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Lincoln and the Magna Carta: 800 years of liberty in the making

Lincoln Cathedral (Picture: VisitBritain)

By David Sleight, Dean of Public Engagement, University of Lincoln
August 5, 2014; updated June 15, 2015

‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.’

Magna Carta: Reproduced by kind permission of the Dean & Chapter, Lincoln Cathedral

Today is the 800th anniversary of these words and of the document that set them down – the Magna Carta.

This ‘Great Charter’, drawn up by English barons and signed by King John on June 15, 1215, put the first ever limits on the power of the monarch, and is widely regarded as the first step towards constitutional law in the English-speaking world.

There are only four originals of the 1215 Magna Carta. The one in Lincoln Cathedral – in the English city of Lincoln – is the only one to have writing on the back which says ‘To Lincoln’.

We can imagine the messenger travelling from Runnymede to Lincoln in the days after the Magna Carta was signed, arriving at the City gates and riding on to the Cathedral.

It was the first of many journeys this document would undertake. It is the most-travelled 1215 Magna Carta, and in that sense has had a huge impact on the development of legal systems around the world.

Look online at British Pathé, the news and entertainment film archive, and you’ll find a clip of the Magna Carta arriving at New York Airport for the 1939 World Fair, where it was the star attraction. When the Second World War started that same year, it was felt the Lincoln Magna Carta should be kept safe – very safe, in fact. Not only did it stay in the United States, it was locked up in US army base Fort Knox for good measure!

The UK's gratitude for its safe return has since been repaid several times, with Lincoln Cathedral sanctioning the document’s regular tours of the country: this year it will appear in Boston, Williamstown and Washington.


The University of Lincoln and Lincoln Cathedral are closely linked. The Cathedral’s Canon Chancellor, Mark Hocknull, is also a member of faculty at the University, and a joint librarian works between the Cathedral and the University. Students of Medieval Studies can learn from these experts and work inside the Cathedral’s ancient libraries.

New discoveries continue to flow – in one case literally, when a national brewer decided to create a Magna Carta beer and the historical recipe was retrieved from the depths of the Cathedral’s archives!

Supporting the Magna Carta year of commemoration takes many forms. There will be conferences, symposiums and public talks for academics, staff and students – across the UK and worldwide – celebrating the ‘Great Charter’ and its significance. See what's going on at Magna Carta 800th.

For this very special moment in history, why not pay a visit to Lincoln? Discover why this truly is one of the most significant places in the Magna Carta story – and a place where intellectual endeavours have been, and will be, supported for centuries.

After all, where did Archbishop Steven Langton, the architect of the Magna Carta and chief negotiator with King John, grow up and attend school?

Lincoln, of course!

Lincoln Cathedral (Picture: Visit Britain)
Lincoln Cathedral (Picture: VisitBritain)

(The image of the Lincoln Magna Carta in this article was reproduced by kind permission of the Dean & Chapter, Lincoln Cathedral)

Find out more about Lincoln by checking out VisitLincoln.com.

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Check out more ways the British Council is marking the Magna Carta anniversary: