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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

29 August 2015

Magna Carta Virtual Tour

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Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy has been the most successful exhibition ever staged by the British Library, with in excess of 100,000 visitors. But we are aware that many, many more will never be able to see it in person, before the exhibition closes to the public on 1 September. A full record of the exhibits is available in the catalogue (edited by curators Claire Breay and Julian Harrison) and, in a first for the British Library, on our dedicated Magna Carta website. And here's another way to see our popular exhibition, in virtual form — we hope you enjoy it!

The exhibition opens with a short introductory film, featuring some of the people associated with Magna Carta over the centuries and the key items visitors are going to see ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 01 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Magna Carta Exhibition 02 (credit Tony Antoniou)

The first item in the show (our poster boy, of course) is this statue of Geoffrey de Mandeville (one of the barons who rebelled against King John in 1215), on loan from the Houses of Parliament ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 03 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Here is King John's family-tree (being shown to HRH The Prince of Wales by co-curator Julian Harrison) ...

Magna Carta British Library 01

The medieval section of our exhibition was designed to take the shape of the nave of a church ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 04 (credit Tony Antoniou)

This coin hoard, borrowed from the British Museum, dates from the early years of King John's reign (1199–1216) (interesting fact: John's coins bear neither his own name or portrait, since the design was retained from the coinage of his father, Henry II) ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 05 (credit Tony Antoniou)

These are the slippers of Hubert Walter, John's first archbishop of Canterbury, found in his tomb when it was opened in 1890 ...

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The Statute of Pamiers dates from 1212, and provides a contemporary parallel to Magna Carta (we borrowed it from the Archives nationales in Paris) ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 06 (credit Tony Antoniou)

A replica of King John's tomb, at Worcester Cathedral, stands at the end of the 'nave' ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 07 (credit Tony Antoniou)

John's head on his tomb is flanked by Saints Oswald and Wulfstan, and his sword is unsheathed, a sign that he was still at war with his people when he died in 1216 ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 08 (credit Tony Antoniou)

King John's tomb was opened at Worcester Cathedral in 1797, and certain of his body parts removed by visitors, including these two teeth and what is reputed to be John's thumb-bone ...

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During the 13th century several revised versions of Magna Carta were issued by the kings of England (as co-curator, Claire Breay, is showing HRH The Prince of Wales) ...

Magna Carta British Library 02

In the foreground visitors are looking at the Forest Charter and the Savernake Horn (the more keen-eyed of you may spot a film of Professor David Carpenter, a leading Magna Carta expert, on the screen in the background) ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 09 (credit Tony Antoniou)

We're now in the English Liberties section of our exhibition, dealing with the 16th and 17th centuries (here is a painting of Shakespearean actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree, borrowed from the Victoria and Albert Museum) ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 10 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Foxe's Book of Martyrs, open at a page showing the alleged poisoning of King John by a monk of Swineshead Abbey ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 11 (credit Tony Antoniou)

In the room named Colonies and Revolutions is one of the exhibition's star items, Thomas Jefferson's autograph manuscript of the United States Declaration of Independence (borrowed from New York Public Library) ...

Magna Carta British Library 03

And just for good measure we also have on show the Delaware copy of the US Bill of Rights (borrowed from the US National Archives) ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 12 (credit Tony Antoniou)

This painting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was kindly loaned to our exhibition by the Musée Carnavalet in Paris (and on the back-wall are two prints of The Contrast, comparing British and French liberty at the time of the French Revolution) ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 13 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Here in the Radicalism and Reform room of our exhibition is this Chartist poster, advertising a meeting at Carlisle in 1839 (loaned to us by the UK National Archives); next to it is an engraving of the procession which delivered the Great National Petition to the House of Commons in 1842 ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 14 (credit Tony Antoniou)

The Empire and After room opens with these paintings of St Helena and the fort at Calcutta from the British Library's India Office collections (on the back-wall is a photograph of Mohandas aka Mahatma Gandhi as a young lawyer in South Africa) ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 15 (credit Tony Antoniou)

The Treaty of Waitangi of 1840 (being shown to HRH The Prince of Wales by researcher Alex Lock) is often referred to as the 'Maori Magna Carta' ...

Magna Carta British Library 04

In 1941 the British War Cabinet, led by Winston Churchill, considered giving the United States of America what was described as 'an old piece of parchment, of no intrinsic value whatever, rather the worse for wear) in order to persuade the Americans to join World War II (these are the Cabinet papers in question, borrowed from The National Archives) ...

Magna Carta British Library 05

Heading towards the end of the exhibition is this wall featuring a modern English translation of the clauses of the 1215 Magna Carta ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 16 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631) owned two of the original manuscripts of King John's Magna Carta, one of which was sent to him by Sir Edward Dering, Lieutenant of Dover Castle, in 1630 ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 17 (credit Tony Antoniou)

And here is the final item in the exhibition, one of the British Library's original manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta (here being viewed by HRH The Prince of Wales, Claire Breay and British Library Chief Executive Roly Keating).

Magna Carta British Library 06

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, the largest exhibition ever devoted to the Great Charter, is on at the British Library in London from 13 March until 1 September 2015

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.

  BM-Savernake Horn

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.

Embleme-englands-distractions-1658-AN00481667-001-1     BM-Embleme of Englands Distractions 1690

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.

Illustration-british-liberty-french-liberty-AN00038445-001
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.

BM-Jug_English Liberty   BM-Jug_French Liberty

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).

BM-Runnymede Column

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.

BM-Hanging fox
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!

BM-New Cure for Jackobinism
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’.

BM-Great National Petition
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.

Engraving-burnt-BM-Magna-Carta

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).