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Where is Magna Carta Today?

King John’s barons never intended for there to be only a single copy of Magna Carta. The provisions of the Great Charter were so important that its supporters wanted there to be copies available in England’s cathedrals, castles and major towns so that the terms of the agreement would be well known and available for consultation. During John’s reign, England consisted of 39 counties formed between the 5th and 11th centuries that would have all received copies of the Great Charter. Since Llewelyn the Great, Prince of Wales and King Alexander III of Scotland supported the Charter, versions of Magna Carta likely circulated in Wales and Scotland as well. A specially drafted Magna Carta Hibernae was sent to Ireland in 1216 with “Dublin” substituted for “London” in the text.

When Magna Carta was revised and reissued during the reigns of John’s son, Henry III and grandson, Edward I, fresh versions of the amended Charter were distributed throughout England’s counties, engrossed with the royal seal. Since the printing press was not in use in Europe until the fifteenth century, each of these documents was laboriously handwritten by clerks. Distribution took time as the only means of transport within thirteenth century England were by horseback or riverboat. Since the literacy rate in medieval England may have been as low as 5% in rural areas, Magna Carta was read aloud in churches and town halls.

Over the course of the past eight hundred years, most of the copies of Magna Carta have been lost. The Magna Carta Hibernae was destroyed in an explosion at Dublin’s Four Courts in 1922, during the Irish Civil War. There remain seventeen copies of the Great Charter throughout the United Kingdom and the world that predate 1300: four from 1215, one from 1216, four from 1217, four from 1225 and four from 1297. There are six known versions remaining from 1300.

Of the four surviving versions of Magna Carta from 1215, two are located in the British Library in London. One of the British Library copies, cited as “Cotton Charters XIII. 31A” may be the first edition of Magna Carta commissioned by the barons. There are additions at the bottom of the main text, which may have been inserted at John’s insistence before he would affix his seal. The document was part of the archives of Dover Castle, discovered in the seventeenth century and presented to Sir Robert Cotton, an antiquarian and Member of Parliament. The Cotton Library at Ashburnham House, near London’s Houses of Parliament, caught fire in 1731, destroying or damaging a quarter of the collection. Magna Carta was among the damaged documents. The yellow sealing wax melted, two holes were burned in the parchment and the document shrivelled in the heat.

Cotton also acquired the other copy of Magna Carta that is now part of the British Library collection. The early history of “Cotton, Augustus II. 106” is unknown but there is legend that Cotton rescued it from his tailor at the moment it was about to be cut into suit patterns. This second copy of the Great Charter survived the 1731 fire intact but does not have a seal. In the 1750s, the British Museum and Library took charge of the Cotton Library. This copy of Magna Carta is on display in the permanent “Treasures of the British Library” exhibition.

The two other copies of Magna Carta from 1215 have been part of the collections of Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral for centuries. Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, was educated at the Lincoln Cathedral School and the Lincoln Magna Carta has been in the custody of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral for centuries. It has been on display at Lincoln Castle since 1993. In contrast to the British Library copies, which have remained in London, the Lincoln Magna Carta has toured the British Isles and the world. The copy was on display at two World’s Fairs: New York in 1939 and Brisbane, Australia in 1988. While the Lincoln Magna Carta was still in New York as the centrepiece of the British Pavilion, the Second World War began. Rather than risk returning the document to England through a blockade of German U-Boats, the United States agreed to store it in the vaults at Fort Knox. It was in good company as two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence were moved from Washington for safekeeping to Fort Knox as well. The documents were kept under lock and key, sealed with lead and placed in protective containers. All told, the documents were kept safe by some 150 pounds of gear. This copy of the Magna Carta returned to Lincoln Cathedral in 1947. In 2014-2015, the Lincoln Magna Carta will return to the United States, traveling to Boston, Williamstown and Washington D.C.

The Salisbury Magna Carta may have belonged to John’s illegitimate half-brother, William Longspeé, who urged the King to accept the demands of his barons. This copy of the charter was housed at Old Sarum Cathedral then moved to the archives of the present Salisbury Cathedral, which contains Longspeé’s effigy. The document was lost in the mid-seventeenth century during the course of repairs to the Cathedral library then rediscovered in the early nineteenth century. The Salisbury Magna Carta is currently on display in the Cathedral by order of the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury Cathedral.

Copies of the Magna Carta from the reigns of Henry III (1216-1272) and Edward I (1272-1307) are more numerous. The Great Charter was reissued in 1216 and 1217, during Henry III’s minority, and again in 1225, after the King came of age. The National Archives of the United Kingdom has a copy of the 1225 and 1297 Charters and the London Guildhall has a 1297 copy that is occasionally on public display. Of the seventeen surviving copies of the Great Charter that predate 1300, one quarter of these documents are preserved in Oxford University’s Bodleian library, which has been open to researchers since 1602. The Bodleian acquired its copies from antiquarian Anthony Wood in the late seventeenth century.

The three 1217 versions of Magna Carta in the Bodleian collection bear the seals of Henry III’s regent, William Marshall and papal legate Cardinal Legate Guala while the 1225 version bears the seal of the adult Henry III. One of the 1217 versions traveled to New York in 2010 for the North America Reunion of Oxford University alumni. When the eruption of Iceland’s Mount Eyjafjallajökull temporarily grounded flights to the United Kingdom, stranding the document in the United States, New York’s Morgan Library held an impromptu public exhibition. The travel delays provided time for the Manitoba Legislature to negotiate a loan of Magna Carta for a three month exhibition there. While the 1217 Bodleian Magna Carta was in Winnipeg, the Queen visited on her most recent tour of Canada to unveil a stone from Runnymede meadow that became the cornerstone of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Two copies of Magna Carta have found permanent homes outside the United Kingdom. A 1297 version, from the reign of Edward I, is on display at the National Archives in Washington D.C. The Ross Perot Family Foundation bought the document from the Brudenell family in 1984 for $1.5 million. The Brudenells, relatives of the 19th century Earls of Cardigan, realized they had the document in their possession in 1974, following an inventory of the family records. After this discovery, their Magna Carta spent several years resting on an easel in a room at the family estate, Deene Park (pictured above). Upon the sale of the document, Edmund Brudenell explained that it was necessary to pay for the upkeep of the family estate, stating, “Works of art and historic documents don’t pay the grocer and once the Magna Carta’s value was established, it then was a worry to have it in the house.”

Then, in 2007, the “American” Magna Carta went up for auction at Sothebys and was sold to American businessman David Rubenstein for $21.3 million. Rubenstein explained his interest in Magna Carta at the time of the sale, stating, “It is the most important document in Western Civilization. It was the inspiration for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. This is a gift to the American people. It is important to me that it stays in the United States.” This copy of the document is the only one in private ownership and is currently on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The Australian Parliament also owns a 1297 version of Magna Carta. This copy was originally sent to the Sheriff of Surrey, Robert de Glamorgan to be proclaimed in the county court. The document spent centuries in an obscure Sussex nunnery then eventually came into the possession of King’s School in Bruton, Somerset. The Australian government bought the document in 1952 and it is on display at Magna Carta Place in Canberra.
Additional copies of Magna Carta from the collections of English cathedrals tour the world. The 1217 Hereford Cathedral copy is on display for much of 2014 at Houston’s Museum of Natural Science. Durham Cathedral has the only 1216 copy of Magna Carta in its collection in addition to the 1225 copy that will tour Canada in 2015.

The six copies of Magna Carta from 1300, engrossed with the royal seal of Edward I are housed in libraries, archives, universities and churches in the United Kingdom. These documents are in the collections of Westminster Abbey, the City of London, Faversham Town Council, Durham Cathedral, Oriel College at Oxford and the Bodleian library. After the reign of Edward I, Magna Carta fell into comparative obscurity, only to be revived by the writings of the seventeenth century jurist, Sir Edward Coke. The decline of popular and political interest in Magna Carta may have resulted in the loss of many copies of the Great Charter but also allowed others to rest undisturbed in archives, waiting to be rediscovered!

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  1. Pingback: Where is Magna Carta Today? | Carolyn Harris: Royal Historian

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