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Library of Congress to Display 800-Year Old Copy of Magna Carta, Part I

The Library of Congress announced last week that for ten weeks, from Thursday, November 6, 2014 to Monday, January 19, 2015, the Library of Congress will display one of only four copies of Magna Carta (Great Charter) to last from 1215 until now in the exhibition Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor. After an army raised by feudal barons forced him to do so, King John affixed the royal seal to the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215 at Runnymede, which is on the west bank of the River Thames in the county of Surrey.

This was the first time in English history the aristocracy had compelled the monarchy to make concessions. It would be a mistake to say this was the beginning of the Rule of Law, but it was an important early step. The Library of Congress is calling the Magna Carta “the great charter of rights and liberties,” but I should point out the Peerage wanted the monarchy to recognize the rights of Peers of the Realm, rather than of commoners.

The Magna Carta came in the tradition of the Charter of Liberties King Henry I had issued when he was crowned in 1100. Henry I, John’s great-grandfather, had wanted to assure his vassals he would respect the rights of aristocrats and churchmen, unlike his elder brother, William II Rufus, whose brief reign ended in a hunting accident.

As Carolyn Harris recounted, there are only seventeen copies of the Magna Carta that predate 1300. The rest have been lost. For example, a copy called Magna Carta Hibernae, written in 1216 specifically for the Irish (whom the Norman-English had conquered under John’s father, Henry II), which substituted Dublin for London in the text, burned in 1922 as the result of an explosion at Four Courts during the Irish Civil War.

The British Library, which I will be profiling soon, has two of the other four copies from 1215. Both came into the possession of Sir Robert Cotton, 5th Baronet, an antiquarian and Member of Parliament.

One copy was engrossed. In this case, an engrossed copy means it has the royal seal.

Cotton received the engrossed copy from the archives of Dover Castle. Unfortunately, the yellow sealing wax melted, two holes burned in the parchment, and the parchment shriveled in the heat of the 1731 fire that destroyed or damaged one-quarter of the documents in The Cotton Library at Ashburnham House. I am not making that name up.

The second copy Cotton acquired, the one that never received the royal seal, was undamaged in the fire. It is in a permanent exhibit, Treasures of the British Library.

The British Museum acquired The Cotton Library. The British Library evolved from a department of the British Museum, specifically the British Museum Reading Room.

The other two Magna Carta copies that date back to 1215 belong to the collections of Salisbury Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral. The prime mover in the events that led to the composition of Magna Carta, Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, had studied at Lincoln Cathedral School.

The Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral had custody of it for centuries. This copy has been on display at Lincoln Castle since 1993.

It has twice been on display at World’s Fairs, in New York City in 1939 and Brisbane in 1988. In the former case, the fear that any ship that might have carried it back across the Atlantic might have been sunk by a U-boat with the outbreak of World War II in Europe led to it being kept for in the safekeeping of the U.S. Government.

The Library of Congress stated, “In addition to the 800th anniversary, the exhibition marks the 75th anniversary of Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta’s first visit to the Library of Congress. After a six-month public viewing in the British Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the document traveled to Washington, D.C. On Nov. 28, 1939, the British Ambassador to the United States, in an official ceremony, handed Magna Carta over to Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish…”

The Library of Congress placed the Magna Carta on exhibition until the U.S. entered the war. Two weeks after the Japanese Imperial Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the Library of Congress sent the Magna Carta, the U.S. Constitution, and Declaration of Independence to Fort Knox in Kentucky. This copy of the Magna Carta returned to Lincoln Cathedral after the war ended.

It is this copy that will be on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. after being on display in Boston and Williamstown. The document is traveling first to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it will be on display from Wednesday, July 2, 2014 to Monday, September 1, 2014 and then to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts from Saturday, September 6, 2014 through Sunday, November 2, 2014. The Library of Congress will be its final stop in the U.S.A.

Lincoln Cathedral and Pitkin Publishing have published Magna Carta: The Lincoln Story by Carol and Nicholas Bennett. It’s on sale at Lincoln Cathedral Shop, Lincoln Castle Shop, and elsewhere for £6.99.

The copy of Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral may have belonged to King John’s illegitimate half-brother, William Longspeé (died 1226), 3rd Earl of Salisbury (1196-1226), a loyal supporter of John who had advised him to sign Magna Carta. William’s tomb is in Salisbury Cathedral.

This copy originally belonged to Old Sarum Cathedral.[1] This Magna Carta copy, lost in the mid-17th Century during the course of Salisbury Cathedral library repairs, was rediscovered over 160 years ago. The Dean and Chapter of Salisbury Cathedral keep it on display at Salisbury Cathedral.

In May, Seif El Rashidi arrived at Salisbury Cathedral to begin a two-year-long contract Magna Carta programme manager. Sarah Flanaghan stated for Sailsbury Cathedral, “As home to the finest of the four surviving original 1215 Magna Carta, the Cathedral has been developing an extensive programme for 2015, having been awarded initial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). At the heart of its plans is a new exhibition to be created by design specialists Haley Sharpe. The UNESCO listed document is regarded as the foundation for human rights, law and democracy worldwide and the cathedral is committed to helping people understand not only why Magna Carta is still so important but also how the stories of Salisbury Cathedral and Magna Carta are intertwined.”

King John’s son, King Henry III (lived 1207-1272, reigned 1216-1272), and grandson King Edward I (lived 1239-1307, reigned 1272-1307), revised and reissued Magna Carta in 1216, 1217, 1225, and 1297. The National Archives of the United Kingdom (T.N.A.), an agency of the Ministry of Justice, has one copy each of the 1225 and 1297 reissues of the Magna Carta and the London Guildhall has a copy of 1297 reissue.

As I mentioned before, The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries had a 1217 engrossment of Magna Carta in the exhibition Treasures of the Bodleian, Oxford. One-quarter of the seventeen copies from before 1300 are at the Bodleian Libraries, all of them acquired through Anthony Wood (1632-1695).

The Bodleian’s three copies from 1217 have the seals of Henry III’s regent William Marshall and Cardinal Legate Guala Bicchieri. The 1225 reissue has the seal of an adult Henry III.

One of the Bodleian’s 1217 Magna Carta copies went to New York City in 2010. The occasion was the North American Reunion of Oxford University alumni.

That year’s eruption of Mount Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland temporarily grounded flights to the British Isles, stranding this copy of the Magna Carta in New York City, where the Morgan Library improvised an exhibition. The Manitoba Legislature seized this opportunity to arrange a loan for a three-month-long exhibit.

While the Magna Carta copy was in Winnipeg, Queen Elizabeth II visited it. She was in town to unveil a stone from the Runnymede meadow that was to become the cornerstone of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

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