Magna Carta Turns 800

LONDON -- The last four known copies of the original Magna Carta signed at Runnymede in 1215 -- often cited as England’s first cautious step toward individual rights -- will unite at the British Library in London this week for the first time in their 800-year history.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network are visiting these copies.

England’s King John signed Magna Carta in 1215 after rebellious barons seized the Tower of London, threatening his power.

Under siege at home and abroad, John put his name to a document which handed over significant powers to the barons. A number of copies stamped with the official royal seal were then drawn up and distributed across England.

John largely ignored the document’s tenets after writing, fighting mightily with his barons until a bout of dysentery knocked him dead in 1216.

Still, the document is regarded as one of modern England’s most important political manifestos, in particular for a section that declares the king a subject to English law like any other citizen.

After a private celebration at the British Library on Monday, 1,215 lottery winners viewed the documents on Tuesday.

Yesterday, academics from across the world descended on London to analyze the copies side by side, and today the four versions will make an appearance at the House of Lords in Westminster.

Four Originals

All four original copies exist in the U.K. Two of the existing copies belong to the British Library and are permanently held there in London.

Another one traveled from its permanent home at Lincoln Cathedral, in the country’s midlands; and the other from Salisbury Cathedral, two hours southwest of London, for the occasion.

Lincoln Cathedral has been home to its 1215 Magna Carta, marked twice on the reverse with the word ‘Lincolnia’, for the whole of the last eight centuries, surviving the ravages of the English Civil War. This is appropriate since Hugh of Wells, Bishop of the large and powerful Diocese of Lincoln, was present at Runnymede.

It is significant since Archbishop Stephen Langton, the architect of Magna Carta, was a Lincolnshire man who studied ideas of kingship from the manuscripts of Lincoln Cathedral. While Lincoln Cathedral has been its home, this Magna Carta has also travelled outside England. It was protected during WWII by the United States who kept it safely in Fort Knox, Kentucky.

The Salisbury Magna Carta is the best preserved of the surviving four examples and is on public view in the Chapter House of the Cathedral of St. Mary -- the more correct title of Salisbury Cathedral. This magnificent building, featuring the tallest spire in England, was not the original home of the Magna Carta, but rather the original cathedral built at Old Sarum which was demolished in 1219. The recycled stone was used to build the present cathedral dedicated in 1258. Each institution is hosting a major exhibition when the documents return.

Subsequent Copies

In 1297, King John’s grandson, Edward I, signed an additional 17 copies which further revised the charter.

"From 1215 onward, they would reissue it every time a noble got too uppity,” noted David Redden, the Sotheby’s curator who handled last April's auction of the sole surviving private copy.

The 1297 edition was the final version, and its provisions would become the foundation of Western law and contracts. Four of these are know to exist exist; three in museum and one privately. The private copy was bought at Sotheby's by hedge fund CEO, David Rubinstein, who paid $21.3 million.

The Perot Foundation had put the Magna Carta up for sale after buying it two decades earlier from the Brudenells, a family of British aristocrats who had happened upon it in their private archives.

Today's homepage Featured Art Video shows this week's side-by-side reunion of the four original Magna Carta.