Thursday, 5 February 2015

Magna Carta - 800 Years and Counting

Back in October, I entered into the British Library's ballot, to try to win tickets for their Magna Carta Reunification event - all four surviving copies of the original 1215 Charter, brought together to be visited by just 1,215 members of the public.

In December, much to my surprise and delight, I got an e-mail from the British Library, which started "Congratulations, you have won tickets to the Magna Carta Unification Event on 3 February 2015." It appears that well over 40,000 people applied for tickets, and (given tht the tickets were available in pairs) the chances of winning were about 1 in 80.!

For the next couple of months, I kept going back and re-reading the e-mail, to check that it really did say what I thought it did. And then, in January, the actual tickets arrived, and I was convinced that it really was happening!

So, on Tuesday morning, I set off to the British Library, to enjoy some History.

We started in the Library's Conference Centre, where historian Dan Jones was to give us a brief introduction to the Charter. 

And we got a lovely surprise. We had asked, with every expectation that the answer would be no, whether they had happened to have any last minute cancellations which might allow my mother to come with us (I got 2 tickets. I invited one of my parents to come with me, and they agreed that that would be my dad, while my mum spent the day doing some research elsewhere) . Much to our surprise and pleasure, there was (or possibly they had been authorised to allow a few extra people in! ) So all three of us got to see the Charters!

There were a number of reenactors at the library for the event, soldiers / men at arms for security and crowd control, musicians, scribes, and others. For instance, we were greeted by one of the King's Marshals (who warned that anyone allowing their phone to go off during Dan Jones' talk would be taken up for witchcraft, as clearly small talking devices must be the work of the devil!)

Dan Jones gave us a short talk, summarizing the background to the grant of the charter, and explaining some of the differences between the 4 remaining copies - for instance, that three of them are written in 'Chancery Hand', a style of writing associated with the Court (and proto-civil servants) and the fourth is in a style associated more with the copying of prayer books and other literary works. 

He also spoke briefly about what is known of the provenance of each Charter, and about how it failed at the time, and  little about it's ongoing influence.  For instance, the second of the two copies held by the British Library, which was damaged in a fire in the 18thC, but it's current illegibe condition is due, not to the fire damage, but to the early Victorian attempts at conservation! (recently, research using photography using different lights has allowed much of the Charter to be read again)

Then, we were to go across to the main Library to queue to see Magna Carta itself.

While we waited,  there were further reenactors, including musicians,  a gentleman reading Magna Carta (in English) aloud, another writing out the charter, in (so we were told) accurate medieval Latin, complete with the various contractions used in the original Charter, and using a quill.

Others were moving around making conversation  we had a chat with Richard Poer, Bishop of Chichester, who was looking remarkably youthful for a prelate entering his 9th Century!

It took us a while to reach the head of the queue, but it was worth the wait.

When you see it, Magna Carta is surprisingly small. The handwriting is beautifully regular and clear (although unless you read medieval Latin, not actually comprehensible) 

On each one, it was possible to make out King John's name, in the first line, and to pick out where each clause began.

The 'London' Magna Carta (picture(c) the British Library)
Seeing the copies side by side, it was also possible to see the differences in style we had been told about.
The Salisbury Magna Carta (Picture (c) Salisbury Cathedral)
Seeing the documents, and knowing that they have survived for 800 years, and inspired and influenced law and constitutions worldwide, was awe-inspiring (although  King John, and the Barons, would of course all find the modern legacies of Magna Carta utterly alien and very different to their original intentions.!)

As we left the exhibition space, we were each given a rather nice goody bag, which contained, as well as souvenir pens and pencils from Lincoln and Salisbury cathedrals, a note book, and a very chocolate coin, a 'Golden Ticket' (to allow a visit to each of the three exhibitions, at the British Library, Lincoln Castle and Salisbury Cathedral, and a certificate of attendance at the event.

We were invited to go to the one-day-only scriptorium (usually the ticket office!) to have our names inscribed upon the certificates, which were then sealed with beeswax. 

Did you know that the whole thing about melting sealing wax over a candle to seal documents is a hollywood mistake? Modern sealing wax has shellac in, but beeswax, as used on Magna Carta, and our certificates, is simply warmed in the hands for sealing!

It was a very memorable day, and I feel privileged to have been one of the few people given this opportunity.

The British Library's exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy opens on 13th March, and runs until September. (You can also read more about Magna Carta on the Library's blog There are also exhibitions on in Lincoln and Salisbury. I am hoping that I shall manage to visit the Salisbury one, at least!

More photos of the day on Flickr
(BBC news story showing the copies of Magna Carta on display, here)

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