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October 13, 2011

Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest

By The Very Reverend Philip Buckler - Dean of Lincoln

Lincoln Cathedral

Welcome message from the Dean:
“Lincoln Cathedral is one of the finest gothic buildings in Europe. Here you will find information about its past history, its present activities and our hopes for its future.
I hope you will come and visit Lincoln Cathedral to discover its wonders for yourself and receive a blessing.”

– The Very Reverend Philip Buckler
(Dean of Lincoln)

Among the rich treasures in the archives of Lincoln Cathedral, none is so celebrated as the Magna Carta of 1215. Yet when King John and the rebel barons faced each other at Runnymede on 15 June 1215, neither side can have realised that the written truce they agreed on that day would ultimately achieve iconic status as a charter of liberties for nations across the world. There was deep distrust in both camps, and it was clear to many that the king had every intention of ditching the truce as soon as he could possibly do so.

But this was in the future. As soon as the agreement was concluded, its clauses were written out in a formal charter, and copies were made for distribution across the land. Of these copies, only four survive: two in the British Library, one at Salisbury and the document in Lincoln. The Lincoln copy is the only one of the four known – through its endorsement Lincolnia – to be in its original location.
Within a few weeks of Runnymede, King John repudiated the charter and fought back vigorously against his baronial opponents. His death in October 1216 dramatically changed the situation. The rebels now found themselves fighting against John’s nine-year old son, Henry III, whose guardians took the unexpected move of reissuing Magna Carta, neatly wrong-footing the barons, some of whom crossed over to the king’s side. The civil war culminated in the siege and battle of Lincoln in May 1217, when many of the rebels were captured.

At a council held in the autumn of 1217 Magna Carta was reissued for a second time. On this occasion the clauses dealing with the administration of the royal forests were expanded and embodied in a second document, the Charter of the Forest. Only two copies of this second charter survive, one of them again in the archives of Lincoln Cathedral.

Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest did not in themselves solve the disputes between Crown and people, but throughout the remainder of the 13th century every time the king appeared to be pushing his authority to the limit the cry went up for the reissue of the charters, and by the end of the century they had been enshrined in the law of the land.

Although the majority of the clauses of Magna Carta were concerned with short-term disputes – the removal of foreign officials from government, the regulation of feudal payments – two of its clauses were of more general effect. These laid down that no free man was to be imprisoned expect by the judgement of his equals or by the law of the land, and that the king was not to deny, or to sell, justice. It is these two clauses above all that have ensured for Magna Carta its iconic status as a charter of liberties.

The global significance of Magna Carta has now been recognised by the award of Memory of the World status by UNESCO. An ongoing programme of conservation monitoring is in place to ensure the preservation of this outstanding document for the benefit of future generations.



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