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What is Magna Carta?

Detail of 1215 Magna Carta

Magna Carta is famous as a symbol of justice, fairness, and human rights. For centuries it has inspired and encouraged movements for freedom and constitutional government in Britain and around the world. But when it was issued by England’s King John in June 1215 it was an attempt to prevent a civil war between the king and his powerful barons.


Magna Carta means simply ‘great charter’. A charter is a legal document issued by the king or queen which guarantees certain rights. This charter has over 60 clauses, covering many areas of the nation’s life, including the right to a fair trial. It is one of several copies written immediately after King John agreed peace terms with his barons at Runnymede, which were sent around the country as evidence of the king’s decision. Salisbury Cathedral’s copy is one of four which survive from this original issue. It was written in Latin by hand, by an expert scribe, on parchment (animal skin, in this case, sheepskin). Medieval documents like this were not signed, but sealed, and at the bottom of our Magna Carta you can see the marks where King John’s seal was once attached.