15 June 2020
15 June 2020 marks the 805th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta by King John. The British Library holds two of the four surviving copies of one of the most famous documents in the world, with the others being held at Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral. One clause of Magna Carta gave all 'free men' in 1215 the right to justice and a fair trial, a statement that has been reinterpreted by successive generations worldwide.
'No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.'
A portrait of King John hunting (England, 14th century): British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 11r
In this quiz we ask you to test your knowledge of Magna Carta. There are no prizes but your pride may be at stake. If you're stuck, you can always look up the answers on the British Library's Magna Carta webspace. You may also enjoy this animation narrated by Terry Jones: What is Magna Carta?
The answers are now published below (don't peek if you want to guess first).
- What does 'Magna Carta' mean?
- Where did King John sign Magna Carta (this may or may not be a trick question)?
- Who was the archbishop of Canterbury in 1215, and who was the Pope?
- For how long did Magna Carta originally remain in force?
- How many clauses of Magna Carta remain on the United Kingdom statute book?
- Who described Magna Carta (allegedly) as 'Magna Farta'?
- Which future US President used Magna Carta when drawing up the Declaration of Independence?
- Which future President cited Magna Carta at their trial in 1963-64?
And the answers are:
- 'Magna Carta' is Latin for the 'Great Charter' or large charter, to distinguish it from the Forest Charter, also known as 'Parva Carta' or the small charter
- He confirmed the document by affixing to it the Great Seal of England, at Runnymede (so technically he didn't sign it)
- Stephen Langton and Pope Innocent III
- For 10 weeks, until it was declared null and void by the Pope on 24 August 1215
- There are 3 clauses still valid in UK law
- Oliver Cromwell
- Thomas Jefferson
- Nelson Mandela, at the Rivonia Trial
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26 January 2019
The British Library holds the world’s largest collection of Anglo-Saxon charters, wills and letters, over 200 of which have recently been added to our Digitised Manuscripts site. An impressive selection of these charters are also currently on display in our landmark Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.
What makes these charters, letters and wills so fascinating?
(1) We sometimes know the dates when specific charters were issued
The Hlothhere Charter: Cotton MS Augustus II 2
In general, charters are formulaic documents. The main portion of text outlines the transaction, often a grant of land, and then states when and where it was formalised. A list of witnesses might then be added at the bottom. This charter, issued in the name of King Hlothhere of Kent (d. 685), states that it was issued ‘in the city of Rochester in the month of May, the seventh indiction’. This refers to the Roman dating system, split into fifteen-year cycle, which equates to the year 679.
(2) Charters were often created in response to a meeting or event
Charter of Æthelwulf, king of the West Saxons and of Kent: Stowe Ch 17
This charter was issued in the name of King Æthelwulf (d. 858), who styled himself ‘king of the West Saxons and the men of Kent’; in it, he granted land in Chart, western Kent, to a nobleman called Æthelmod. The small piece of parchment stitched to the bottom reveals that this charter was made in a two-stage process. The main part of the document was drawn up in advance and used at the official ceremony. A note was then made of all the witnesses present, listing the king, his entourage, the archbishop and members of the Canterbury community. These names were copied onto the main document at a later date.
3. Charters sometimes confirmed important changes in the Anglo-Saxon Church
Decree of the church council at Clofesho abolishing the archbishopric of Lichfield: Cotton MS Augustus II 61
In 787, the bishopric of Lichfield was raised to an archbishopric, most likely at the request of King Offa of Mercia. For sixteen years, Lichfield was the third archbishopric in the English Church alongside Canterbury and York. However, in 803, a church council held at Clofesho confirmed that Lichfield should revert to a bishopric. The charter above confirmed the decision made at that council.
(4) Wills can provide valuable insights into the private lives of Anglo-Saxon noblemen and women
Will of Wynflæd, late 10th or early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38
Wynflæd was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who lived in south-western England in the first half of the 10th century. She left a will detailing what should happen to her possessions, which survives in a copy made in the early 11th century. Wynflæd’s will lists several estates, tamed and untamed horses, slaves, coins, livestock, items in gold and silver, and books. The will also stipulates what should happen to her clothing, including her engraved bracelets, linen gowns, caps and headbands. This fascinating document provides an insight into the estate of a wealthy woman in the 10th century in a level of detail rarely found in other sources.
(5) Charters could very occasionally be decorated
King Edgar from a charter for the New Minster, Winchester, 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v
In some very rare instances, Anglo-Saxon charters could be decorated. A stunning example of a decorated charter is King Edgar’s charter for the New Minster, Winchester, which depicts Edgar, flanked by St Peter and the Virgin Mary, presenting the charter to Christ.
(6) Charters were sometimes consulted several centuries after they were created
King Æthelbald of the Mercians and of the South Angli grants ten hides at Ismere by the river Stour and land at Brochyl in Morfe forest, Worcestershire, to Cyneberht, comes, for the construction of a minster, dated 736: Cotton MS Augustus II 3
Inscriptions on the reverse of these charters can often reflect how they were archived. On the back of this charter issued in the name of King Æthelbald of Mercia in 736, it is still possible to see the impressions from where the document was folded for storage. A portion of parchment that would have been exposed is slightly discoloured and bears two inscriptions: ‘Norð stur’ is written twice in a 10th-century hand, and ‘Æþelbald rex’ in a 12th-century hand. These notes would have helped the archivist identify the charter's content without having to open it.
Reverse of a charter issued in the name of King Æthelbald of the Mercians: Cotton MS Augustus II 3
You can explore these charterrific documents on our Digitised Manuscripts site. A full list of all digitised Anglo-Saxon charters from the British Library’s collection can be found here. And you can see a host of Anglo-Saxon charters, letters and wills for yourself in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (until 19 February 2019).
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16 June 2018
Last week we announced that the manuscript collection of Sir Robert Cotton, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. To celebrate, we've decided to test our readers' knowledge of the Cotton library. Some of these questions are easier than others, we hope. There are no prizes up for grabs but please let us know how you get on via Twitter, @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #cottonquiz, or by the comments field below. Good luck!
The answers are now given below (no peeking!).
1. On which manuscript does Sir Robert Cotton rest his hands in this portrait?
2. From whom did Cotton reportedly acquire his two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta?
3. The diary of which English king is found in the Cotton library?
4. Which Roman emperor connects Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Lindisfarne Gospels?
5. How old was Sir Robert Cotton when he acquired his first manuscript? (And for a bonus point, what was the manuscript in question?)
6. In 1602–03, Robert Cotton presented a dozen manuscripts to whom, one of the earliest donations for which other great collection?
7. The Reculver charter is written in what script?
8. Name the English monarch for whom this map was made.
9. How many volumes were destroyed in their entirety in the 1731 fire?
10. The plan for which famous battle was identified in a fire-damaged Cotton manuscript?
Here are the answers:
The Cotton Genesis (Cotton Otho MS B VI)
King Edward VI (Cotton MS Nero C X)
Seventeen (Cotton MS Vespasian D XV is inscribed on f. 83v, 'Robertus Cotton 1588 Æ 17')
Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library in Oxford
Uncial (Cotton MS Augustus II 2)
King Henry VIII (Cotton MS Augustus I i 9)
Thirteen, plus three more in the 1865 British Museum bindery fire (as noted by Andrew Prescott, ‘“Their present miserable state of cremation”: the restoration of the Cotton library’, in C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London, 1997), pp. 391–454, at pp. 392, 421)
Agincourt (the French battle-plan is found in Cotton MS Caligula D V, ff. 43v–44r)
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19 November 2017
Earlier this month, we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Forest Charter, Magna Carta’s little sibling. It inspired a new Tree Charter, with accompanying events ranging from bike rides to pole launches. Today, we commemorate the Statute of Marlborough. At 750 years old, issued on 19 November 1267, it’s one of the the oldest pieces of legislation in England still in force today.
The Statute of Marlborough almost didn’t make it to this day. Only four of its twenty-nine sections are still in force. In 2014, the Law Commission made plans to scrap it altogether. The surviving sections are now known as the Distress Act and the Waste Act. The Distress Act states that anyone seeking reimbursement for damages must do so through the courts, while the Waste Act ensures that the tenants do not lay waste, sell or ruin their lands and other resources without special permission. This is still a concern in modern agriculture:
Fermors, during their Terms, shall not make Waste, Sale, nor Exile of House, Woods, Men, nor of any Thing belonging to the Tenements that they have to ferm, without special Licence had by Writing of Covenant, making mention that they may do it; which thing if they do, and thereof be convict, they shall yield full Damage, and shall be punished by Amerciament grievously.
There are eight pieces of English legislation from the 13th century that have not been repealed. One of those is Magna Carta, which was originally issued by King John in 1215; the earliest versions were repealed, with the version now in force dating from 1297.
One of the two sources for the official Latin text of the Statute of Marlborough is held at the British Library (Cotton MS Claudius D II). It forms part of a book collecting English laws — the medieval version of legislation.gov.uk, you might say. You can see the Cotton manuscript of the Statute of Marlborough right now in our free Treasures Gallery, alongside a copy of the Forest Charter that was narrowly saved from destruction and a plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey.
The plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey is further evidence of how the environment shaped the medieval world. Medieval monasteries aimed to be self-reliant, and water was key to this. This plan of a conduit built in 1220–22 at Waltham Abbey is one of the earliest surviving English maps. The water flows from three round sources at the top, through a filtration system, and into a pipe towards the abbey. It is found in a cartulary made for the abbey, a collection of charters copied into a single volume for reference and preservation. The agreements in this book show that the monks had to negotiate with several different landlords to build across their land.
13 October 2017
The British Library is recruiting for a Project Officer to work on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. This is a full-time, fixed term position, for nine months, in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department.
The opening page for the Gospel of St Matthew from 9th-century Northern France: Harley MS 2797, f. 15r.
The Project Officer will assist the curators with all aspects of preparation for and delivery of the digitisation project and other smaller digitisation projects, including the South-East Asian manuscripts project. This will include arranging for delivery to the studio, checking images and uploading manuscripts to the Library’s online catalogue, contributing to the development of learning materials, preparing blog posts, answering enquiries and a range of other curatorial duties. This is a 9-month post post beginning in January 2018, dependent on the necessary security clearances being obtained.
Full details of the post and how to apply are available on the Library’s website. The position is only open to applicants with the right to work in the UK.
To apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers.
Closing Date: 5 November 2017
Interviews will be held on 24 November 2017. The selection process may include questions about the date and origin of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.
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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
10 June 2017
The second Battle of Lincoln, 20 May 1217, is one of the greatest English conflicts that almost nobody has ever heard of. The British Library is a partner in a new exhibition at The Collection Museum in Lincoln from 27 May to 3 September 2017 which hopes to change this: Battles and Dynasties. This exhibition brings together an enormous range of artefacts from the medieval to modern periods, celebrating the role of Lincoln in the development of modern Britain.
The First Battle of Lincoln, 1141, in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum: Arundel MS 48, f. 168v.
Given the relative stability of the monarchy in the kingdom of England during the Middle Ages, it is easy to forget the many contests to the position of its kings and queens. We all know the bloody story of the Wars of the Roses, but conflict boiled over far earlier than this. Lincoln was a centre for this, as one of the prominent fortified settlements in the eastern part of England. The first Battle of Lincoln of 1141 saw the forces of the Empress Matilda capture King Stephen. At the second Battle of Lincoln, the future of the country was at stake as forces loyal to Prince Louis of France challenged the authority of King Henry III, still a child. Henry’s forces won the day, and he went on to rule for more than fifty years – but English history would have been different if the battle had gone otherwise.
Peraldus, Summa de uirtutibus et uitiis: Harley MS 3244, ff. 27v–28r.
Lincoln was also a major intellectual centre of medieval England. Its cathedral school became one of the most prominent English centres of education in the late 12th century under the beloved teacher William de Montibus. His student, Richard of Wetheringsett, went on to become the first known chancellor of the University of Cambridge. As bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste became one of the most influential writers of the 13th century. All these figures’ works feature in Harley MS 3244, which is displayed at Lincoln with its splendid illustrated version of a treatise on the virtues and vices, as applied to the armour of a knight.
Great Bible of Henry IV: Royal MS 1 E IX, f. 163v.
Also on display are some of the splendours of courtly culture made in the midst of conflict. King Henry IV is generally known for his ruthlessness, thanks to his deposition of Richard II, but he was also a lover of books: the enormous Great Bible, measuring 630 × 430 mm, is thought to have been in his collection. England’s interdependencies on Europe did not slow even in the face of the wars at this time: the volume of Jehan de Wavrin’s Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d’Angleterre (Old and New Chronicles of England) in the exhibition, Royal MS 14 E IV, was produced in Lille and Bruges in the 1470s for King Edward IV, while conflicts over who should be the monarch continued to brew.
Jehan de Wavrin, Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d’Angleterre: Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 10r.
There are far more treasures to see in the exhibition. Also on display from the British Library are the Rochester Chronicle (Cotton MS Nero D II) and the chronicle of Ralph of Coggeshall (Cotton MS Vespasian D X). The collections gathered at Lincoln are a reminder that events maintaining the status quo are just as important as those that overturn it, and that culture can continue to flourish even in the midst of conflict. We hope that many of you get the chance to view our manuscripts in person.
22 April 2017
Some of the most stunning creations of the Middle Ages are still alive. Britain is dotted with trees planted hundreds of years ago, with over 120,000 listed in the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory. Some of them are over a thousand years old. This year, organisations across the United Kingdom have created a Tree Charter, which seeks to recognise the importance of trees to our national life. This charter harks back to a very important medieval document, the Forest Charter, which was originally issued in the name of King Henry III of England (1216–1272) on 6 November 1217.
The Forest Charter, in the version reissued in 1225, with the great seal of King Henry III: Add Ch 24712.
The Forest Charter can be thought of as the younger sibling of Magna Carta. One of its primary aims was to regulate royal forests, which had been created by William the Conqueror and covered around a quarter of England during the 12th and 13th centuries. Today, we think of forests as lands covered with trees, but in the 13th century royal forests also included pastures and even villages – indeed, almost the entire county of Essex was declared a royal forest. From our perspective, this move to make huge swathes of land into royal forests seems remarkably forward-thinking. We might think that in doing this William was seeking to preserve England's trees, but he had a specific purpose for his conservation effort: he wanted lands for the crown to hunt wild animals and game, particularly deer.
Animals romping in the margin of a manuscript of the works of Gerald of Wales: Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 10v.
To regulate these vast tracts of land, a special ‘forest law’ was created to promote their use as royal game preserves, enforced by a small army of foresters. In theory, they could impose enormous punishments on offenders, up to capital punishment. In practice, they normally issued fines, making the forest an important source of income for the crown.
The barons living under this rule took issue with the 'forest law'. They drafted the Forest Charter, which sought to scale back this law (translation from The National Archives):
Henceforth, no man shall lose his life or suffer the amputation of any of his limbs for killing our deer. If any man is convicted of killing our deer, he shall pay a grievous fine, but if he is poor and has nothing to lose, he shall be imprisoned for a year and a day. After the year and a day expired, if he can find people to vouch for him, he shall be released; if not, he shall be banished from the realm of England.
The charter further rolled back the area of the forests to their boundaries at the beginning of the rule of King Henry II in 1154, where the lands could be shown to have been taken wrongfully. (Henry II had vigorously expanded the forest borders, to the point of creating hardship.) Crucially, the charter also sought to expand common access to the forests. In this period, people relied on areas of woodland to provide fuel for heating and cooking, as well as pasture in which to graze livestock. The Forest Charter, therefore, had important implications for common people.
The charter was repeatedly confirmed as part of English law. It was in association with the Forest Charter that the name ‘Magna Carta’ was first used, to distinguish it as the large charter as opposed to its littler (and later) sibling. The British Library’s copy of the charter is a reissue from 1225, and appears to have narrowly escaped destruction.
The Forest Charter represents a pragmatic approach to define the value of forests and ensure that they can be accessed as a resource crucial to the everyday functioning of society. Aspects of this approach are still valuable, such as in attempts to calculate the natural capital of forests in economic terms. The story of the royal forests are also the subject of a new book to be published next month by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, entitled Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape.
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19 January 2017
The British Library is delighted to be a participant in this year's ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. Throughout the Festival, from 19 to 23 January, a facsimile of one of the four original Magna Carta documents from 1215, now held at the British Library in London, will be on display at the Diggi Palace in Jaipur. The Festival itself was inaugurated by Chief Minister of Rajasthan Smt. Vasundhara Raje, who was one of the first to view the facsimile.
Children viewing the facsimile of Magna Carta at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival
Claire Breay (The British Library) showing the facsimile of Magna Carta to Chief Minister of Rajasthan Smt. Vasundhara Raje
Then, on Saturday 21 January, the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival is holding a panel discussion entitled ‘Magna Carta: Spirit of Justice’. The five speakers — writer and lawyer Chintan Chandrachud, historian David Carpenter, barrister Helena Kennedy, biographer and historian Patrick French and curator Claire Breay — will explore the history, impact and global legacy of the 4,000 words of Latin issued by King John at Runnymede in 1215. The British Library is represented at the Festival by Claire Breay (Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts), who will be discussing with Professor David Carpenter (King's College London) the medieval history of Magna Carta, and how the Library's major 2015 exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, explored both the medieval story of Magna Carta and how it came to be such a famous international symbol of rights and liberties.
The crowd at the inauguration ceremony of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival
The loan of the Magna Carta facsimile is part of an ambitious British Library programme of engagement with India, which will also see the loan of one of the Library’s copies of the First Folio of William Shakespeare, to CSMVS Museum in Mumbai from 20 January to 8 March. The programme also includes a major project to digitise thousands of Indian printed books held by the Library: the first phase of ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ aims to digitise and make available online 4,000 printed books in Bengali, unlocking their riches to researchers and a wider public than ever before.
Outside the room where the facsimile of Magna Carta is on display at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival
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Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts
- Magna Carta quiz
- Cotton manuscripts quiz
- Happy birthday, Statute of Marlborough!
- Job vacancy to work with digital images
- Battles and Dynasties at Lincoln
- How our ancient trees connect us to the past
- Magna Carta at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival
- Magna Carta Room Reopens
- Fire, Fire! The Tragic Burning of the Cotton Library