THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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24 posts categorized "Magna Carta"

26 January 2015

David Starkey on Magna Carta

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If you've been watching and listening closely, you may have realised by now that the year 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta. The British Library is heavily involved in these global commemorations — two of the four surviving manuscripts of King John's 1215 Magna Carta are held at the Library — and tonight you can see one of them in a special television documentary presented by David Starkey.

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Tonight's documentary will explore the origins and later uses of this internationally-renowned document, and it will examine Magna Carta's rôle in establishing that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law.

David Starkey's Magna Carta is broadcast on BBC2 at 21:00 (Monday, 26 January). We're really looking forward to seeing our precious manuscripts on television, and we hope that you enjoy seeing them too!

Tickets for our Magna Carta exhibition are now on sale. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy opens to the public on 13 March and closes on 1 September. Among the items on show will be the United States Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights, and the unique medieval writ from Hereford Cathedral, ordering the publication of Magna Carta in 1215 ... there's a very good chance that Magna Carta will also be on display, so don't delay, book today!

23 January 2015

Hereford Writ To Be Displayed At The British Library

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The British Library's major Magna Carta exhibition opens in less than two months. We're delighted to announce that Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy will feature a very important medieval document, on loan from Hereford Cathedral. On 20 June 1215, just a few days after Magna Carta had been granted, King John of England wrote to all of his sheriffs, commanding them to have the Great Charter read out in public. Only one of those documents — known as a royal writ — still survives, the letter sent to the sheriff of Gloucestershire and today kept at Hereford. The British Library is extremely grateful to the Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral for so kindly agreeing to lend us this precious document for the duration of our exhibition, where it will be on display alongside other books and artefacts relating to the history and legacy of Magna Carta.

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The Hereford writ, a unique survival of the letter commanding that Magna Carta be read out in public in 1215

Magna Carta was granted by King John (1199–1216) at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Its most controversial feature was the condition that twenty-five barons be elected to oversee the implementation of the charter, or to seek immediate redress from the king if its terms were being ignored. The Hereford writ is hugely significant: it demonstrates that the sheriffs were commanded to restore the peace, and that they were ordered to swear obedience to the twenty-five barons. This particular writ is addressed to the sheriff of Gloucestershire — similar documents would have been sent to the other sheriffs, but this is the only one to have survived — and asks that 'you inviolably observe and cause to be observed, by everyone, everything contained in the charter, lest the peace of our kingdom should happen to be troubled again'.

There is a certain irony here, however. The sheriff of Gloucestershire in 1215 was none other than Engelard de Cigogné (d. 1244), and he was named specifically in Magna Carta as one of the king's evil advisers, who the barons demanded be dismissed from office. The writ's stipulation that Engelard investigate his own malpractices must surely have been difficult to enforce! Engelard also held the post of sheriff of Herefordshire, which may explain how this writ came to be preserved at Hereford Cathedral. It's also interesting to note that the only bishop who joined the baronial rebellion in 1215 was Giles de Briouze, Bishop of Hereford (1200–1215): he was excommunicated by the papal commisioners in September of that year.

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Hereford Cathedral, where the writ has been kept since the Middle Ages

You can read a translation of the Hereford writ below. It will be on display in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library from 13 March to 1 September 2015, and tickets are already on sale. Once again, we are indebted to Hereford Cathedral for its generosity in kindly agreeing to lend us this item, so that it can be shown with other items relating to the granting of Magna Carta in 1215. You can read more here about Hereford's participation in the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

'John by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and Count of Anjou to the sheriff of Gloucestershire, foresters, wareners, custodians of rivers and all his other officials in the same county, Greeting.

Know that to restore by the grace of God firm peace between us and the barons and free men of our kingdom, just as you will be able to hear and see by our charter, which we accordingly caused to be made, which likewise we order to be read publically throughout the whole of your bailiwick and to be held firmly; willing and strictly enjoining that you, the sheriff, cause all men of your bailiwick or the majority of them according to the model of the aforementioned charter to swear obedience to the twenty-five barons of whom mention is made in the aforementioned charter to the same command, in their presence or the presence of those assigned to this by their letters patent, and at the day and place which for this purpose the aforementioned or assigned barons established from them for this.

We also wish and order that the twelve knights of your county, who shall be elected by the county in its first session that will be held after receipt of these letters in your parts, swear an inquiry into the corrupt customs of as much the sheriffs as of their agents, of forests, foresters, warrens, warreners, riverbanks and their wardens, and the destruction of the same, as is contained in the charter itself.

Therefore you all, as you love us and our honour, and the peace of our kingdom, inviolably observe and cause to be observed, by everyone, everything contained in the charter, lest for want of you or by your digression, the peace of our kingdom should happen to be troubled again, God forbid. And you, sheriff, cause our peace to be proclaimed through the whole of your bailiwick and order it to be firmly held.

And these our letters patent we send to you thence in testimony of this. Witness myself at Runnymede, the twentieth day of June, in the seventeenth year of our reign.'

 

12 January 2015

The Canterbury Magna Carta: A New Discovery

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One of the questions we're most frequently asked at the British Library is: why is there more than one manuscript of Magna Carta? The simple answer is that, when the Great Charter was first granted by King John in 1215, numerous copies were made so that its terms could be distributed more easily throughout the kingdom of England. Four of those 1215 manuscripts survive to the present day, one of which is owned by Lincoln Cathedral, another by Salisbury Cathedral and the other two being held at the British Library in London.

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The Canterbury Magna Carta, granted by King John of England (1199-1216) on 15 June 1215 (London, British Library, Cotton Charter XIII 31A). This manuscript was sadly damaged by fire in 1731, and by a restoration attempt in the 1830s.

The Lincoln manuscript of King John's Magna Carta is undoubtedly that presented to Hugh of Wells, bishop of Lincoln, in 1215, while that at Salisbury is presumably that sent to Herbert Poore, the bishop of Salisbury at the same time (or alternatively was made for William, earl of Salisbury and one of King John's chief confidants). Until now, the medieval provenance of the two British Library manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta has been less certain. One was reputedly found in a London tailor's shop in the 17th century, and then given to Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631) as a New Year's gift on 1 January 1629 (now British Library Cotton MS Augustus II 106); the other was sent to Cotton by his friend, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644), lieutenant of Dover Castle, in 1630 (now British Library Cotton Charter XIII 31A). It has previously been assumed that Dering's Magna Carta must have been that sent to the Cinque Ports in 1215. However, new research by Professor David Carpenter of King's College, London, has demonstrated conclusively that the Dering Magna Carta had in fact been kept at Canterbury Cathedral in the Middle Ages, and that it must now be re-designated the Canterbury Magna Carta.

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Letter of Sir Edward Dering to Sir Robert Cotton, 10 May 1630, informing him that he is sending him one of the original manuscripts of King John's Magna Carta (London, British Library, Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143)

Professor Carpenter is a Co-Investigator of the Magna Carta Project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and his research is published by Penguin Classics in his new commentary and translation of Magna Carta. Essentially, Carpenter's discovery is based on two key pieces of evidence: first, Cotton Charter XIII 31A contains a handful of unique readings that are also preserved in a copy of Magna Carta in a late-13th century Canterbury Cathedral register (Register E), which suggests that the Cotton charter was the exemplar of Register E; secondly, Dering is known to have removed other charters from Canterbury Cathedral, and he clearly had access to a manuscript of Magna Carta in the Canterbury archives, undoubtedly that now known as Cotton Charter XIII 31A.

Carpenter's discovery is of fundamental importance for our knowledge of the dissemination and preservation of Magna Carta in the Middle Ages. As the other surviving witnesses of the 1215 Magna Carta were potentially sent to King John's bishops, does this also mean that the Canterbury Magna Carta once passed through the hands of Archbishop Stephen Langton (1207-28), one of the possible architects of the Great Charter?

Sadly, the Canterbury Magna Carta (Cotton Charter XIII 31A) was damaged by fire in 1731, and still further by a restoration attempt at the British Museum in the 1830s. It is the only 1215 Magna Carta still to have the Great Seal of King John attached, though its text is now largely unreadable with the naked eye (you can read more here about the recent multi-spectral imaging of this manuscript).

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The Great Seal of King John attached to the Canterbury Magna Carta, damaged by fire in 1731

The British Library's two manuscripts of King John's 1215 Magna Carta will be on display in our major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (13 March-1 September 2015), and tickets are on sale now. We hope that as many of you as possible are able to see these documents in London this year.

05 January 2015

Melvyn Bragg and The Road to Magna Carta

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To mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a four-part series on this iconic document. Presented by Melvyn Bragg, Magna Carta was recorded in part at the British Library, and features Claire Breay (our Head of Medieval Manuscripts) and other members of the Magna Carta Project, including Professor Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia), Professor David Carpenter (King's College, London) and Professor Louise Wilkinson (Canterbury Christ Church University).

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Melvyn Bragg looking at Magna Carta with Claire Breay

Episode 1, The Road to Magna Carta, is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday, 5 January, at 09:00, and will subsequently be available to listeners in the United Kingdom via the BBC iPlayer. The remaining episodes, Runnymede, 1215, The Aftermath of Magna Carta, and The Legacy of Magna Carta, will be aired at the same time this Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 6-8 January.

2015 represents a very exciting year for Magna Carta at the British Library. We are holding our own blockbuster exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, opening to the public on 13 March, and curated by Claire Breay and Julian Harrison. In addition to displaying our two manuscripts of the original 1215 Magna Carta, we will be featuring other key documents, books and artefacts associated with the history and legacy of the Great Charter, including two major loans from the United States of America.We will be blogging more about the exhibition in the coming months. Meanwhile, in February we will be hosting all four 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, from the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral, when they are brought together for the very first time

Listen if you can to BBC Radio 4 this Monday -- we hope you enjoy the programme!

Julian Harrison

13 December 2014

Magna Carta at the British Library in 2015

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By now, you should have heard whether you were one of the lucky 1,215 winners of our ballot to view all four 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts next February. But fear not, don't despair, if you were unsuccessful this time around ... because we're delighted to remind you that next year the British Library will also be staging the largest exhibition ever devoted to Magna Carta.

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A 14th-century manuscript image of King John hunting (London, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 116r)

So what do you need to know, and what will you be able to see at the British Library? Our exhibition is called Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, and is sponsored by the law firm Linklaters. It opens to the public on 13 March 2015, and closes on 1 September. Tickets are already on sale -- just follow this handy link -- and are priced at £13.50 (Adult Gift Aid) with many concessions: entry is free for the Under 18s and Friends of the British Library. As you might expect, our two manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta will be on display, together with countless books and objects relating to this globally-recognised document. Previously we announced that an early copy of the American Declaration of Independence (1776), handwritten by Thomas Jefferson, will feature in our exhibition, on loan from New York Public Library, together with the Delaware copy of the United States Bill of Rights (1790), being borrowed from the US National Archives and Records Adminstration. Our American loans are being kindly funded by White & Case.

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The Forest Charter, 1225 (London, British Library, Additional Charter 24712)

At this stage we're not allowed to tell you the full line-up of exhibits -- we don't want to spoil the surprise -- but we can promise that our exhibition will be spectacular. There will be manuscripts, documents and printed books, paintings, prints and drawings, newspapers, cartoons and photographs, and artefacts galore. And this blogpost contains a little taster of some of the things that will be on show.

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A 13th-century manuscript image of King John being poisoned by a monk of Swineshead Abbey (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII, f. 5v)

Over the next few months, we'll be telling you more about our plans: keep an eye on this blog and follow us on @BLMedieval. We look forward to welcoming you to the British Library next year. It's only 3 months before our exhibition opens ...

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The earliest printed edition of Magna Carta, 1508 (London, British Library, C.112.a.2, ff. 5v–6r)

 

Julian Harrison

20 November 2014

Magna Carta Ballot: A Huge Thank You

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We'd like to thank everyone who entered our recent ballot to see the four original 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, when they are brought together next February for the first time in 800 years. We were overwhelmed by the response: just under 45,000 people entered online, and we received in addition more than 100 postal entries. Everybody at the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral really appreciates the efforts made by members of the public to view our precious Magna Cartas.

The ballot is now closed, and the winning entrants are in the process of being selected. You may recall that we were offering 1,215 people the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the four documents side-by-side. Winners will be contacted between now and 12 December, so please hold tight if you haven't heard from us yet: there's a chance that you may actually be one of the chosen ones!

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Lincoln Cathedral (left), Salisbury Cathedral (middle) and the British Library (right), home to the four surviving manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta

A reminder that the winners will view the four 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts at the British Library in London on Tuesday, 3 February 2015. The winners will be given a special introduction to the history and legacy of Magna Carta from historian and TV presenter Dan Jones. They will also each receive a special edition Magna Carta gift bag containing free passes to each of the upcoming exhibitions at the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral, plus a Certificate of Attendance, inscribed with the winner’s name and sealed in wax with a special stamp created to mark the day. The event is being sponsored by Linklaters, the global law firm, and we are very grateful for their support.

For anyone who does miss out on this one-off event, remember that all four Magna Carta manuscripts will be on display individually as part of major exhibitions in 2015 at their respective institutions -  the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral. See this webpage for more information.

The 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta by King John will be marked worldwide by numerous events and exhibitions, which will be publicised on this blog and via our Twitter account, @BLMedieval. In the meantime, if you'd like to know more about the history of Magna Carta, please see the British Library's dedicated webpages. It's going to be a very exciting year for all of us!

28 October 2014

Magna Carta Ballot Closes 31 October

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On 3 February 2015, the four surviving manuscripts of King John's Magna Carta are to be displayed together for the very first time, at the British Library in London. We are currently holding a ballot, in which 1,215 members of the public will win tickets to see the Magna Carta manuscripts side-by-side. But hurry, because the ballot closes on 31 October 2014: don't miss out on your chance to be part of history!

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The unification ballot is free to enter. Winners will be welcomed by Dan Jones, historian and TV presenter, and they will receive a special edition gift bag, containing tickets to the forthcoming exhibitions at the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral, together with a Certificate of Attendance, sealed in wax with a special stamp. This one-off, one-day event is sponsored by Linklaters, and will mark the beginning of global celebrations to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta in 1215.

So if you want to be one of the lucky few who will see all four Magna Carta manuscripts together next February, don't delay, apply today!

18 October 2014

The Death of King John

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King John of England (1199–1216), of Magna Carta fame, was by all accounts a particularly unpleasant ruler. The charges levelled against him, many of them during his own lifetime, included the murder of his nephew, the sexual predation of the wives and daughters of his nobles, and the starving to death of the wife and children of one of his former companions. So unpopular was John that his barons finally rose up in rebellion against his arbitrary rule, and against the severe punishments often inflicted upon them, until they eventually forced the king to grant them the Charter of Liberties, also known as Magna Carta, at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Few can have lamented King John's eventual demise at Newark Castle — most probably following an attack of dysentery —in October 1216. Writing some forty years later, Matthew Paris (d. 1259), monk and historian of St Albans Abbey, delivered the ultimate condemnation: 'Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John'.

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King John in happier times, hunting on horseback according to this illustration in a 14th-century manuscript (London, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 116r).

Today may, or may not, be the anniversary of King John's death. The medieval chroniclers could not reach consensus on the exact date that John died. Matthew Paris and his St Albans' predecessor, Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), plumped for 17 October. Ralph (d. 1226), abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Coggeshall (Essex), stated instead that King John had succumbed to his illness on 18 October. A number of monastic chroniclers, writing at Tewkesbury, Winchester, Worcester and elsewhere, favoured 19 October as the day in question. Of these various witnesses, we should perhaps give greatest credence to the anonymous chroniclers writing at Waverley Abbey (Surrey) and Southwark Priory (Surrey), both of whom asserted that the death of King John took place on 19 October. The manuscripts of these two chronicles (Waverley, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A XVI; Southwark, British Library Cotton MS Faustina A VIII) were both being written in the year 1216, as evidenced by their numerous changes of scribe at this period. The same is also true, however, of Ralph of Coggeshall's Chronicon Anglicanum (the autograph manuscript of which is British Library Cotton MS Vespasian D X). Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris, in contrast, were writing many years after the events being described, and so their testimony — albeit possibly derived from an authentic St Albans tradition — is more open to question.

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Is this how King John met his fate? As early as the 13th century, it was alleged that he had been poisoned by a monk of Swineshead Abbey (Lincolnshire), seen here offering him a poisoned chalice (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII, f. 5v).

Earlier in his reign, King John had determined that he should be buried at the Cistercian abbey he had founded at Beaulieu (Hampshire). In October 1216, Beaulieu lay in that part of England which was held by the rebel barons; and so John asked instead that he be buried at Worcester Cathedral, where his tomb can still be seen. In fact, the tomb was opened in 1797, in order to confirm whether it did contain John's body, and certain of the remains removed, which are also on view in Worcester. Mr Sandford, a local surgeon, inspected the skeleton, and reported that King John stood 5 ft 6½ in. (approximately 1.69 m) tall. Unlike one of his successors, Richard III, John was clearly not buried under a carpark.

Next February, the four surviving manuscripts of King John's Magna Carta will be brought together at the British Library for the first time in 800 years. A ballot is currently being held to give 1,215 lucky winners the chance to see all four manuscripts side-by-side. The ballot closes on 31 October: don't forget to enter for your chance to take part in this moment of history! If you do miss out, you'll still be able to see the British Library's two 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts at our own major exhibition later in 2015: tickets are already on sale. And if you'd like to know more about the history of Magna Carta, take the chance to visit our new Learning webpages, which will be updated with more information next year.

Strangely enough, we doubt that King John would have been particularly amused by the modern-day celebrations planned for Magna Carta in 2015. Less than ten weeks after that document had been granted in June 1215, Magna Carta was annulled by Pope Innocent III, at John's request, declaring it to be 'shameful and demeaning, illegal and unjust, and null and void of all validity for ever'. Just over a year later, a revised version of Magna Carta was issued in the name of John's son, King Henry III (1216–1272), and the rest is history. King John never did get the last laugh.