For the reign of King John, the source material, by the standards of the time, is unusually rich. There are several good chroniclers’ narratives and, with the machinery of royal government becoming more bureaucratised, alongside them there is a good range of administrative sources.
In the thirteenth century the most important centre of historical writing in England was the great Benedictine house of St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire. The first chronicler there was Roger Wendover. After Wendover’s death in the 1230s, his narrative was added to and continued by his successor, Matthew Paris (d. 1259).
– Wendover’s chronicle, with Paris’s additions, may be read in translation online
– The nineteenth-century Bohn edition of Wendover’s ‘Flowers of History’ with a translation by J.A. Giles may be read online here
– Coxe’s original nineteenth-century edition of the Latin text of Wendover may be read online here
– A range of chronicle extracts and other source material is available online in the Fordham University internet medieval sourcebook here
– The annals of many religious houses from this period are printed in the original Latin in the five volumes of the Annales Monastici, available on Gallica, the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
In addition to the chronicle narratives, there are also the records of the king’s government. These take three forms – the copies (or ‘enrolments’) of letters sent out in the king’s name; the records of the king’s income and expenditure in the pipe rolls of the exchequer; and the records of the hearings before the king’s justices in the Curia Regis Rolls. Many of these records are available in published editions, though in some cases rather old and inaccessible editions.
The Close Rolls, the copies of letters sent out in the king’s name sealed ‘close’, or ‘closed’ in the sense that they could not be read without breaking the seal, are published in the original Latin as:
Rotuli litterarum clausarum in turri Londinensi asservati, edited by T. Duffus Hardy, 2 volumes (Record Commission, 1833-4).
The Patent Rolls, the copies of letters sent out in the king’s name sealed ‘patent’, or ‘open’ in the sense that they could be read without breaking the seal, are published in the original Latin as:
Rotuli litterarum patentium in turri Londinensi asservati, edited by T. Duffus Hardy, volume 1 (Record Commission, 1835)
For the king’s charters, see Rotuli chartarum, 1199-1216, edited by T.D. Hardy (Record Commission, 1837); and the calendared version in volume 1 of Calendar of Charter Rolls (6 volumes, Public Record Office, 1903-27)
As for the financial sources for the period, all the pipe rolls for the reign of Richard and John are published by the Pipe Roll Society. For details, go to their website:
Many past publications are on sale at reduced price.
For judicial records, the two most important published editions are:
Curia Rolls, Richard I-Henry III, 16 vols (Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1922 onwards); and
Pleas before the King or his Justices, 1198-1212, edited by D.M. Stenton (4 volumes, Selden Society, 67, 68, 83, 84, 1948-67)
The king’s justices undertook periodic visitations of the shires known as ‘eyres’. The records of some of these hearings have been published by county record societies, notably those of Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and Surrey. These sources are useful for shedding light on the operation of royal government and justice in the localities.
– For a reconstruction of King John’s itinerary, based on the evidence of the patent rolls, click here.
– A good general collection of source material is available in translation in print in English Historical Documents, 3: 1189-1327, ed. Harry Rothwell (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1975), available in good libraries. There is a smaller, but still useful, collection in the Seminar Studies in History volume, J.A.P. Jones, King John and Magna Carta (Harlow: Pearson, 1971).
– For Magna Carta itself, go to the website of the British Library, London, where two of the four originals are kept:
– Translations of and commentaries on the Charter and other source material are being made available at the website of the new AHRC-funded project on Magna Carta and its origins:
Reading up on the reign of King John
The most compelling and readable biography of the king is W.L. Warren, King John (London, 1961, reissued with new introduction by Yale University Press, 1997). A new study of John’s kingship, published to coincide with the anniversary, is S. Church, is King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant (London: Macmillan, 2015). Still useful despite its age, is S. Painter, The Reign of King John (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1949). A good, short biography is R.V. Turner, King John (Harlow: Pearson, 1994).
A path-breaking study of the reign from the baronial point of view, and one which examined regional society, is J.C. Holt, The Northerners (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961). There is much about John’s reign in N. Vincent, Magna Carta. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). For the loss of Normandy, the key turning point in the reign before 1214, see F.M. Powicke, The Loss of Normandy (Manchester, 2nd edn., 1961), a massive book; and for a more modern view, J. Gillingham, The Angevin Empire (2nd edn., London: Arnold, 2001). Detailed studies of many aspects of the reign are found in two collections of essays – King John. New Interpretations, ed. S.D. Church (Woodbridge: the Boydell Press, 1999); and Magna Carta and the England of King John, ed. J.S. Loengard (Woodbridge: the Boydell Press, 2010). For the financial pressures which John placed on his subjects, see N. Barratt, ‘The revenues of King John’, English Historical Review, 1996.
A useful group portrait of the knights who served King John is S.D. Church, The Household Knights of King John (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). For the wider political background, see D. Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery. Britain, 1066-1284 (London, 2003), a good example of ‘thickened’ narrative, and R. Bartlett, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075-1225 (Oxford, 2000), which is more thematic. The standard biography of Stephen Langton, a key figure in the crisis, is still F.M. Powicke, Stephen Langton (Oxford, 1928, reissued 1965). For a readable biography of the most celebrated baron of the age, see D. Crouch, William Marshal. Court, Career and Chivalry in the Angevin Empire, 1147-1219 (Harlow: Pearson, 1999).
For one of King John’s most unpopular foreign born servants, see N. Vincent, Peter des Roches: an alien in English politics, 1205-38 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). For an explanation of the king’s destruction of the baron William de Briouse, one of the most notorious episodes of his reign, see C. Veach, ‘King John and royal control in Ireland: why William de Briouze had to be destroyed’, English Historical Review, 129 (2014), 1051-78. For John’s quarrel with the Church, see C.R. Cheney, Pope Innocent III and England (Stuttgart, 1976). For useful discussion of the chronicle sources for the king’s reign, see A. Gransden, Historical Writing in England, c.550-1307 (London: Routledge, 1974).
Reading up on Magna Carta itself
Until recently the most comprehensive study of the Charter was J.C. Holt, Magna Carta (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965, reissued and updated, 1992, and reissued again in 2015), a magisterial study. But now David Carpenter’s outstanding Magna Carta (Penguin Classics, 2015) must take its place alongside it. Passing itself off modestly as a new edition of the Charter with a commentary, this is in fact a complete re-examination of the subject, embodying much of the new research of the AHRC-funded Magna Carta research project and producing a very different book from Holt’s. Other general books have been, or are being, published to coincide with the anniversary: D. Jones, Magna Carta. The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter (London: Head of Zeus, 2014); M. Morris, King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta (London: Hutchinson, 2015); and D. Starkey, Magna Carta: The Charter that Changed the World (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2015), the last of these being the book of a BBC television series.
Still holding its own as a general survey, however, is D. Danziger and J. Gillingham, 1215. The Year of Magna Carta (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003), a brilliant read. A shorter but sparkling survey is N. Vincent, Magna Carta. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). There are short but effective essays on Magna Carta and its later history in the special issue of the Historical Association’s journal The Historian, 125 (Spring 2015), edited by Nigel Saul. Many of J.C. Holt’s articles, which either laid the foundations for his big book or expanded on themes in it, are brought together in his Magna Carta and Medieval Government (London: Hambledon Press, 1985). A recent study, which has much to say about the later reception of Magna Carta, is R.V. Turner, Magna Carta through the Ages (Harlow: Pearson, 2003).
Much work is now being done in making close study of the numerous early drafts of Magna Carta which survive. For one such, identified nearly half-a-century ago, see V.H. Galbraith, ‘A Draft of Magna Carta, 1215’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 53 (1967), 345-60. Specific aspects of the Charter are dealt with by M.T. Clanchy, ‘Magna Carta, clause 34’, English Historical Review, 79 (1964), 542-8; M.T. Clanchy, ‘Magna Carta and the Common Pleas’, in Studies in Medieval History presented to R.H.C. Davis, ed. H. Mayr-Harting and R.I. Moore (London: Hambledon Press, 1985; and A.B. White, ‘The name Magna Carta’, English Historical Review,30 (1915), 472-5, and 32 (1917), 554-5. For the Twenty Five Barons, the enforcers of the Charter, see C.R. Cheney, ‘The Twenty Five Barons of Magna Carta’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 38 (1968), 280-307, and the biographies on this website (by Nigel Saul). There are also brief biographies of a number of the Twenty Five in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H.C.G. Matthew and B. Harrison (60 vols., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) and available online in most public and university libraries. For the meaning of ‘liberty’ which informed Magna Carta, a useful article is J.C. Crick, ‘”Pristina libertas”: Liberty and the Anglo-Saxons revisited’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series, 14 (2004), 47-71. For what happened at Runnymede, see D.A. Carpenter, The Reign of Henry III (London: Hambledon Press, 1996), chap. 1. For the surviving texts of Magna Carta, the key work is N. Vincent, The Magna Carta (Sotheby’s Sale Catalogue, New York, 18 December 2007). In ‘The Text and Distribution of the Writ for the Publication of Magna Carta, 1215’, English Historical Review, 124 (2009), 1422-31, I.W. Rowlands makes the very plausible suggestion that copies of the Charter were initially distributed by the bishops – which would explain why two of the originals are preserved in cathedrals.
The first century of Magna Carta
Magna Carta became established in English law and political life in the reign of John’s son and successor Henry III. D. Carpenter, Magna Carta (Penguin Classics, 2015) tells the story of how it became entrenched – but also of how it was overtaken and had to be supplemented by other measures over the years. A more detailed survey of Henry’s early years and thus of the politics of the Charter is D. Carpenter, The Minority of Henry III (London: Methuen, 1990). This book should be supplemented by Carpenter’s articles in his The Reign of Henry III (London: Hambledon Press, 1996), which have a lot to say about the Charter (look it up in the index). For the use that was made of the Charter by those seeking redress of grievance in Henry III’s reign, see J.R. Maddicott, ‘Magna Carta and the Local Community, 1215-1259’, Past and Present, 102 (1984), 25-65.
For general discussion of the first century of the Charter, see R.V. Turner, Magna Carta through the Ages (Harlow: Pearson, 2003), chaps. 3 and 4. Rather dated now, and somewhat indigestible, but valuable for its detail, is F. Thompson, The First Century of Magna Carta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1925). A compelling narrative of the civil war that followed John’s tearing-up of the Charter is S. McGlynn, Blood Cries Afar. The Forgotten Invasion of England, 1216 (Stroud: the History Press, 2011). S. Waugh, The Lordship of England: Royal Wardships and Marriages in English Politics and Society, 1217-1327 (Princeton, 1988), sheds light on how far the terms of Magna Carta’s clauses on widows and wardships were observed.
Magna Carta in Legal History
Magna Carta has been extensively treated by legal historians. Much of this writing is very specialised, but two works which make the twelfth- and thirteenth-century background accessible, both by John Hudson, are his Land, Law and Lordship in Anglo-Norman England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) and The Formation of the English Common Law (Harlow: Pearson, 1996). Hudson also offers a useful micro-study, ‘Magna Carta, the ius commune and English common law’, in Magna Carta and the England of King John, ed. J.S. Loengard (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2010). David Carpenter challenges some of J.C. Holt’s views on twelfth-century justice in ‘Justice and Jurisdiction under King John and Henry III’, chap. 2 of his The Reign of Henry III (London: Hambledon Press, 1996).
A useful collection of articles is P.A. Brand, The Making of the Common Law (London: Hambledon Press, 1992. For a discussion which touches on Magna Carta in the thirteenth century, see A. Harding, Medieval Law and the Foundations of the State (Oxford, 2002). A more general, and very readable, forward study is A. Musson, Medieval Law in Context: the growth of legal consciousness from Magna Carta to the Peasants’ Revolt (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001). For thinking on Magna Carta in the early modern period, see J.W. Tubbs, The Common Law Mind: Medieval and Early Modern Conceptions (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 2000). Two studies which range over the whole period from the Middle Ages to the present day are A. Arlidge and I. Judge, Magna Carta Uncovered (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2014) and Magna Carta and the Rule of Law, ed. D. Magraw and A. Martinez (American Bar Association, 2015).
The Social and Economic Background to the Making of Magna Carta
There are several good general surveys of English society in this period: J.L. Bolton, The Medieval English Economy, 1150-1500 (London: Dent, 1980); C. Dyer, Making a Living in the Middle Ages. The Peoples of Britain, 850-1520 (London: Yale University Press, 2002); and A. Harding, England in the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). D. Danziger and J. Gillingham, 1215: the Year of Magna Carta (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003), already mentionbed, is a brilliant portrait of the society which produced the Charter. There has been much debate about the inflationary pressures of the period as a source of difficulty for King John. P.D.A. Harvey argued for the severity of inflation in ‘The English Inflation of 1180-1220’, Past and Present, 61 (1973), 3-30, reprinted in his Manors and Maps in Rural England from the Tenth century to the Seventeenth (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010). A different view is taken by J.L. Bolton in his ‘Inflation, Economics and Politics in Thirteenth-Century England’, in Thirteenth Century England, ed. P.R. Coss and S.D. Lloyd (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1992); and for further perspectives again: J. Masschaele, ‘The English Economy in the Age of Magna Carta’, in Magna Carta and the England of King John, ed. J.S. Loengard (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2010).
A notable phenomenon of this period was a reduction in the number of knights: on this, see K. Faulkner, ‘The transformation of knighthood in early thirteenth-century England’, English Historical Review, 111 (1996), 1-23. The best study of women in the early thirteenth century is L. Wilkinson, Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincolnshire (Woodbridge: the Boydell Press, 2007). On widows, see J.S. Loengard, ‘What did Magna Carta mean to widows?’, in Magna Carta and the England of King John, ed. Loengard (Woodbridge: the Boydell Press, 2010). For the emergence of London as England’s ‘capital’, and so as the key city for the barons to take control of in 1215, see C.N.L. Brooke and G. Keir, London 800-1216: the Shaping of a City (London, 1975).
The Legacy of Magna Carta
The key figure in the revival of interest in the Charter in the early seventeenth century in the context of struggles between king and parliament was the lawyer, Sir Edward Coke. His speeches and writings, which often invoke the authority of Magna Carta, are all online here.
Among online resources illuminating the later history of Magna Carta, two websites are especially useful. For the UK, for historic declarations of rights and current civil liberties issues, visit to Magna Carta Plus.
For the significance of the Charter for Americans, visit the US National Archives and Record Administration.
Commentary on how Magna Carta was interpreted in the 17th and 18th centuries
For the later history of the Charter, its role in later struggles for liberty, and its elevation to mythic status, an excellent introduction is provided by R.V. Turner, Magna Carta through the Ages (Harlow: Pearson, 2003). For the period from 1300 to the early seventeenth century there is much detail in F. Thompson, Magna Carta. Its Role in the making of the English Constitution, 1300-1629 (Minneapolis, 1948): like her earlier book, this is a great heaping-up of facts.
On the background to Coke, and the seventeenth-century debates in which Magna Carta figured, there are two useful books: J.G.A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge, 2nd edn.,1987); and G. Burgess, The Politics of the Ancient Constitution: An Introduction to English Political Thought, 1603-1642 (London, 1992). For the reinterpretation of Magna Carta into the more modern period, see A. Pallister, The Heritage of Liberty (Oxford, 1971), an excellent study.
Central to understanding how the seventeenth and eighteenth century understood and exploited the tradition of the Magna Carta are the related questions of the so-called ‘Ancient Constitution’ (the belief that there was an immemorial contract between sovereignty and people) and the evidence of the authority of the common law, both in routine life and in political relationships. The classic study is Herbert Butterfield, Magna Carta in the historiography of the 16th and 17th centuries (Reading University, Stenton Lecture, 1969). And see also the book by Pocock, above.
Two collections of essays address these issues in detail – A.D. Boyer, (ed.) Law, Liberty and Parliament (Liberty Fund, 2004) and E.Sandoz, (ed.) The Roots of Liberty. Magna Carta. Ancient constitution, and the Anglo-American tradition of the rule of law (Liberty Fund, 1993). For specific studies of the use of Magna Carta in the constitutional conflicts of the seventeenth century, see C. Hill, ‘The Norman Yoke’, in Puritanism and Revolution (Harmondsworth, 1969) and J.A. Guy, ‘The origins of the Petition of Right Reconsidered’, in Boyer, (ed.) Law, Liberty and Parliament. On the radical use, and criticism, of Magna Carta by men such as John Lilburne, see R. Foxley, ‘John Lilburne and the citizenship of ‘Free-Born Englishmen’’, Historical Journal, 47 (2004), 849-874. The Putney debates of 1647, which manifested some of the popular uses of the tradition are available online http://oll.libertyfund.org. A good overview of the later seventeenth-century reception can be found in, J.A. Guy, ’The “imperial crown” and the liberty of the subject: the English constitution from Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights’, in Brautigam, D. D., Kunze, B. (eds.) Court, Country and Culture : Essays on Early Modern British History in Honor of Perez Zagorin (Rochester (New York, 1992) 65-88.
A work which explores the longer tradition of, and the rivals to, Magna Carta, is J. Greenberg, The Radical Face of the Ancient Constitution (Cambridge, 2001). Bernard Bailyn’s, The ideological origins of the American Revolution (Harvard, 1967) takes the story of reception through from the seventeenth century up to 1776, and is valuable for both the English and Colonial perspectives. C. Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthmen (Cambridge, 1959, and online through the Liberty Fund) is the starting point for the eighteenth century use and reception of the Charter amongst Whig elites. For those interested in exploring the many primary sources, the British Library English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC www.estc.bl.uk ) is very straightforward to use: a search on ‘Magna Charta/Magna Carta’ will identify many political works, and indeed a good collection of religious titles which employed the tradition to defend the liberty of conscience.
Turning to the eighteenth century: the first scholarly edition of Magna Carta was prepared and published by Sir William Blackstone, The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest, with other authentic instruments (Oxford, 1759). Around the same time radical Whigs, such as John Wilkes and Arthur Beardmore, used the iconic authority of the Charter in their campaigns for press freedom, and against arbitrary imprisonment: see A. Cash, John Wilkes (Yale University Press, 2006). For the visual use of Magna Carta in defence of civil liberties and freedom, the British Museum collection of prints and engraving is a fine resource, and accessible online at http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx. Searching for ‘Magna Charta/Magna Carta’ will again produce many of the political prints and objects.
On the important legacy of Magna Carta in the United States, see two works – A.E. Dick Howard, The Road from Runnymede: Magna Carta and Constitutionalism in America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1968); and Magna Carta in America, ed. D.E. Stivison (Baltimore, Maryland: Gateway Press, 1993). An older work that is still useful is H.D. Hazeltine, ‘The Influence of Magna Carta on American Constitutional Development’, in Magna Carta Commemoration Essays, ed. H.E. Malden (London,1917).
The standard works of reference for exploring the political thinking of the early modern period and the eighteenth century more generally are the appropriate volumes of the Cambridge History of Political Thought, edited by J.H. Burns, and M.A. Goldie and R.Wokler.
790 years ago, John,the King of England was having a little local difficulty with his barons. His attempts to defend his extensive dominions across the Channel, including Normandy and a considerable portion of western France, had been a disaster...Read on...
- Magna Carta's American Adventure
- 800th anniversary of Bristol...
- Bristol 800 concert and...
- Emancipation and Magna Carta
- Terrorism and Tolerance -...
- Magna Carta
- Magna Carta Benches mark...
- ABA Magna Carta Memorial...
If you would like to keep informed about the work of the Magna Carta Trust and our partners, please sign up to the newsletter below.
Become a Supporter
There are a number of significant supporter opportunities. Register your interest early to ensure the widest range of options.
Find out more