charter by King Edward I (r. 1272–1307) in 1300. The Great Charter was a pioneering piece of historical scholarship, based on examination of the original documents. Most importantly, Blackstone was the first to publish an accurate version of the text of Magna Carta as issued by King John in 1215. In so doing, he was able to establish that the 1215 Magna Carta was significantly different from the version entered on the Statute Roll in 1297 (itself derived from the 1225 Magna Carta).

Blackstone based his edition of the 1215 Magna Carta on the facsimile of the charter made by John Pine (1690–1756), collated with a copy preserved in the Red Book of the Exchequer (now held at the National Archives). He reproduced the text verbatim, highlighting in footnotes where the text differed in the Red Book copy. The Great Charter was not only a scholarly tour de force but a considerable aesthetic and technical achievement. Sold for the princely sum of 15 shillings, it was richly illustrated with detailed engravings of royal seals and historical scenes. The book’s collation of the documents was at once representative of the humanist tradition of antiquarian legal scholarship, stretching back to the 16th century, and of more contemporary Enlightenment trends, which brought rigorous editorial methodologies to hitherto confused areas of study.

The Great Charter was fittingly dedicated by Blackstone to the Chancellor of the University of Oxford, John, Earl of Westmorland, Baron Le Despenser and Burghersh (1685–1762), describing him as ‘The Assertor of those Liberties of which his Ancestors witnessed the Confirmation’.

Full title:
The Great Charter and Charter of the Forest, with other authentic instruments; to which is prefixed, an introductory discourse, containing the history of the charters, etc.
1759, Oxford
Book / Charter / Illustration
William Blackstone
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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