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What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

26 August 2015

British Museum Loans in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

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As the British Library's major exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy draws to a close — it's been an amazing 5 months — we'd like to take this opportunity to showcase some of the key British Museum loans in the display. The Library and the Museum have a long, shared history and a very close working relationship; and so we were absolutely delighted when the British Museum so kindly agreed to lend us some amazing objects for our exhibition. We're very grateful to our counterparts in the Departments of Coins and Medals, Prehistory and Europe and Prints and Drawing for making this possible. It's another great example of collaboration between two national institutions (here's another blogpost about the loans from The National Archives). Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy would not have been the same without these key loans from our friends at the British Museum.

We hope that you enjoy reading about these British Museum loans and that, if you're in London, you have the chance to see them before the exhibition closes on 1 September. You may like to know that they can still be viewed in virtual form after that date on our dedicated Magna Carta website.

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The seal matrix of Robert fitz Walter (British Museum 1841,0624.1): this, one of the finest silver seal matrices in existence, was used by Robert fitz Walter (d. 1235), one of the chief organisers of the baronial rebellion in 1215. Lord of Little Dunmow in Essex and holder of Castle Baynard within the city of London, fitz Walter styled himself during the rebellion as ‘Marshal of the Army of God’. His seal shows him triumphing over a dragon or basilisk; on a separate shield in front of the horse are the arms of the de Quincy family, once thought to represent a fellow rebel, Saer de Quincy (d. 1219), Earl of Winchester, but more probably added later in the 13th century when the matrix was re-used by one of fitz Walter’s descendants.

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Double-edged sword (British Museum 1858,1116.5): this 13th-century sword has gained an added notoriety recently, since it was the subject of our blogpost focusing on its mysterious inscription. The sword itself was found in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in July 1825, and was presented to the Royal Archaeological Institute by the registrar to the Bishop of Lincoln. Weighing 1.2 kg (2 lb 10 oz), and measuring 964 mm (38 in.) in length and 165 mm (6½ in.) across the hilt, it has a double-edged blade and, if struck with sufficient force, could have sliced a man’s head in two.

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Reliquary depicting Thomas Becket's martyrdom (British Museum 1854,0411.2): King John, like his father, Henry II, had an often very strained relationship with the Church. The martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170 cast a long shadow over the years leading up to the granting of Magna Carta. This champlevé enamel casket, made in Limoges, shows in the lower register Becket standing before an altar while an assailant attacks him with a sword; above Becket is placed in his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral.

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Engraving of Stephen Langton showing the coronation charter of Henry I to the barons (British Museum 1830,612.88): this image represents a scene in which Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1228), purportedly showed a copy of Henry I’s Coronation Charter to an assembly of barons in the abbey church at Bury St Edmunds. Although attired in medieval clothing, the drawing of each baron in the engraving was based on their 19th-century descendants, drawn from life. Their hair styles, replete with sideburns, betray their true era.

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King John Delivering Magna Carta to the Barons (British Museum 1877,0609.1832): the majority of visitors to our exhibition are probably oblivious to this 18th-century print's sorry history. Reproducing a painting by John Hamilton Mortimer (d. 1779), the print imagines the scene of the granting of Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. The engraving from which this print was produced was begun by William Wynne Ryland in 1783, but later that year he was convicted of handling forged bills and was hanged at Tyburn in London. Ryland’s widow, Mary, raised a subscription for this print to be published in her husband’s memory.

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The Savernake hunting horn (British Museum 1975,0401.1): this hunting horn must win the competition as the most beautiful object in our Magna Carta exhibition. Positioned in the section of the show which deals with the Forest Charter, the horn belonged to the Wardens of Savernake Forest, Wiltshire, but was made in Italy, of elephant ivory. The top band is divided into 16 compartments, 12 of which depict hunting dogs and animals of the chase. The remaining four compartments contain engraved figures of a king and a bishop, each with a hand raised, together with a forester blowing a horn, and a seated lion.

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The Embleme of England's Distractions, 1658 and 1690 (British Museum 1848,0911.242, 1932,1112.4): this celebrated engraving, known unofficially as ‘Cromwell Between Two Pillars’, underwent a transformation between these two versions, published in 1658 and 1690 respectively. The original version, attributed to William Faithorne the Elder (d. 1691), depicted Oliver Cromwell (d. 1658), the Lord Protector, upholding the rule of law and the Protestant faith. The pillar on the right is decorated with allegorical figures of England, Scotland and Ireland, that on the left with several legal ideals, among them ‘Magna Charta’. The original print was reworked by Joseph Claver in 1690, when Cromwell’s head was replaced with that of King William III (r. 1689–1702). In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution (1688–89), Jacobite opponents to the new regime likened the new monarch to Cromwell, since they considered both men to be illegitimate usurpers of the English Crown. By refashioning the engraving with William III’s head, the meaning of the print had been fundamentally altered.

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The Contrast (British Museum 1861,1012.47): originally engraved by Thomas Rowlandson (d. 1827) in 1792, this print contrasts the virtues of ‘British Liberty’ with the dangers of Jacobin ‘French Liberty’. Comprising two roundels, Britannia is depicted on the left holding ‘Magna Charta’ and the scales of Justice, with a lion reposing peacefully at her feet. On the right, a gruesome French Medusa, carrying a trident impaled with hearts and a severed head, tramples a decapitated corpse underfoot, with a man hanging from a lamp-post in the background.

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Earthenware mug depicting British and French Liberty (British Museum 1982,1101.1): this 18th-century earthenware mug from Staffordshire reproduces Thomas Rowlandson’s engraving of The Contrast. The image was transfer-printed on to the mug, using an innovative decorative technique introduced in 1753.

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Porcelain figure of John Wilkes (British Museum 1887,0307,II.46): this figurine is our Loan Registrar's favourite item in the exhibition. John Wilkes (d. 1797) had been imprisoned for libelling King George III in 1763. Shown hand on hip, Wilkes poses nonchalantly among symbols of English liberty. The plinth upon which he leans has two scrolls, one inscribed ‘Magna Carta’ and the other ‘Bill of Rights’; at his feet a putto holds a Phrygian cap and a treatise on government by John Locke (d. 1704).

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Design for a column at Runnymede (British Museum 1952,0403.3): imagine if this column had ever been erected on the floodplain at Runnymede! Proposed by the followers of the statesman, Charles James Fox (d. 1806), some £1300 was subscribed to fund the erection of a statue to King William III (r. 1689–1702) atop an enormous Doric column, dedicated to the Glorious Revolution. This drawing by William Thomas is its only material legacy.

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Revolution Pillar (British Museum 1868,0808.5828): Charles James Fox didn't get off lightly with the proposed scheme to build a column at Runnymede. He was lampooned by his opponents in this contemporary print, which depicts a fox hanging from a gibbet and excreting ‘Runny Mead’ from its backside!

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A New Cure for Jackobinism (British Museum): in 1810, Sir Francis Burdett, MP (d. 1844), was imprisoned in the Tower of London for breaching parliamentary privilege. His imprisonment caused an outcry, and many popular prints represented him, Magna Carta in hand, as a noble defender of English liberty. Hand-coloured by Charles Williams, this print depicts Burdett behind bars in the Tower menagerie, appealing to King George III (r. 1760–1820) who scrutinises him through his glass. Presenting a paper bearing the inscriptions ‘Magna Charta’ and ‘Trial by Jury’, Burdett declares ‘Magna Carta violated’; the King’s guide explains that Burdett ‘raves much about a thing call’d Magny Charty, which some say is nothing but nonsence’.

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Procession Attending the Great National Petition to the House of Commons (British Museum 1880,1113.2756): during the 19th century the Chartists campaigned to have the franchise extended to working men. They presented several petitions to Parliament, the largest of which, submitted in 1842, was written on paper some 6 miles (10 km) long and weighed over 48 stone (more than 300 kg). The petition contained the signatures of 3,317,702 people, one-third of the adult population of Great Britain. The central view of the print shows the great Chartist procession that accompanied the petition along Whitehall to Parliament, with flags unfurled proclaiming ‘Reform’ and ‘Liberty’.

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Inkstand in the form of King John's tomb (British Museum 1987,0609.1): we love this novelty inkstand, made by Chamberlain & Co. (later known as the Worcester Royal Porcelain Company) during the 19th century. This example is based on a famous local monument, namely the 13th-century tomb of King John in the choir of Worcester Cathedral. The inkstand is made of bone china, with the effigy of John on the lid, flanked by St Oswald and St Wulfstan. The base is in the shape of the tomb chest, and contains cavities for three inkwells, together with a pen-tray. A decorated version of the inkstand cost four guineas in 1841; a version altered to form a paperweight also sold for four guineas, with a ‘stone colour’ version of the same priced at two guineas. The inkstand is of considerable antiquarian interest because it depicts the effigy with its original, medieval colours, traces of which were still visible until 1873 when the monument was gilded.

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Engraving of the burnt Magna Carta (British Museum 1861,0513.331): this is probably one of the most important items in our Magna Carta exhibition, since it replicates the original condition of one of the four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, before that manuscript was damaged by fire in 1731. This engraving was published by John Pine (d. 1756) in 1733, by command of the commissioners appointed to investigate that fire. The coats of arms of King John's barons around the edge of the text are an embellishment, added by Pine. 

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, the British Library's current major exhibition, closes on 1 September 2015 (late openings have now been extended to Monday-Thursday).

Julian Harrison, Co-curator, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

24 August 2015

Shameful and Demeaning: The Annulment of Magna Carta

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Today, 24 August 2015, marks an important date in history, one overlooked in this year of anniversaries (the Battle of the Somme, Waterloo, Agincourt, the De Montfort Parliament). For on this day 800 years ago, Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) issued a bull in which he described Magna Carta as 'shameful, demeaning, illegal and unjust', before declaring what we now call the Great Charter to be 'null and void of all validity for ever'.

Bull of Innocent III

The bull of Pope Innocent III declaring Magna Carta null and void (British Library Cotton MS Cleopatra E I, ff. 155-156)

We have this unique papal bull annulling Magna Carta, issued on 24 August 1215, on display in the British Library's Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition. When taking guests around, I often joke on reaching the bull that here the show ends, despite the fact that they have 800 years of Magna Carta's legacy still to encounter. (A brief history lesson: after King John died in October 1216, with many of the barons again in rebellion and a French army having invaded England, and with a new 9-year-old king, Henry III, on the throne, a revised version of Magna Carta was issued in order to get the barons back on side, reviving the document in a single stroke.)

King John was a particularly devious ruler, and he clearly believed that, by sending messengers to his overlord, the Pope, the kingdom of England would be rid of Magna Carta. John was right, to a certain degree; but little did he realise that Magna Carta incorporated an adaptability that made it useful in many different ways to succeeding generations. I suspect in any case that both John and the barons would be horrified if they knew we were celebrating their peace treaty 800 years after that event (the terms of Magna Carta in 1215 applied only to the elite of society, the nobles and barons). Pope Innocent may have shared their opinion, but his attempt to stop the Great Charter in its tracks only had limited effect.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015 (and entry is free for under 18s).

 

23 August 2015

Little Ado About Something Rather Significant: William Shakespeare and Magna Carta

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If you were writing a play about the reign of King John, what would be the one scene you could not dispense with? The sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede, perhaps? Yet, this is exactly the scene that the nation’s greatest playwright William Shakespeare forgot to mention in his play The Life and Death of King John.

Shakespeare's King John

A page from the First Folio of William Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John, in which John urges Hubert to murder Prince Arthur, "a very serpent in my way"

This notable omission has puzzled scholars for generations. Why would Shakespeare not mention the most significant event in John’s reign? Some have suggested that it is because Shakespeare was unaware that Magna Carta originated with King John in 1215. Given that copies were reissued in 1216, 1217, 1225 and 1297 this could have been an easy mistake for the bard to have made – but unlikely. Shakespeare knew his history. Written in the 1590s during the reign of Elizabeth I, it is more likely that the courtier in Shakespeare was compelled to leave out Magna Carta as too politically sensitive, something that might be construed as criticising the institution of monarchy or tacitly supporting the idea of internal rebellion against the crown. In the aftermath of the long and bloody Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), Tudor political doctrine had little sympathy for baronial rebellion, weak monarchy or internal conflict; while the turbulence of the Reformation made Magna Carta – with its first clause prescribing the freedom of the English Church – a dangerous document to invoke and of more use to recusant Catholics than Protestant apologists. Given the political climate in which Shakespeare was writing it is, perhaps, surprising that he wrote about King John at all.

In writing his play on King John, Shakespeare followed very closely an earlier play by George Peele entitled The Troublesome Reign of King John which, published in 1591, equally failed to mention Magna Carta. For these playwrights John’s story was not one – as it is now – about wrestling rights from a monarch or about making Magna Carta a hallowed symbol of individual liberty. More important for them was how the events in John’s reign exemplified the ever present and dangerous influence a fickle papacy could have on English politics. Throughout Peele’s stridently anti-Catholic The Troublesome Reign, John is represented as patriotically defending the nation against the foreign interference of the Pope. The same is true of Shakespeare's play. Though Shakespeare certainly presents King John as a bad and malevolent king, the play is still tangibly anti-Catholic and the Pope remains an interfering threat. Indeed, in the play King John is eventually poisoned by English monks loyal to Pope Innocent III. This was above all a play which celebrates the Protestant religious settlement, not the liberty of the individual. Given the religious tensions prevalent in Elizabethan England it is unsurprising that Shakespeare would prefer to focus on these religious themes in John’s reign than the sealing of Magna Carta.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree

Painting of Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John by Charles Buchel, kindly loaned to the Magna Carta exhibition by the Victoria and Albert Museum

Since Shakespeare did not include Magna Carta in his story, subsequent theatre companies have incorporated into their own productions newly written scenes depicting the events at Runnymede in 1215. When, between 20 September 1899 and 6 January 1900 the leading Shakespearian actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree performed King John to some 170,000 spectators at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, he inserted a new scene at the beginning of Act III that depicted him, as John, granting Magna Carta to the barons. Short excerpts of Beerbohm Tree’s production were filmed to publicise the play, with the surviving footage, including John’s death scene, being the oldest record of Shakespeare on film. Clearly, by the nineteenth century the Great Charter had become a much more important aspect of John’s reign, imbued with a meaning very different from that which it ever had in the 16th century, and scenes depicting it being granted were expected by audiences. As is ever the case with Magna Carta’s story, the document is interpreted and reinterpreted in line with the preoccupations of the present. And for Shakespeare, it just didn’t matter that much!

You can see a copy of Shakespeare' First Folio (1623) in the British Library's major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, together with the painting of Herbert Beerbohm Tree and the surviving footage of Tree's performance as King John. But hurry, because the exhibition closes on Tuesday, 1 September. You can book tickets online here.

Alexander Lock