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The Debunker: Did King John Sign the Magna Carta?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Did King John Sign the Magna Carta?

In 1215, a group of feudal barons had enough clout to get King John on board with the Magna Carta, a document that for the first time limited the powers of the English crown. The charter enshrined rights like due process of law, making it the direct ancestor of the many future constitutional documents both in Britain and abroad, including the U.S. Bill of Rights. So powerful is the symbolism of the Magna Carta even overseas that in 1957 the American Bar Association placed a monument to the Magna Carta at Runnymede, the meadow near the Thames where the document was signed.


But that’s not entirely true—King John didn’t sign the Magna Carta. In fact, no one did. That day at Runnymede, King John placed his royal seal on the document, in front of witnesses. The document reads “data per manum nostrum”—“given under our hand”—and the king’s seal was sufficient to make it an official act of the crown. It’s sometimes said that King John didn’t sign the charter because he couldn’t read or write. That’s not true either; in fact, he was known in his day for his large and well-stocked library. But seals were more common than signatures in an age when illiteracy was widespread.

You might also be surprised to hear that the Magna Carta was only legally binding for three months or so. Later that year, Pope Innocent III was persuaded by John to annul the charter, calling it a “shameful and demeaning agreement, forced upon the King by violence and fear.” It wasn’t ratified into English law until 1297, in a considerably different form. Still, it’s the Runnymede charter that gets all the glory, and original manuscripts can still be seen today at the British Library, Lincoln Castle, and Salisbury Cathedral.

Quick Quiz: King John, nicknamed “Lackland,” had all of his land stripped from him in 1194 when his brother returned to England. Who was his brother?

Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.