Medieval manuscripts blog

33 posts categorized "Magna Carta"

29 March 2015

The Anglo-Saxon Origins of Medieval Justice

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Our major Magna Carta exhibition is now open in London, but for those of you who can't come to the British Library in person, over the coming months we're going to showcase some of the exhibits on this blog. You may imagine that our story starts in the years immediately before the Great Charter was granted in 1215; but in fact the earliest items in our exhibition pre-date the Norman Conquest of England ...

Miniature of a king dictating the law (London, British Library, Royal MS 11 D IX, f. 6r)

‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.’

So reads the most famous clause of Magna Carta, still valid in English law. But what do we know about the concept of justice before the 13th century?

The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon law code was actually issued around the year 600 by King Æthelberht of Kent (r. 560–616), and was written in Old English. Meanwhile, the Bible provided models for good Christian kingship, as demonstrated in this 11th-century manuscript of the Hexateuch (the first 6 books of the Bible), on show in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

The Old English Hexateuch (London, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 59r)

Here is the biblical story of Pharaoh sentencing his chief baker to be hanged (Genesis 40:21-22). However, the 11th-century artist has dressed the figures in costumes of his own day: the king in the centre, holding a sword and a sceptre or rod, is surrounded by his counsellors; the condemned man, on the right, is being strung from the gallows. According to a 14th-century catalogue, this beautifully illustrated manuscript was kept in the monastery library at St Augustine’s Canterbury on the first shelf of its first bookcase. You can see this page in our Magna Carta exhibition, and the whole manuscript can be viewed on our Digital Manuscripts website.

The Ten Commandments were a particularly important model for the drafting of Anglo-Saxon law codes. They are referenced in the laws of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and formed part of the preface to his law book, grounding the secular laws in biblical precedents. God’s law is also specifically referenced in the longest Anglo-Saxon law code, which begins with the line, ‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice suppressed, that every illegality be eradicated from this land with the utmost diligence, and the law of God promoted’. This was issued by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035) with the advice of his counsellors. The text was drafted by Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023), and one of the eight surviving medieval manuscripts containing the text was produced in either York or Worcester in the 11th century. It was probably owned by the archbishop himself, and may contain his own annotations.

The Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)

This item is also on display in our Magna Carta exhibition. When you see it in person, you realise that this pocket-sized book was deliberately made to be easily portable, perhaps by Archbishop Wulfstan himself.

It's quickly apparent that the concept of justice in medieval England was firmly established before King John came to the throne. We'll review why Magna Carta came to be granted in some of our later blogposts (look out for them on Twitter, @BLMedieval with the hashtag #MagnaCarta).

You can view the Old English Hexateuch and King Cnut's lawcode alongside other items relating to the history and legacy of Magna Carta in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. They are also featured on our new Magna Carta website (Old English Hexateuch and lawcode of King Cnut).

24 March 2015

Magna Carta Website is Now Live

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The British Library is a hive of Magna Carta-inspired activity at the moment. Our major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, has been open for just over a week, and has been packed every day of its run. A catalogue featuring introductory essays and descriptions and illustrations of almost every object in the show has been published by the Library. And we've also hosted the first events to accompany the exhibition, including talks by renowned Magna Carta expert Professor Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia) and Julian Harrison and Alexander Lock, members of the curatorial team.

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We're delighted to announce that our dedicated Magna Carta website is now live. It features a whole wealth of Magna Carta-related material, including:

Liberty Suspended (1817), on show in our Magna Carta exhibition and featured on our website

We are particularly proud of our new animations, and you can watch them both here. The first is titled What is Magna Carta?, and deals with the medieval story of what is one of the most famous documents in the world. The second animation, 800 Years of Magna Carta, focuses on the legacy of the Great Charter. Our animations were made by Beakus, and were scripted by members of the British Library's curatorial and Learning teams.




We're really hopeful that our fantastic website will become the key resource for finding out more about the history and legacy of Magna Carta. We like it, and we hope that you will, too!

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is open at the British Library until 1 September 2015. Entry costs £12, under 18s enter free and other concessions are available.

18 March 2015

Magna Carta: A Curators' Eye-View

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Now that our Magna Carta exhibition has finally opened to the public (phew!), we'd like to tell you about a talk by the curators, taking place at the British Library this Friday, 20 March. 'Magna Carta: A Curators' Eye-View' will review how this major exhibition was put together, looking at everything from devising the storyline to choosing the objects and writing the catalogue.

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Revolution Pillar, a parody of the politician Charles James Fox, loaned by the British Museum to the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition

The talk, presented by Julian Harrison (one of the exhibition curators) and Alex Lock (our researcher), is aimed at everyone interested in public history, museum studies and the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Julian and his fellow curator, Claire Breay, have spent four years putting the exhibition together, and also edited the catalogue which accompanies it, featuring a picture of almost every exhibit; Alex joined the team in January 2013, and played a crucial role in researching and choosing the items on show, besides contributing two major essays and other entries to the catalogue.

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A 19th-century Worcester porcelain inkstand in the shape of King John's tomb, on loan from the British Museum in our Magna Carta exhibition

We hope that as many people as possible can join us on Friday for this behind-the-scenes look at our Magna Carta show. We're currently putting together the images for our presentation ... we promise you an entertaining and visual feast!

Magna Carta: A Curators' Eye-View takes place at the British Library on 20 March (11.00-12.15), and entry costs £3.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September, and costs £12 (under 18s get free entry, and other concessions are available).

15 March 2015

Magna Carta Exhibition Well and Truly Open

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We have been overwhelmed by the response to the British Library's new exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, sponsored by the global law firm Linklaters, which opened to the public on Friday. The first reviews have been extremely positive ('rich and authoritative' according to The Daily Telegraph, 'gripping' according to The Guardian), and there have been long queues of visitors this weekend. The exhibition, which is the largest and most significant ever devoted to Magna Carta, one of the most famous documents in the world, has been four years in the making. In the coming months we are going to feature blogposts devoted to the themes of the exhibition and to the individual exhibits -- you may be aware that we have everything on display from original manuscripts of the Declaration of Independence and US Bill of Rights (both of which are visiting the UK for the very first time) to two of King John's teeth! You can also find out more about Magna Carta on our dedicated website and in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. Here, however, we're going to show you pictures of the official opening on Thursday night, when HRH The Prince of Wales came to the British Library.


HRH The Prince of Wales arriving at the British Library, flanked by Baroness Blackstone, the Chairman, and Roly Keating, the Chief Executive


The Prince of Wales being shown the genealogy of King John by Julian Harrison, curator of the Magna Carta exhibition


The Prince of Wales being shown the Articles of the Barons by Julian Harrison


The Prince of Wales being shown a replica of the tomb of King John by Claire Breay, curator of the exhibition


The Prince of Wales and Claire Breay examining Thomas Jefferson's manuscript of the Declaration of Independence, loaned to the exhibition by New York Public Library


The Prince of Wales being shown the Treaty of Waitangi (on loan from The National Archives) by Alexander Lock, researcher for the exhibition


Looking at British government papers proposing to give the USA a copy of Magna Carta in 1941, on loan from The National Archives


The Prince of Wales, Claire Breay and Roly Keating with one of the British Library's manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta


The reception to mark the opening of the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition


The Prince of Wales being presented to Tony Marx, President of New York Public Library (lender to the exhibition)


The Prince of Wales being presented to Clive Izard and Alex Kavanagh from the Library's Exhibitions team


Baroness Blackstone gives a specially-bound copy of the exhibition catalogue to the Prince of Wales


The Prince of Wales declares the exhibition open

03 March 2015

Canterbury Cathedral and Magna Carta

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The countdown continues until the opening of our major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. Today we're delighted to announce that the show will feature a number of stunning loans from Canterbury Cathedral, which will illuminate the story of how and why Magna Carta was first granted in 1215. As ever, we're indebted to the generosity of our friends at Canterbury for so kindly agreeing to lend these items to our exhibition at the British Library.

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The mitre of Archbishop Walter (courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral)

The Canterbury objects on display in London comprise the vestments and crozier of Hubert Walter (Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England under King John), a 13th-century seal press (remember, Magna Carta was sealed, not signed) and a letter excommunicating the rebel barons. The vestments are outstanding examples of Opus Anglicanum (medieval English embroidery), and were found in Hubert Walter's tomb when it was opened at Canterbury Cathedral in 1890. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy will feature the archbishop's mitre, slippers, buskins (boots) and stole, as well as his crozier, made of beechwood and featuring settings for four jewels.

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The buskins of Archbishop Hubert Walter (courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral)

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The stole of Archbishop Hubert Walter (courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral)

The seal press was made for the monks of Canterbury Cathedral around the year 1232. A similar press would have been used to create the impression on both sides of the Great Seal of England and to attach it to Magna Carta. It would have applied pressure to two metal matrices engraved with the design on the seal, two discs of beeswax, and the plaited silk cords which joined the seal to the document.

The letter is dated 5 September 1215, and it commands Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, to excommunicate the rebel barons, on the grounds that they had violated the terms of Magna Carta. Nine barons are singled out for condemnation, together with six clerics, including Giles, Bishop of Hereford. This signalled the start of a new rebellion, which continued up to and beyond the death of King John in 1215.

We are very excited to have these magnificent objects in our exhibition, and are extremely grateful to Canterbury Cathedral for so kindly agreeing to lend them to us. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy opens to the public on Friday, 13 March, and closes on 1 September 2015. Book your ticket now, they're selling fast!

Julian Harrison (@julianpharrison)

26 February 2015

Magna Carta: The Worcester Connection

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There are now just a few weeks to the opening of our magnificent Magna Carta exhibition. We're very excited today to announce that on display will be some extremely precious items loaned to us by our friends at Worcester Cathedral and Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum.

King John teeth

King John's molars, found in his coffin in 1797 (image courtesy of Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum)

For starters, you'll be able to see King John himself at the British Library this spring and summer or, at the very least, those parts of him that survive outside his tomb! John's tomb at Worcester Cathedral was opened for a brief period in 1797, and certain of his body parts removed as souvenirs. On display in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy will be two of King John's molars, taken from the tomb by William Wood, a stationer's apprentice, and kindly being loaned to our exhibition by Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum. On show with them will be a thumb-bone, reputedly that of King John, which was returned to the cathedral in 1957. We're thrilled that we are going to have these items in our Magna Carta exhibition, and we're extremely grateful to the two institutions concerned for so kindly agreeing to lend them to us.


A piece of textile identified as the shroud wrapped round the body of King John, with a heraldic lion or "leopard" (image courtesy of Worcester Cathedral)

Worcester Cathedral will also be lending some other items to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. Also found in the tomb in 1797 were some pieces of textile, identified as parts of King John's hose and shroud, together with a portion of his leather shoe. Come and admire how a medieval king was dressed, and what he wore on his feet! In addition to this, we're very pleased to announce that we will also be displaying King John's own will in our exhibition, again on loan from Worcester Cathedral. This is the earliest surviving original English royal will, and it attests to John's deteriorating condition in his final days, since he left the distribution of his effects and the administration of his kingdom to a group of close advisers, being in an unfit state to make more detailed provisions. Once again, we are delighted that this key witness to King John's final days will be on display in London, where it can be seen alongside other books and objects relating to this troubled period in English history.

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The will of King John, October 1216 (image courtesy of Worcester Cathedral)

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy promises to be the largest exhibition ever devoted to the Great Charter, and the centrepiece of international celebrations to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta in 1215. This could not have been made possible without the generosity of our lenders, among whom we wish to particularly acknowledge Worcester Cathedral and Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum.

Thumb bone

The thumb-bone of King John (image courtesy of Worcester Cathedral)

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is sponsored by Linklaters, and is open from 13 March until 1 September 2015. Tickets are on sale now but beware, they are selling fast!

You can learn more about the history of Magna Carta on our dedicated site. And don't forget to follow us on Twitter (@julianpharrison and @BLMedieval) for more updates.

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The teeth and thumb-bone of King John, prior to their installation in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library

25 February 2015

Magna Carta Unification Update

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It seems ages since we brought together for the first time in history the four 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts: in fact, it was only the beginning of February! This was a truly memorable occasion, and we thought you might like to see some film and images of that special day, when one thousand, two hundred and fifteen members of the public came to see Magna Carta ... let us know via Twitter if you are featured here.

And never fear if you were not among the lucky few. The British Library's two Magna Carta manuscripts will be on display in London from 13 March until 1 September 2015, alongside the United States Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, in our major exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.










13 February 2015

One Month To Go

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It's exactly one month until our major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, opens to the public. We've been working feverishly behind the scenes to get the show ready: the builders are fitting out the gallery, the labels have been signed off, the catalogue has gone to press, and all the while we've been juggling with the historical Magna Carta unification.


The cover of the exhibition catalogue, edited by Claire Breay and Julian Harrison. The same design will appear on our exhibition poster, we hope you like it!

So what will the exhibition comprise? We can't give away any secrets just yet, save to remind you that, apart from featuring our two original 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, on display will be (DRUMROLL) the American Declaration of Independence, the US Bill of Rights, and the unique royal writ ordering the publication of the Great Charter. We've recently heard that advance ticket sales have exceeded those for any previous British Library exhibition; so a huge thank you to everyone who has already taken the trouble to book, and a quick reminder to anyone else interested in doing so that you may miss out if you're not careful! And we wouldn't want that to happen ... Tickets cost £12, but there are plenty of concessions, and under 18s go free, a bargain, we think! 

Finally, a huge thank you from the curatorial team to everyone who's been working on the project, in particular our Exhibitions colleagues Susan and Alex; Barbara and the Loan Registry; our Press Officers Evie and Sophie; Rob and Sally in Publishing; Anna and the Learning team; and our conservators Gavin, Mark and Kumiko, and conservation scientists Christina and Paul. Their work often goes unheralded, so we're delighted to acknowledge it here.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is sponsored by Linklaters and opens at the British Library on Friday, 13 March, and runs until 1 September 2015