Rare Magna Carta To Go On Show At Bodleian Library

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 04 December 2007
a large manuscript in medieval handwriting

One of the Magna Cartae. Courtesy the Bodleian Library

Oxford’s Bodleian Library is putting on a public display not seen for 800 years, of its four Magna Carta manuscripts.

The 13th century manuscripts will be on show in the Divinity School for one day only; Tuesday December 11 2007, between 10am and 4pm.

Oxford University owns four of the 17 Magna Carta manuscripts from the 13th century that survive in the world, making this a rare opportunity to see these incredibly important charters that are the most significant early influence on the development of our constitutional law.

The Magna Carta, or Great Charter of English Liberties, is considered one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy. It was agreed by King John at Runnymede in 1215 and sent out to each county. It was reissued throughout the 13th century by England’s rulers. Its influence even extends to the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Three of the Bodleian’s copies of the charter are from the 1217 issue, of which there are only four left in the world.

“These three 1217 Charters are a unique historical collection,” said Dr Sarah Thomas, the Bodley's Librarian. “Each Charter originally bore the seals of the guardians of the boy King Henry III – William Marshal and Guala, the Papal Legate to England.”

detail of part of the manuscript in medieval handwriting

Courtesy the Bodleian Library

Two of these charters were sent to Oxfordshire by the Exchequer and have remained in the county ever since, having been bequeathed to the university in the 17th century. The Bodleian also holds a 1225 issue, which would once have held the Great Seal of Henry III, now lost.

The 17 pre-1300 Magna Cartae that survive are all ‘engrossments’, not copies – official documents from the Royal Chancery bearing the ruler’s seal. Oxford’s proud ownership of four of these was found to be the largest single collection by a new survey, conducted in advance of a Sotheby’s sale of one belonging to American billionaire Henry Ross Perot.

The other charters are distributed in nine locations across Britain, Australia and the United States.

“This new survey has demonstrated the truly unique significance of the Bodleian’s collection,” said Dr Thomas. “No other institution can boast such a concentration of Magnae Cartae.”

A gallery talk by Prof Richard Sharpe, Fellow of Wadham College and Professor of Diplomatic will take place at 1.15pm on the day of the display.

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