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29 posts categorized "Magna Carta"

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.

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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.

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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

03 February 2015

The Magna Carta Unification

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Today, for the first time in history, the four surviving 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts have been brought together. This is a truly historic occasion: not once in 800 years have these documents been in one place, because they were written over a period of weeks in June and July 1215, and dispatched to their medieval homes as soon as they were written.


You may recall that, last October, we offered 1,215 members of the public the opportunity to win a ticket to see these manuscripts side-by-side, in an event sponsored by Linklaters, the global law firm. The response was overwhelming -- we received more than 43,000 entries, from countries as far afield as Algeria, Bolivia, The Gambia, Hong Kong and the Turks and Caicos Islands. The British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral would like to thank everyone who entered this public ballot for showing such interest in our event, and for helping us to start this year of global commemorations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Congratulations if you were one of the lucky winners -- we regret that entry to this event is limited to those with tickets only.

For those of you who were unsuccessful in the ballot, or were unable to come to London, here is a sneak preview of the four manuscripts in question. After the temporary unification event at the British Library, Salisbury's Magna Carta will return to its home for the exhibition Magna Carta: Spirit of Justice, Power of Words (from 6 March 2015); Lincoln's Magna Carta will go on display in the new David P. J. Ross Lincoln Castle Vault in the exhibition Magna Carta: Power, Justice and Accountability (from 1 April 2015); and the British Library's two 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts will be exhibited in our major exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (13 March-1 September 2015). We'd be delighted to see you at one or more of these exhibitions, in what promises to be a truly memorable year for everyone interested in Magna Carta and its pivotal place in establishing the rule of law.

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The Salisbury Cathedral 1215 Magna Carta (image courtesy of Salisbury Cathedral)

Lincoln Magna Carta

The Lincoln Cathedral 1215 Magna Carta (image courtesy of Lincoln Cathedral)

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One of the British Library's 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, reputedly found in a London tailor's shop in the 17th century

BL Canterbury Magna Carta

The British Library's other 1215 Magna Carta manuscript, kept at Canterbury Cathedral in the Middle Ages but damaged by fire in the 18th century

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.


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.

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 25 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 25 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.

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.


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).


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.