The Magna Carta Project

The 1216 Magna Carta

There are very few copies of the 1216 Charter. The two earliest are on single sheets in the Archives Nationales in Paris. They may possibly have been amongst the materials taken to France by Prince Louis on his retirement from England in 1217. The copies are now Archives Nationales J 655 nos.11 and 31. They are described in N. Vincent, The Magna Carta (Sotheby’s, New York, 2007), p.74. No 11 is printed in full in Layettes du Trésor des Chartes, ed. A Teulet and others, 5 vols. (Paris, 1863-1909), i, no.1194. A note says that the text of no.31 is identical to No.11’s, save in lacking the preamble. (It begins with ‘In primis’.) I hope to be able to see these copies in the near future.

The only copies of the 1216 Charter I have found so far are the three in two closely related fourteenth-century York minster cartularies. Almost certainly all three texts derive from a common source. The copies are found in York Minster Library and Archives L  2/1, ‘Liber Albus’ or ‘Magnum Registrum Album’, fos.11-13, and L2/2a ‘Domesday Book’, fos.276v-279 and again (in the same hand) fos.325-8.1      

It has always been known that a special engrossment of the 1216 Charter was prepared for and (in February 1217) sent to Ireland.2 A good deal of work went into the text, for it was changed in several places to bring it into line with Irish conditions. The Charter thus speaks of the Hybernica ecclesia (chapter 1), the city of Dublin’s liberties (chapter 10), fish weirs being removed ‘per totam Avenlich et per totam Hyberniam’ (26), the quarter of corn of Dublin (28), and merchants having entry to and exit from ‘Hybernia’ (34). The engrossment also omitted the chapter on Wales. The initiative here must have come above all from William Marshal, given his great stake in Ireland. He would have seen the Charter as safeguarding his own position and that of his heirs against both his Irish enemies and any future revival of John’s style of kingship. On 2 December 1216, perhaps at the very time the Irish Charter was being mooted or prepared,3 a royal letter in the Marshal’s favour was sent to the justiciar of Ireland, Geoffrey Marsh. It first of all returned to the Marshal the service of Meiler fitzHenry for land in Leinster. This John had taken into his own hand as security for the Marshal’s faithful service although, as the letter said, the Marshal had always been faithful. The letter then commanded the justiciar to give ships free entry to and exit from both the port of Waterford and the land of the Marshal ‘per rectas et debitas consuetudines’. Chapter 34 of the Irish Charter gave free entry to and exit from Ireland ‘per antiquas et rectas consuetudines’.

The engrossment sent to Ireland does not survive. It was, however, copied, probably in the reign of Henry III, into a volume knows as ‘The Red Book of the Irish Exchequer’.4 As is well known, ‘The Red Book’  was destroyed by fire in 1922 but fortunately the text of the Charter, as found there, had earlier been collated with the only known engrossment (at Durham) in Statutes of the Realm (Record Commission, 1810), i, pp. 14-16. It had also been printed in full in Thomas Leland’s, The History of Ireland, i (Dublin, 1814), pp. 355-69.    


For these cartularies, see C. Breay, J. Harrison and D. M. Smith, Medieval cartularies of Great Britain and Ireland (London, 2010), nos.1087, 1088.


For its dispatch see Patent Rolls 1216-1225, p.31.


The Charter has the same dating clause as its English counterpart, being given at Bristol on 12 November, but it may well have been drawn up later.


See J.F. Ferguson, ‘A Calendar of the Contents of the Red Book of the Irish Exhequer’, Proceedings of the Transactions of the Kilkenny and South-East Ireland Archaeological Society, 3 (1854), pp.35-52, especially pp.36-8, 48.

The Copies of Magna Carta