From Monday 19 June – Saturday 9 September, the Open Treasure Collections Gallery at Durham Cathedral will  present a unique opportunity to see the only surviving copy of the 1216 issue of the Magna Carta and further issues from 1225 and 1300.  Also on display will be one of only two surviving issues of the Forest Charter, from 1217, and further issues from 1225 and 1300.

But why are these documents so important? Here are ten facts to highlight the significance of the Magna Carta and the Forest Charter.

1.Magna Carta was previously known as the Charter of Liberties.  It wasn’t called Magna Carta (which means Great Charter) until 1217 when the Forest Charter was published.  Because they were usually issued together from this point, a name was needed to distinguish the two.

2.Durham Cathedral holds the only original copy of the 1216 Magna Carta.  A contemporary copy exists in the French Royal Archives having been taking to France by Prince Louis (later King Louis VIII) after being defeated in his attempts to conquer England.

3.The Forest Charter was issued on 6 November 1217 and contained only 17 Clauses which were to deal with issues surrounding the Royal Forests including, among other things, pannage (pasture for pigs), estover (the collection of firewood), agisment (grazing) and turbery (the cutting of turf for fuel).

4. Elements of the Forest Charter remained law until 1971 when they were replaced with the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act.  This was the first time in history that the Crown lost its right to control the forests – ‘wild creatures…together with any prerogative right to set aside land or water for the breeding, support or taking of wild creatures; and any franchises of forest, free chase, park or free warren’.

5. Just because it ceased to exist in law didn’t mean it stopped having an impact on legal cases.  In 2015 a case was brought against the Forestry Commission that argued that sheep grazing should continue to be allowed in the Forest of Dean without restriction because this right had been granted to them in the Forest Charter.

6.Magna Carta had a worldwide impact.  It was used to grant the same liberties to the first colonists of the United States and is seen as the basis for the US Constitution.  The United States Supreme Court building has a frieze showing the signing of Magna Carta.

7.Before the Forest Charter, people who hunted in a Royal Forest without permissions could have been mutilated or executed as punishment.  The Forest Charter commuted this to a large fine or a year and a day in prison.

8.At the time the Forest Charter was issued , one third of England was designated as Royal Forest meaning it was under direct control of the monarch rather than on the common law of the land.  Reducing the size of these forests was the main reason for issuing the Forest Charter.

9.The Forest Charter didn’t technically apply to the palatine of Durham as it was under the control of the Prince Bishop.  Instead it was seen as a model to be followed for the administration of the Bishops Forests though there was no obligation to do so.

10. Royal Forests had strict rules about when hunting and grazing were allowed.  Cattle were banned from grazing in the forests between 11 November and 23 April as it was believed that they would drive away the deer.  Male deer were hunted from 24 June to 14 September with the female deer hunted from 14 September to 2 February.

Finally, The Forest Charter continues to have an impact today. 

The Woodland Trust have launched a new Charter designed to improve access to trees and forests and ensure their survival. Even more of a reason to come and see the original documents for yourself in the Open Treasure Collections Gallery at Durham Cathedral!

Tickets: £2.50 – £7.50 available from the Visitor Desk in the Cathedral, the Open Treasure Welcome Desk, and in advance from

Please note, from 19 June – 28 July inclusive, a 10% discount will apply to all single Open Treasure tickets. The Great Kitchen will not be accessible during this time whilst we install The Treasures of St Cuthbert. Thank you for your understanding.

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