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67 posts categorized "Magna Carta"

23 October 2016

Fire, Fire! The Tragic Burning of the Cotton Library

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2016 has been a year of anniversaries, some of them more notable than others. Already this year we have commemorated 350 years since the Great Fire of London (1666), the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings (1066), and 1,000 years since the Battle of Assandun (1016). The 285th year since the infamous Cotton Library fire (1731) falls on 23 October, and although this may not be a date that immediately leaps to mind, it is a cause of great sorrow for many medievalists.


A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was one of the greatest British collectors of manuscripts of all time. His library was vast and of huge national significance, especially when one recounts some of the books and documents it contained: two of the original manuscripts of Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Cotton Genesis, the state papers of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the Vespasian Psalter ... one could easily go on. Cotton made his library available to other scholars during his own lifetime, and enabled certain books to be borrowed (which is why some items, such as the famous Utrecht Psalter, ultimately entered other collections). Finally, 70 years after Cotton died, his manuscripts were accepted on behalf of the nation, and in 1753 they formed the first foundation collection of the new British Museum.

  Cotton_charter_xiii Studio c06259-02
The fire-damaged manuscript of King John's Magna Carta, 1215, rendered almost illegible following the 1731 Cotton fire: Cotton Charter XIII 31A.

Acquiring the Cotton collection for the nation should be regarded as a moment of great rejoicing. This was the first occasion in the British Isles that any library had passed into national ownership, bringing with it such treasures as Magna Carta and the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts assembled by any antiquary. But, sadly, a less joyful event happened in 1731, that threatened to destroy this gift for all time.


The beautiful Vespasian Psalter, 8th century, one of the many treasures of the Cotton Library: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v.

By October 1731, the Cotton manuscripts had been placed for storage at Ashburnham House in London, adjacent to Westminster School. Their former home had been regarded, ironically, as a fire hazard; and so the books had been transferred to the ill-fated (and unfortunately named) Ashburnham House. There, on the night of 23 October 1731, a terrible fire broke out, perhaps starting in a fireplace below the floor where the manuscripts were kept. Despite the efforts of the Deputy Librarian and others, who reportedly were forced to fling scores of books out of the building, a great number of the Cotton manuscripts were badly damaged by the flames and the water used to extinguish them, and a few volumes were destroyed in their entirety. Many unique manuscripts were lost for good, such as Asser's biography of King Alfred of Wessex. The following day, the Westminster schoolboys were said to have gathered fragments of manuscripts floating like butterflies in the wind, some of which have survived until this day (some leaves of the Cotton Genesis, for instance, passed into a collection at Bristol, before being returned to the British Museum in the 1960s).

Cotton MS Fragments XXXII

Boxes containing portions of the manuscripts almost destroyed in the 1731 fire, now classified as Cotton Fragments XXXII.

During the 19th century, a restoration programme was carried out at the British Museum, during which many of the burnt volumes were separated, their pages flattened, inlaid in paper mounts and then rebound. There is a masterful study of this process by Andrew Prescott, in Sir Robert Cotton as Collector, edited by Christopher Wright (The British Library, 1997). Meantime, however, many of Cotton's precious manuscripts had suffered irreversible fortunes. One of the two surviving copies of King John's Magna Carta, 1215, and the only one with the Great Seal still affixed, was rendered illegible as a result of the fire and efforts to save the text, and the seal was reduced to a glob of molten wax. The illustrated Cotton Genesis, already mentioned, suffered severe damage to its illuminations. The pages of Beowulf were burned along their edges, with the result that small portions of the letters reputedly started to crumble, before the volume was inlaid and rebound.

Cotton MS Tiberius E VI

An example of an inlaid Cotton manuscript, following the restoration process: Cotton MS Tiberius E VI.

All of this is extremely tragic, and the story is too detailed and complicated to tell in a single blogpost. Fortunately, the vast majority of the Cotton manuscripts survived the fire, many of them intact: the fate of others is described in an earlier account entitled Crisp as a Poppadom. But today, on 23 October, we should spare a moment to remember the beautiful and historic manuscripts damaged in the Cotton fire, the people who fought valiantly to rescue them, and those who restored them in the 19th century.

Julian Harrison



14 January 2016

A Belated Holiday Gift from Us: a Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks!

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It's that time of year again, friends, and we're pleased to (belatedly) celebrate the holidays by giving you a magnificent gift.  This gift is certainly worth the wait, though - a massive list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks!  We're mixing it up a little bit this time, though, as the list is now a PDF, but fully searchable and with working hyperlinks.  You can download it here:  Download BL AMEM Digitised Manuscripts Master List.  There are 1429 manuscripts on this list now, we are staggered to report.

Illuminated frontispiece of the marital arms of Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford (created 1st Duke of Somerset, and Lord Protector in 1547) and his second wife, Lady Anne Stanhope, with the Seymour family motto ‘Foy pour Devoir’, from the Taverner Prayer Book, England (London), c. 1540, Add MS 88991, f. 2v

In honour of our biggest ever list of hyperlinks, we're pleased to share one of our smallest manuscripts, the Taverner Prayer Book (see above), which recently went online.  We've also added quite a few manuscripts from our Anglo-Saxon project, along with many from the illuminated collections in general.  We have some big plans for the coming year and many more manuscripts to share with you, so watch this space!

-   Sarah J Biggs

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 ...


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 ...


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.

BM-Seal Robert Fitz Walter

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.


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.

BM-Beckett Casket

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.

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.

BM-King John and the Barons

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.

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.


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’.

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 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

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 19th 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!


Alexander Lock

16 August 2015

Two Weeks to See Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

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Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, the British Library's most successful exhibition ever, closes on Tuesday, 1 September. This week we were delighted to receive our 100,000th paying visitor, all the way from Portland, Oregon. Don't miss your final opportunity to see not only the British Library's two manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta, but also King John's teeth, thumb-bone and will, the vestments of Archbishop Hubert Walter, the Articles of the Barons and papal bull annulling Magna Carta, the Petition of Right and English Bill of Rights, the US Declaration of Independence and US Bill of Rights, paintings on loan from Parliament, the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A, the recording of Nelson Mandela's trial speech, and the Cabinet papers proposing to give the United States of America a manuscript of Magna Carta during World War II.


And that's not to mention the many other stories we feature, such as the murder of Prince Arthur, the trials of Thomas More, Charles I and William Penn, Shakespeare's play of King John, Olympe de Gouges and the French Revolution, the imprisonment of John Wilkes, the execution of the Cato Street Conspirators, the Treaty of Waitangi, Kipling and Gandhi, Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If that's not enough, we also have films of Aung San Suu Kyi, Bill Clinton, William Hague and others putting Magna Carta into its international context, plus (for our younger visitors) a free children's audioguide. Quite simply, it's the biggest and best exhibition that's ever been mounted on what is one of the most famous and significant documents in the world.

Magna Carta Exhibition DSC00595 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy closes at the British Library on 1 September. We'd love it to have lasted longer, but preparations are already under way for the opening of the Library's next blockbuster exhibition, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song; and we do have to return our loan items to their many lenders! But you will be able to continue to see the exhibits after September in virtual form on our dedicated Magna Carta website, and to read about them in the exhibition catalogue.

Entry to the exhibition costs £12, and is free for under 18s.

13 August 2015

Magna Carta, The British Library and The National Archives

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Putting together any major exhibition always calls upon the expertise and generosity of countless individuals. In the case of Magna Carta; Law, Liberty, Legacy -- which closes at the British Library on 1 September -- the curators (Claire Breay and Julian Harrison) and researcher (Alex Lock) were supported by a huge cast of specialists, who are name-checked in the exhibition catalogue.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy also includes a number of key loans from other institutions, carefully selected to complement the British Library's own collection items. One of our principal lenders has been The National Archives of the United Kingdom, without whose generosity the content and scope of the exhibition would have been greatly diminished. An immensely fun part of the 4 year-process of putting the show together was meeting with the specialists and conservators at The National Archives in order to select and refine the documents and artefacts we were able to borrow. You can see these items in person at the British Library, in the catalogue and on our dedicated Magna Carta website. But we are also showcasing them in this blog-post, in order to emphasise the vast range of materials at The National Archives and to underline our gratitude for so kindly being able to borrow them for the Magna Carta exhibition.

E402-1 Tray1 (1 of 5) Sixteen tally sticks 13th century

Medieval tally sticks (The National Archives E 401/1, Tray 1)

Tally sticks were used by officials of the Exchequer as physical proof of payments to the king, functioning in the same way as a modern receipt. Made of hazel wood, the sticks contained notches denoting the amounts that had been paid; the notched sticks were split into two lengthwise, one half (the stock) being held by the payer and the other (the foil) being retained by the Exchequer. When the accounts were audited, the pieces were fitted together to check that they tallied (hence the name). A little-known fact: it was the burning of old tally sticks in the chamber of the House of Lords that led to the destruction by fire of Parliament in 1834!

E372-60 rot6 m1 Pipe Roll 1213-1214

The Pipe Roll for 1213-14 (The National Archives E 372/60, rot. 6, membr. 1)

Each year, the English Exchequer’s audit of the sheriffs’ accounts was recorded on long rolls of parchment, known as Pipe Rolls owing to their shape when rolled for storage. The Pipe Rolls supply details of payments made to and by the Crown, and of debts still owed. Shown here is part of the Pipe Roll entry for Cornwall, compiled at Michaelmas 1214. The relevant membrane is sub-divided by headings such as ‘De Placitis Foreste’ (Forest Payments) and ‘De Scutagio Pictavie’ (The Scutage for Poitou).

C66-14 (23d)

Distribution list of the copies of Magna Carta (The National Archives C 66/14)

It remains uncertain how many copies of Magna Carta were dispatched in 1215 and who were the intended recipients. A memorandum written by a clerk of the English Chancery on the reverse of the Patent Roll, more than a month after Magna Carta had been granted, notes that some 35 writs had been issued for the publication of Magna Carta in London, the Cinque Ports and various English counties. This memorandum also states that on 24 June 2 copies of Magna Carta were given to the Bishop of Lincoln, another to the Bishop of Worcester and 4 more to Master Elias of Dereham (steward of Archbishop Langton); Elias received a further 6 charters on 22 July, making a minimum of 13 Magna Carta manuscripts in total.

DL10-197 Duchy of Lancaster Royal Charter, Magna Carta 1297

1297 confirmation of Magna Carta (The National Archives DL 10/197, reproduced by kind permission of the Duchy of Lancaster)

The most famous medieval confirmation of Magna Carta was that of King Edward I (r. 1272–1307) in 1297, since it was this text that was copied on to the Statute Roll. The confirmation took the form of a letter patent in which the king declared that he had inspected his father’s Magna Carta: he then recited the whole of the 1225 charter, before ordering that its articles be observed in every respect. Since Edward himself was in Flanders at this time, the letter was the work of the government at home, acting in his name. It was witnessed by Edward’s son, the future Edward II (r. 1307–27), at Westminster on 10 October 1297. We are extremely grateful to the Duchy of Lancaster for so kindly agreeing to lend this item to the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition.

SP16-272 (125) Letter of King Charles I ordering that Coke's papers be confiscated 1634

Letter of King Charles I ordering the confiscation of Edward Coke's papers (The National Archives SP 16/272) 

Sir Edward Coke (d. 1634), author of The Institutes of the Lawes of England, used Magna Carta to challenge the autocratic rule of the Stuart kings. In retaliation, King Charles I (r. 1625–49) commanded in 1634 that Coke’s papers be seized, as set out in this letter to the Secretary of State, Sir Francis Windebank (d. 1646). Concerned that ‘there are sondry papers and Manuscripts of great consideration and weight yet remayning in the possession of Sir Edward Coke’, the King directed Windebank ‘to repaire to the house or place of abode of the said Sir Edward Coke, and there to seize and take into your charge, and bring away, all such papers and Manuscripts as you shall think fitt’.

EXT9-93 US Declaration of Independence 1776

Dunlap printing of the United States Declaration of Independence (The National Archives EXT 9/93)

The United States Declaration of Independence was printed in Philadelphia by John Dunlap (d. 1812) on or around 4 July 1776, by order of the Second Continental Congress. No fewer than 26 copies of the Dunlap printing survive today, including 3 in London. This copy was discovered in The National Archives in 2008.

HO40-41 (390) Poster for public meeting for the Peoples Charter, Carlisle 1839

Peace, Law and Order (The National Archives HO 40/41/390)

The Chartists used Magna Carta in their campaign to extend the franchise, as shown in this colourful poster, advertising a great public meeting to be held on the Sands at Carlisle on 21 May 1839. The poster promotes the speaker, Dr John Taylor, a leading Scottish Chartist and surgeon, and implores the crowd to come unarmed ‘so that their Enemies may not have an opportunity of persecuting them, and retarding the progress of Liberty’. The text continues in a menacing manner, ‘It is hoped that the Master Manufacturers will see the propriety of allowing their workpeople to attend the meeting, so that any unpleasant collision between them may be avoided.’

MFQ1-402 (1) Copy of Treaty of Waitangi 1840

Treaty of Waitangi (The National Archives MFQ 1/402/1)

British sailors, whalers and missionaries settled in New Zealand from the early 19th century, but the British government became formally involved in its colonisation only in the 1830s. On 6 February 1840, the British signed the Treaty of Waitangi with a group of Maori leaders from the North Island. The Treaty ceded New Zealand to Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901), who promised the Maori her protection and the same rights as ‘the people of England’, and established William Hobson (d. 1842) as Governor. It also gave the Crown the exclusive right to buy any lands the Maori wished to sell, while recognising their full ownership of lands, forests, fisheries and other possessions. The Treaty was prepared in English, but the vast majority of the more than 500 chiefs who ultimately signed it put their name to this Maori translation, copies of which circulated through New Zealand’s North and South Islands. Henry Williams (d. 1867), the missionary who prepared the translation, referred to the Treaty as the ‘Magna Charta’ of the Maoris, which would secure for them ‘their Lands, Rights and Privileges’.

FO371-61073 (1 of 2) Response to proposal to celebrate Magna Carta Day, 1947

FO371-61073 (2 of 2) Response to proposal to celebrate Magna Carta Day, 1947

Magna Carta Day in the British Empire (The National Archives FO 371/61073)

In 1947, it was proposed to make 15 June a public holiday in the British Empire and United States, in order to emphasise Anglo-American co-operation and to champion the document as a symbol of Western liberty. However, some British civil servants opposed the scheme, fearing that the celebration of civil liberties might provoke opposition to British imperial rule. K. W. Blaxter, Assistant Secretary in the Colonial Office, dismissed the proposal in very strong terms: 'In some Colonies where ill-disposed politicians are ever on the lookout for opportunities to misrepresent our good intentions, its celebration might well cause embarrassment and in general there is a danger that the Colonial peoples might be led into an uncritical enthusiasm for a document which they had not read but which they presumed to contain guarantees of every so-called ‘right’ they might be interested at that moment in claiming.'

FO371-26169 (40) Proposal to offer Magna Carta as a gift to the USA 1941


The proposed gift of Magna Carta to the USA (The National Archives FO 371/26169)

In March 1941, the British War Cabinet, led by Winston Churchill (d. 1965), contemplated giving the USA what one paper described as 'an old piece of parchment, of no intrinsic value whatever, rather the worse for wear', in order to persuade young American men to lay down their lives for liberties and freedoms. One British government official wrote that, ‘The gift of Magna Carta would be at once the most precious of gifts and the most gracious of acts in American eyes; it would represent the only really adequate gesture which it is in our power to make in return for the means to preserve our country.’ However, it was soon realised that the document in question, the possession of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral, was not the property of the British government to give away; and so the plan was quietly shelved. This is possibly the only time in history that one nation has tried to persuade another to enter a war on its behalf in return for an old piece of parchment!

To view all these wonderful items so kindly loaned by The National Archives, come to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library until 1 September 2015.

Julian Harrison

05 August 2015

The Peasants Are Revolting: The Coronation Charter of Henry I

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When the charter of liberties we now know as Magna Carta was drawn up at Runnymede in 1215, it tapped into a long tradition of English kings making promises to uphold good laws and repudiate past oppressions. One of the most significant early written examples of such promises can be found in the coronation charter issued by King Henry I (r. 1100–1135) on this day, 5 August, in 1100.

Henry was the third and youngest surviving son of William the Conqueror (r. 1066–1087). His brother William Rufus (r. 1087–1100), who had succeeded their father as king of England, died in suspicious circumstances — an arrow through the lung while hunting in the New Forest. Reportedly Rufus's body was abandoned where it fell and later discovered by a peasant.


King William Rufus in an early 14th-century English manuscript (British Library Royal MS 20 A II, f. 6r)

Henry moved rapidly to secure his own interests and prevent any possible rivals from seizing the crown, especially Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy (d. 1134), the eldest of the three surviving brothers and a more likely claimant to the throne. Robert was in Apulia at the time on his way home from the First Crusade. Haste could also help avoid the disorder that regularly threatened when the throne lay vacant for long. Henry first made his way to Winchester where he secured the royal treasury and was ‘elected’ king by a group of barons, before proceeding swiftly to his coronation at Westminster Abbey only days after the death of William Rufus.

To secure his precarious hold on the throne, a charter announcing that Henry had been crowned and putting into writing his coronation promises was drawn up, sealed and circulated to every shire. The charter announced his intention to correct the wrongs of his brother, declaring:

‘I restore to you the law of King Edward together with the improvements by which my father improved it by the counsel of his barons.’


The coronation charter of Henry I, in a 13th-century copy made for Canterbury Cathedral Priory (London, Lambeth Palace, MS 1212, ff. 97v-98r)

This document enshrined in writing the traditional promises Henry had made at his coronation — to keep the peace, forbid all iniquities, and to maintain justice and mercy — alongside further concessions to his barons and pledges to redress specific complaints. It is the first surviving English coronation charter, thanks to its wide distribution and a contemporary interest in legal literature that saw scribes copying the text into law compilations. Later, it was even translated into French, as can be seen in a bilingual bifolium in our collections (Harley MS 458), made in the early 13th century, perhaps for the barons opposed to John.

Modern historians have noted that Henry’s charter was not necessarily the first of its kind. William Rufus issued written promises in 1088 and 1093, and some of the promises made by Henry I can be traced back to before the Norman Conquest, such as in concessions made by Æthelred II (r. 978–1016) and Cnut (r. 1016–1035), or to Edward the Confessor’s oath in 1041 to uphold the laws of Cnut and his sons. However, its detailed list of concessions made this document particularly important a century later when it was known to King John’s barons, and it served as a precedent for Magna Carta. In our exhibition, you can see the version of the coronation charter copied at Canterbury Cathedral Priory around the time that Magna Carta itself was first issued.

Henry’s reign was remembered particularly for the law and order that had prevailed. In the popular Prophecies of Merlin written at the end of Henry’s reign, Geoffrey of Monmouth gave Henry the epithet of ‘the Lion of Justice’ whose roar ‘the towers of Gaul shall shake and the island Dragons tremble’. Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois (r. 1135–1141), and his grandson, Henry II (r. 1154–1189), evoked this legacy in their own shorter coronation charters which promised to uphold the laws of Henry I and of Edward the Confessor.

However, the flip side to the rigorousness of Henry’s reign is that some of Henry’s contemporaries levied accusations of avarice, cruelty and severity against him. Seeing Henry as having failed to honour his oath to maintain good laws and to abolish all iniquities throughout his kingdom, the chronicler John of Worcester recounted a series of dreams Henry experienced in 1130. The three broad classes of society (peasants, knights and clerics) visited Henry successively. Each group in turn threatened Henry with weapons appropriate to their position, the peasants with their scythes and spades, the knights armed with their swords and shields, and the clerics with their croziers. Shortly after these terrifying nightmares, Henry was caught in a storm at sea which only abated once he made three promises: not to collect the Danish tax for 7 years, to go on pilgrimage to Bury St Edmunds, and always to preserve justice throughout England.



The Nightmares of Henry I (Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 157, pp. 382-83)

Henry’s sequence of nightmares and the subsequent stormy cross-Channel journey that inspired him to seek redemption for his sins are vividly illustrated as a series of miniatures in John of Worcester’s own manuscript of his Chronicle. It’s quite likely that this is also one of the earliest representations in western art of ‘revolting peasants’!

We're extremely grateful to the librarians of Lambeth Palace Library and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, for lending to our exhibition the coronation charter and nightmares of Henry I respectively. Both of these items can be seen in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library until 1 September 2015.

Katherine Har