Four surviving copies of Magna Carta reunited

King-John-signing-Magna-Carta. Credit: North Wind Picture Archives, Alamy
King-John-signing-Magna-Carta. Credit: North Wind Picture Archives, Alamy

Today BRITAIN was lucky enough to see all four original surviving copies of Magna Carta on display side-by-side at the British Library in London.

King-John-signing-Magna-Carta. Credit: North Wind Picture Archives, Alamy
King John signing Magna Carta. Credit: North Wind Picture Archives, Alamy

In June 2015 – 800 years ago this year – King John signed a charter at Runnymede on the Thames that was to become the basis of modern-day democracy: Magna Carta.

When it was drawn up, Magna Carta set out a list of rights for the civilian population for the first time in English history,  and also brought into question the assumption that the King was above the law.

Although John quickly tried to revoke it – and indeed succeeded with help from the Church – the wheels of motion were already in place and over the ensuing decades the road to democracy was more clearly paved.

Today Magna Carta is considered to be one of the most important documents in history: a symbol of liberty and the rule of the law.

The unification of the four surviving manuscripts (it’s thought as many as 40 may have existed) under one roof is a world-first and only a select few will be able to see them.

Magna Carta unification 2015. Photo by Sally Coffey
Magna Carta unification 2015

Today journalists were given access, while tomorrow a lucky 1,215 members of the public, who have been selected from a public ballot that attracted over 40,000 entries from over 20 countries, will be able to visit the display at the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library.

On Wednesday a group of world-leading Magna Carta academics will be allowed in to view the manuscripts, and the next day the manuscripts will be transferred to the House of Lords.

After this, each of the copies will go on display to the public in their home settings: the British Library will display its two copies, while Lincoln Castle and Salisbury Cathedral will each display their copies.

Robert Elliott, Chairman and Senior Partner of Linklaters, which sponsored the unification, said:

“The fundamental principles expressed in Magna Carta are as resonant and relevant today as when they were first written in 1215.

“We must never take those principles for granted and remind ourselves of the charter’s continuing significance in the 21st century, ensuring that the rule of law is safeguarded and promoted today, and that it will endure into the future.”

For more on the history of Magna Carta see the Sept/Oct 2014 (Nov 2014 in the US) issue of BRITAIN.

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Magna Carta: 800 years of history
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