How well known was Magna Carta in Tudor times?

Shakespeare, in his play “King John” doesn’t even mention Magna Carta - though we think of it as the major event of his reign.

I happened to mention this fact to a friend once and he replied that Shakespeare may well have never heard of Magna Carta, and that it had largely been forgotten in Tudor times. He went on to say it was not until the English Civil War, when once again we had an obstreperous king to deal with, that it was brought back into common knowledge.

What do others think? Would an educated man in the 16th century have been likely to have heard of Magna Carta?

It’s not quite true to say that Magna Carta had been largely forgotten in the sixteenth century. That’s a variation on the view that it was Sir Edward Coke in the early seventeenth century who invented the idea of it as the classic expression of English liberties. Which is true. Up to a point.

Coke certainly made it famous. However, a number of lawyers, such as Plowden and Lambarde, had been anticipating some of Coke’s views in the late sixteenth century and it was then already seen as being rather more than just another medieval statute. It was also widely available in printed law books. But it would be fair to say that before Coke it was known only within legal circles.

Although, as many ‘educated men’ were educated because they had attended one of the inns of court, I suppose it could be argued that quite a few of them would have actually heard it mentioned. Not that this would have applied to Shakespeare.

There is the further complication that it was only around this time that people began to grasp that it had first been issued by John in 1215 and not by Henry III in 1225.

For what it’s worth, Robert Davenport wrote a play called King John and Matilda (c. 1628-1631) that does mention the Magna Carta. Not much is known about Davenport’s education, and I’m not sure what his sources for this portion of the play would have been, but the knowledge could have made its way into popular culture by way of the theater. Obviously, this would have been some years after Shakespeare’s death, so that doesn’t really answer your original question, but it’s certainly pre-Civil War.