January 26, 2015
Magna Carta: where to visit the four surviving originals
The Independent Travel, 26th January 2015
How astonishingly neat. If utilitarian. Given the importance of the document in front of me, I had expected some ornamentation – a flamboyant drop capital letter at least. Yet Magna Carta has no such artistic flourishes. Back in 1215, were the scribes in too much of a hurry?
They were producing several copies (at least 13, say medieval experts, possibly as many as 40) of a charter so radical that these needed to be despatched in something of a rush. For all the probable haste, though, the beautifully rendered Latin text of Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral shows no slips of handwriting, no blots in the brown ink (made, I learnt, from oak gall). I peered in baffled fascination at the density of the calligraphy, and at the twirls and horizontal marks that are a complex code of abbreviations.
Sunlight filtered through the windows of the cathedral’s Chapter House, where Magna Carta is displayed, adding a magical touch as I took in this modest-looking single sheet of parchment. It seems a feat of orthographical wizardry that 63 clauses are crammed in here, among them a groundbreaking stricture imposing limits on the king’s authority, and the trail-blazing injunction that no man can be imprisoned, outlawed, or dispossessed except “by judgement of his equals or the law of the land”. The latter has, of course, become a bedrock notion for human rights more or less across the world.
The manuscript at Salisbury Cathedral is the best preserved of four surviving original copies of Magna Carta, which were written up shortly after a beleaguered King John met and agreed terms with 25 rebellious barons at Runnymede meadow in Surrey on 15 June 1215. Two of the others are housed in the British Library in London while one is held at Lincoln.
At least that’s normally the case. In a few days’ time, all four copies will be on display together. On 3 February a unique exhibition takes place at the British Library, open only to selected academics or those who won a ticket in a ballot held last year. But never mind if you’re not invited to the party, for in Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary year there are a host of commemorations open to all. After the one-off, four-document display is over, the British Library will open a tremendous public exhibition about Magna Carta. The Salisbury and Lincoln manuscripts will be returned to their home bases – in both cases to state-of-the-art new exhibition spaces. In addition, a great parade of talks and performances begins across the country, relating to the 1215 Magna Carta and to later versions housed at Durham, Oxford, Hereford and elsewhere.