Four Magna Cartas
Magna Cartas to be Unified for First Time
All-in-all four extant copies of the original Magna Carta from 1215 are still in existence. The curators – The British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral – have announced that their copies, all issued by King John, will be unified in 2015 for the first time since they were made. In an event to be staged at the British Library in London, scholars, curators and conservators closely involved in the study of Magna Carta will be given the unique opportunity to examine the Magna Cartas side-by-side. Further, 1215 members of the public, selected in a ballot, will also be able to view the original documents together. The event is scheduled to open the year-long festivities planned for the celebration of the 800th anniversary of the document.
The three institutions have been working closely together to organise this one-off event, which will initiate a year of global celebrations of this key constitutional document. Bringing the four surviving manuscripts together for the first time will create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for researchers and members of the public to see them in one place.
Magna Carta was issued by King John of England in June 1215, in an attempt to stave off the demands of his rebellious barons. Although Magna Carta was annulled by Pope Innocent III within ten weeks, revised versions were issued on behalf of John’s successors Henry III (1216–1272) and Edward I (1272–1307), in 1216, 1217, 1225 and 1297 respectively.
Once Magna Carta was sealed (not signed) by King John, a number of copies were distributed to the sheriffs and bishops of England in June and July 1215. Just four of these copies of the original 1215 version of Magna Carta have survived, two of which are now held at the British Library and one each at Lincoln and Salisbury. The Lincoln and Salisbury Magna Cartas are presumably those sent to the respective cathedrals in 1215; the British Library’s two copies both belonged to the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), one of them being sent to him in 1630 by the lieutenant of Dover Castle, and the other being found in a London tailor’s shop. Only one of the four original documents still has its seal attached, but that copy (at the British Library) was damaged badly by a combination of fire in 1731 and a failed attempt at restoration in 1834.
Lincoln Cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta on occasion travels for display at other institutions, while one of the British Library’s two copies was loaned to the Library of Congress for the United States bicentennial celebrations in 1976. However, it is still exceedingly rare for these documents to leave their usual homes, and entirely unprecedented for them to be brought together in one place. The fact that they were written and distributed over a number of weeks in 1215 means that this is the first time ever that these copies of the original Magna Carta have been unified.
You can read more about Magna Carta, including seeing the Magna Carta viewer, a complete translation, and virtual curator videos, on the British Library’s website.