Wonderful news! We’ve been given the chance in 2015 to see all four manuscripts of the Magna Carta – together! But hang on a minute: four Magna Cartas (properly, Magnae Cartae)? Well, actually, I make it five …
Like you, I imagine, I had a little shiver of excitement as I entered the British Library’s electronic ballot to see all four surviving manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta – that symbol of justice and liberty. I would kill to be one of the 1,215 people (observe the cleverness of the number) who get to see this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.
Just imagine being greeted by the charming historian Dan Jones to the mellifluous strains of live medieval music and, impressively, being guided to the Magnae Cartae by ‘costumed characters from the thirteenth century’. I did for a moment think that last bit meant people actually from the thirteenth-century rather than people dressed in clothes typical of the thirteenth-century, but then not even the British Library could pull off the Resurrection. I wonder if we will see Dan in a tunic?
But I digress. And I’m being a bit silly, too.
So, now. If you are a tad staggered to hear there are actually four copies of the Magna Carta, then I will trouble you some more. I may be anticipating Mr Jones here, but we should probably drop the romantic notion that on a sunny June 15 in 1215, on the banks of the River Thames at Runnymede, a single copy of the Magna Carta was written up and sealed by King John.
The good people at Early English Laws (EEL) explain that once John and his barons had agreed the terms at Runnymede, numerous copies of the Magna Carta were made retrospectively in the royal chancery, and subsequently many were distributed throughout the land. (I imagine that these were actually given the royal seal; in fact, one of the British Library copies has its seal intact.)
Remarkably, four of the copies have survived – two at the British Library, one at Lincoln Cathedral and one at Salisbury Cathedral – and these are the ones I will get to see. (I managed Kate Bush tickets, for crying out loud, so this is going to be a walk in the park.)
But there is more! Yes! One more, in fact ...
The 2015 Magna Carta was also translated into Old French. It survives in a copy written into a cartulary of the lepers’ hospital of St Giles at Pont-Audemer in Normandy, sometime between 1219 and 1226.
‘This particular version of Magna Carta,’ explains EEL ‘was created to facilitate publication of the charter in Hampshire, where it was distributed by the steward of the archbishop of Canterbury, Elias of Dereham. The survival of this vernacular version is a significant piece of evidence showing how the content of Magna Carta was made known to the wider political community in England.’
So, there we have it: five Magnae Cartae. What a shame we couldn’t see the French one too. Did anyone think to ask them?
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