June 20, 2016
Magna Carta & Australia – HE Alexander Downer
This Magna Carta Lecture was delivered by HE the Hon Alexander Downer, Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, at Lincoln Cathedral; Wednesday 1 June 2016.
• It is both an honour and a pleasure to be invited by Lord Cormack to give this year’s Magna Carta lecture.
• I follow in the footsteps of some very eminent and distinguished speakers, in what has become a fifteen-year tradition, including:
o Professor Lord Norton of Louth
o Lord Phillips, First President of the Supreme Court
o Professor Nicholas Vincent, and
o Lord Judge, former Lord Chief Justice.
• As we all take in our beautiful surroundings, I must start my lecture by acknowledging the historical significance of Lincoln Cathedral—our host for this evening.
• It has been said that ‘in a sense, Lincoln is where Magna Carta starts and ends.’
• Indeed, Lincolnshire’s Cardinal Archbishop Stephen Langton, who studied at the schools of Lincoln Cathedral, is credited with influencing the terms of Magna Carta.
Both Stephen Langton and the Bishop of Lincoln, Hugh of Wells, were present at Runnymede.
• Now, 800 years later, Lincoln Cathedral has one of only four surviving copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta, which I understand is now securely displayed at Lincoln Castle. Two are held at the British Library and the other, at Salsbury Cathedral.
• This leads me to reflect on how Australia came to own a 1297 version of Magna Carta—it is an extraordinary story.
• In 1936, after 639 years, our version was discovered by a schoolmaster in a desk at King’s School in Somerset.
• Fortunately for Australia, the governors of the school decided to sell it, to raise much-needed funds.
• The British Museum could not meet the asking price and only offered to pay 2000 pounds.
• The school’s preference was for it to be passed on to a British dominion —so Australia had a ‘head start’ over American interests.
• We understand that it was offered to our National Library’s London Office, via Sotheby’s.
• Our then Prime Minister, Robert Menzies supported the purchase, and even agreed to seek funds from prominent friends of the Library in London, such as Howard Florey and Lord Baillieu, via Sir Leslie Boyce, the Australian-born lord major of London.