We have seen the Great Charter of the Lord Henry sometimes King of England … Know ye that we … of our free will have given and granted to all … freemen of this our realm these liberties following to be kept in our kingdom of England for ever.
Seven copies of Magna Carta were written out by the Royal Chancery in the week following the meeting at Runnymede. All were fixed with the king’s seal to indicate their authority. More were made in subsequent weeks and sent under lesser seals to every county sheriff, with instructions that they were to be read out in public.
John died on 19 October 1216, having broken the promises of the Great Charter within ten weeks of his vow at Runnymede. Civil war had resumed with the dissident barons, who had supported the invasion of England by Prince Louis of France in May 1216. To win the allegiance of the barons for John’s nine-year-old heir, Henry III, his guardians had an amended version of the charter made and promulgated. Three amended issues were made in the twenty years following Runnymede. Some ‘liberties’ were deleted and diluted, but the same essential principles were asserted.
In 1225 Henry III had an issue of Magna Carta made in return for a grant to him of taxation. The text of this version was emphatically confirmed by King Edward I in 1297, who instructed that it should be used in courts to determine judgments, and any judgment contrary to the charter should be ‘holden for naught’. The king caused it at this time to be written into the English statutes, where it is still to be found, though much reduced.
Copies of the charter were to be kept in cathedral churches and read out twice a year and sent to ‘all our officers’ and ‘all our cities throughout the realm’.
It is one such charter, from the issue of 1297, that is on display at Parliament House in Canberra.
Edward I and his court © The British Library Board, Cotton Vitellius A.XIII, f.6v