March 19, 2015
Magna Carta: Lincoln gets ready for its close-up
The Telegraph Travel, 19th March
Having toured the world, Lincoln’s Magna Carta is finally coming to rest in a dramatic new setting which will open next month. Sophie Campbell visits ahead of the fanfare.
There are conditions attached; there always are with a superstar. In the case of Lincoln’s Magna Carta, these include temperature (maximum 22C), humidity (40 per cent) and its own personal bodyguard in the form of Chris Woods, the director of the National Conservation Service, who has to be there if it is handled. Like many celebrities, it lives in a vacuum (well almost) and hates light.
As we know, this year is a big one for the four surviving versions of the charter that resulted from King John’s fractious meeting with his barons at Runnymede in 1215. There are new exhibitions at Salisbury Cathedral, which owns one, and the British Library, which owns two. All four documents starred in a February “Unification” event for bigwigs, scholars and 1,250 lucky members of the public.
But Lincoln’s Magna Carta is to the others what Diana Ross is to the Supremes. Not so much for its quality, although it has finely justified calligraphy and holes for a diamond-shaped seal.
No, Lincoln is the only Magna Carta that tours like a diva. London, St Albans, America (twice), Australia. At the end of its triumphant 2014 tour of America, it flew back on an Airbus 380 with its own bed.
Faced with a star of this magnitude, what could Lincolnshire County Council do but build it a dedicated vault, within the walls of Lincoln’s Norman castle and under the gaze of its actual owner, next-door Lincoln Cathedral?
“We started talking about it 10 years ago,” said Mary Powell, who works in tourism for the council and has led on the project from the start. “And of course we thought ahead to 2015, but the castle was also in a terrible state of repair.”
Now here we were on the Wall Walk, high above the six-acre castle bailey. Sections were open before, but it’s now a full circuit and, along with the Vault, is part of the £22 million “Lincoln Castle Revealed” project opening on April 1.
This is the highest point of the Lincoln Edge, carefully chosen by the Norman invaders, and far below farmland stretched away into haze. To one side of us was the cathedral, golden in the light. On the other, within the bailey, a vertical cylinder of trendily rusted steel held a new lift shaft that opens up the wall to wheelchair users. While digging its foundations, workmen found 10 Saxon burials, including a male skeleton in a sarcophagus, and below that Roman remains, possibly from the fort that once ran from the hilltop all the way down to the River Witham.
Beyond this lay two former prisons, one Georgian, one Victorian, and between them the semi-circular roof of the Magna Carta Vault. To the west were the National Skills Centre, housing workshops for “dirty” skills such as masonry and “clean” skills such as textiles, and Lincoln Crown Court.
At ground level, the castle has been opened up so that Lincoln residents can walk through as they cross the city, visiting the café or shop. Paying visitors can access the Wall Walk and the restored prisons, as well as the Vault.
Everything smelled of paint that day. The shop was being stocked, the café – in the room that once housed Magna Carta – was yet to serve any food, and in the prison chapel council employees were experimenting with dummy heads.
I can’t get that image out of my mind. The Victorian prison briefly adopted the “separate system”, the idea being to isolate prisoners, one man per cell, and tall walls divided the exercise yard into cake slices of space, one man per slice. As they filed into head-height chapel pews, each closed a partition behind him, so he was standing in a coffin-shaped space, blind to everything but the preacher. The preacher looked out over a sea of disembodied heads; hence the dummies.
The rest was what you might call “Porridge Vernacular”, with metal walkways and an upper landing. Cells contained displays on prison life and the smaller female wing was partly dedicated to archaeological finds, including the Saxon sarcophagus. A glass floor revealed the basement, converted for use by school groups so that children can dress up and lock themselves (temporarily) in cells.
And so to the vault, which was crawling with busy men in hard hats and hi-vis vests. “Ten years and we’re still going right to the wire,” said Mary wryly, “but you know, all the guys working here are so, so proud of what they’ve done.”
I’m not surprised. The Vault and auditorium were of superb quality, with polished-concrete walls and stairs curving down around the lift shaft to a 210-degree floor-to-ceiling video installation, setting the document in context. A double-height wall showed the entire text of Magna Carta, translated from Latin into English, with the key clauses – the only ones, please note, to have survived in modern legislation – picked out in gold.
The vault itself was the size of a small truck. The first part was polished concrete and the second – the inner sanctum – womb-like terracotta. All was dim. All was quiet. Magna Carta was not there.
Of course it wasn’t. It was recovering from the rigours of the Unification Tour, relaxing in the Lincolnshire Archives, and will appear just in time for the opening. Meanwhile there were three holes in the floor awaiting display cases from Italy: turns out it will share its space with a 1217 Charter of the Forest – almost an appendix – and in front of them will sit the warm-up act, a visiting document that will change every few months. The first will be a “John Charter” from 1213, awarding liberties and freedoms to Lincoln Cathedral.
I barely scratched the surface in Lincoln. There was a stupendous cathedral roof tour, where the guide’s torchlight picked up Norman tunnels disappearing inside the walls, roof spaces bristling with thousand-year-old oak beams, and views on to unwitting visitors in the nave and transepts below. There was the Exchequer Gate, leading to the market square, where Magna Carta may well have been kept in the cathedral archives (it’s said to have hung on the wall for years).
It seems to me that Magna Carta Bagging makes the perfect jaunt, travelling between Lincoln and Salisbury via London, seeing all four documents in situ and in style. The Supremes of early medieval history would expect no less.