800 years since Magna Carta – where are we now?

Today Gavin Henshaw looks at the approaching 800th birthday of Magna Carta.  Gavin is extremely grateful to Mohsin Shabbir for his assistance with this article.

Initially signed by King John in 1215 and lauded as a keystone in the development of the British constitution, 2015 will mark the year that the four remaining copies of the first version of Magna Carta will be unified. Despite only three sections of the last 1297 version still remaining in force, all four of the 1215 copies being unified under one roof provides an excellent opportunity for historians, romantics, curators and anyone else with an interest in the history of England, to wonder at this momentous historical event.


In an effort to solve the domestic and political crises faced by the King at that time, the ‘great charter’ was issued in order to lay the necessary foundations to repair the politically torn state of England. Signed in Runnymede, Surrey over a period of several days, it could be described more accurately as a ‘peace treaty’ to repair the damaged fabric of England from a gruelling civil war. It established a number of vital principles that many states are still subject to, particularly the following which many states adhere to:
“The King is subject to the law, not above it”.

Despite initially being repealed by the King merely 10 weeks after its inception, it can be described as the first draft of the eventual and statutorily confirmed charter enacted under Henry III’s reign.

800 years later, 4 weathered copies remain of the original charter. Two held by the British Library, one in Lincoln Cathedral and the final copy at Salisbury Cathedral.


2015 marks the 800thanniversary of this significant democratic feat, and the date will be celebrated by unifying the remaining four copies under the same roof at the British Library for the first time. Exhibitions will be running throughout the summer to encourage both adults and children to experience the history of the nation. In essence, everybody will be able to see this once in a lifetime: well, once in 800 years’ occurrence.

Dr Claire Breay, lead curator of medieval manuscripts at the British Library provides a more personal insight into the event:
“It’s an amazing, mind-blowing moment in history and it’s an amazing moment for the study of history”.

Clearly, the chance to inspect and compare the densely laden Latin texts, weathered old parchments and waxy seals is a tantalising prospect. Yet, the point of comparison is more significant than many may realise.


Celebrating the original list of rights and liberties that have served as binding limits on our rulers is extremely significant, particularly in an election year, 2015. Not only should it allow us to reflect upon the majesty of our history, but should allow us to ask the question as to what it is we are truly after from our leaders.
The recent GCHQ spying scandal, and even the expenses scandal have rocked the political sphere, leading to reduced levels of confidence within the public. Theresa May’s recent proposal to denounce a list of rights and liberties should well and truly be analysed with such events in mind, and perhaps it is high time we ask for more from our leaders before voting to giving them more unaccountable, and less transparent, autonomy.