In search of Magna Carta

800 years after it was reluctantly signed by a wayward King John, Magna Carta is celebrated in a new trail that follows the journey of one of the original copies of the charter, and visits its new home in a vault at Lincoln Castle


WORDS: David Atkinson  PHOTOGRAPHY: Steve Morgan

It runs to more than 4,000 words and divides into 63 clauses – four of which still underpin our constitution today. It has influenced eight centuries of history across the English-speaking world and its name is constantly invoked as shorthand for great portent: the Founding Fathers drew on it for the Declaration of Independence; opponents of the Blair government’s attempt to extend the period of detention without trial cited it; and even Jay Z made reference to it when claiming his new album would rewrite the rules of the music business. Not bad for a failed peace treaty from the 13th century.

This year marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. The Grand Charter may not carry the same legislative heft these days, but it continues to underpin the principles of democracy, liberty and human rights. As historian and author Dan Jones says: “No longer are its clauses politically important. But its legend is more potent than ever”.

And this summer, it’s coming home to Lincoln.

A tatty calfskin manuscript

“When I first saw this tatty, calfskin manuscript, full of tiny holes, I couldn’t believe it was the same Magna Carta I studied at school,” says Jessica Marshall of Lincolnshire County Council. “Then I looked on the back and someone  — 800 years ago — had written the words ‘Lincolnia’. At that moment I could feel the weight of history on this city.” 

Jessica and I are standing inside the newly opened Magna Carta Vault, located inside the walls of Lincoln Castle. The first thing visitors see when they enter is a giant panel of Magna Carta text writ large, the four clauses still cited today picked out in gold. Of these, the most famous remains Clause 40, the medieval maxim: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.”

Stained glass

The vault is part of a £22m refurbishment project that also includes a walkway around the medieval castle walls and a Heritage Skills Centre to keep artisan skills alive. The drum-like vault, built of Corten steel, is the Holy Grail for Magna Carta devotees, especially after a couple of days hiking through the lowlands of rural Lincolnshire. It features three glass cases where allegedly the best-preserved of four surviving copies of Magna Carta, the accompanying Charter of the Forest, and a revolving display of guest documents now have a permanent home. The unveiling of the castle project is accompanied this summer by a programme of events, ranging from classical concerts to historical lectures, and culminating with the Magna Carta Weekend from June 13-14.

The new 24½km/16½-mile Stephen Langton Trail I’ve come to walk is one of a slew of projects this year to mark the anniversary. There are six Magna Carta driving routes, each covering different parts of the story, including a West Country route to Salisbury Cathedral and a Midlands trail from the Bodleian Library in Oxford to Worcester Cathedral, where King John is buried. For walkers, the Battlefield Trust has prepared a number of trails of historical sites linked to the charter, including a trail between the cathedral cities of Durham, York and Lincoln.

Picking up the trailhead at the church of St Giles Church in the village of Langton by Wragby, I wanted to learn more about the man the route is named after. Stephen Langton was born in his village namesake in the 12th century and went on to become both Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the chief architects of Magna Carta, presenting the document to King John for signing as a fait accompli at Runnymeade, Surrey, in June 1215.


The trail is divided into three stages and passes through rural villages via medieval ruins, attempting to trace key locations from Langton’s life. The man himself looks down on ramblers benevolently from a stained-glass window, located on the south aisle of St Giles, in silent solidarity.

Walking with me on the first day is Hugh Marrows, the retired civil servant who researched and plotted the cross-country trail over the past year. “I've spent 30 years walking the footpaths of Lincolnshire but I'm still discovering new places,” he says as we navigate the lime woods, heading west towards the sunset over Lincoln Cathedral on the shadow-softened horizon. “Walking this trail has helped me understand Lincoln's crucial role in this period of English history,” he adds.

The first section of 6½km/4 miles heads to the village of Apley and feels rural and remote. The Lincolnshire lime woods we cross around Bardney form part of a National Nature Reserve. The second 10km/6¼-mile stretch reaches the village of Fiskerton, offering more physical clues to Langton’s journey. It starts near the weathered gravestones of the chapel of St Andrew and leads cross country, following the same route as the Viking Way trail – the 147-mile route between Barton-on-Humber in Lincolnshire, and Oakham, Leicestershire.

The going is boggy on this section, with buzzards circling over Fiskerton Moor. As I stop to check the map, leaning back on a signpost on a bridleway grooved with horses’ hooves, a startled pheasant darts from its thorny domain, chastising me for the intrusion with its trademark foghorn calls.

By the ruins of Barlings Abbey, I catch my first glimpse of Lincoln Cathedral on the horizon and pause briefly to commune with ancient spirits over bananas and cereal bars. The River Witham Valley would have been dotted with medieval abbeys during Langton’s lifetime. The marshy terrain offered contemplative isolation to religious communities, yet the river allowed transport links to deliver essential supplies. Barlings was established around 1154 and survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. But today, only part of the north arcade remains standing.

River walk

Jacobean halls and medieval ramparts

It’s the third section of the trail that really brings Langton’s story to life, though. The next morning, with sunshine illuminating the Lincolnshire farmland and birdsong bringing the trees to life with their warbles, I’m back on the trail. I had picked up the path by Five Mile Bridge, the walk hugging the banks of the gently meandering River Witham for the first few miles. Flocks of geese, honking like misfiring car horns, accompanied me past the remains of the Great Northern Railway’s erstwhile London-to-Lincoln line.

The trail takes a turn away from the river after a couple of miles, heading through a former medieval village recorded in the Domesday Book towards Greetwell Hall. Alongside the Jacobean pile is the village’s Norman church, All Saints, set back amid rows of wild flowers with open-sky views all around. From here, the last couple of miles make for a head-down yomp before entering the city and dissecting the city’s Victorian Arboretum. Vibrant with scented flowers and lush foliage, it makes for a delightful final approach to Cathedral Close via 14th-century Pottergate.

Langton would have studied at Lincoln Cathedral as a young cleric and doubtless prayed for guidance as he laboured over Magna Carta drafts. He’d have earnestly sought spiritual guidance to handle the truculent and paranoid king at a time of escalating civil war between the monarchy and the feudal barons.

Tree walk

The next day, back at the sprawling ramparts of Lincoln Castle, completed by William the Conqueror in 1068, I take a brisk stroll around the restored Lincolnshire-limestone walls with Jessica Marshall. We climb a spiral of tiny, vertigo-enduring steps to the Observatory Tower, a dizzying 26m/85ft above the manicured castle grounds. Clinging to the handrails in the breeze, we survey our surroundings as noblemen and fair maidens would have done generations before. To the east stands the proud facade of the cathedral, to the north the gentle undulations of the Lincolnshire Wolds.

Jessica indicates a section of the grounds where the gallows once stood. “On a busy execution day,” she smiles macabrely, “they'd have a turnout of around 3,000 people. We've lost count of how many innocent people lost their heads here.”

These days we live, ostensibly, in less judgmental times. Our laws and statutes guarantee the right to a fair trial, a cornerstone of our society directly attributed to clause 39 of Magna Carta, which states: “No free man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed… except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”

Historian Dan Jones calls Magna Carta, “Year Zero in the march towards civil liberties and British democracy”. And recently, scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee called for a Magna Carta for the World Wide Web, evoking ancient ideas to tackle the most contemporary of human rights issues. So, the true legacy of Magna Carta rages on in its anniversary year, but it remains a treasured document for the people of Lincoln, who are proud of their part in its story.

“Magna Carta is not a relic,” says Jessica. “It's still relevant to who we are today.”


Visit for a more detailed breakdown of the route.