If I were a more organized individual – and none of that snorting thank you – I’d have been prepared with a stimulating and intelligent contribution to the celebrations for today’s 797th anniversary of the first issue of Magna Carta, 15th June 1215. Trust me, when it’s the 800th anniversary, there will be dancing llamas.[1]

For now, you’ll have to make do with a pretty picture of one of the four surviving engrossments of the first issue, the famous British Library Magna Carta (although, they actually have two of the 1215 issue, one of the 1225 reissue from Henry III’s minority, and – as an inspeximus – a number of versions of the 1265 reissue under the baronial government of Simon de Montfort, addressed to different counties[2]); and a link to their marvellous manuscripts blog, which is also celebrating this auspicious occasion with some pictures and commentary. Their series of Treasures in Full, which has a section dedicated to the Magna Carta and its context is well worth a visit, and you can click through to it from the image below.

Magna Carta

London, BL, MS Cotton Augustus ii.106

I admit to being a Magna Carta fan, not that I recommend it as bedtime reading, unless you are suffering advanced insomnia, but I think this talismanic document is one of the reasons I am a medievalist. I remember first being taken to look at it as a child of seven, and despite their having nothing but high school historical education, the awe in which my parents held this manky bit of old skin. They had – in fact still have – a poster of the Augustus engrossment, complete with English translation, which hangs (of all places) in the spare toilet at their house in Melbourne. It’s amazing how many hours people tend to sit in there, gazing at it… (If you’re curious, the opposite wall has the Rosetta Stone, and the side wall has a piece of medieval stained glass from the Burrell Collection. My folks were well into collecting ‘cultural’ artefacts when they travelled in the 1980s. Their house is an eclectic and joyful muddle of souvenirs elevated to the status of museum pieces.) I think I absorbed their reverent attitude long before I understood anything about King John and his barons; the wonder of being in the presence of such ancient written thoughts; a vague but powerful sensation of the significance of historical documents. I still often make a pilgrimage to St Pancras to look at it when I am in town.

So happy birthday, Magna Carta. And thanks for everything.


[1] There will also be a conference, and a bunch of other events to mark the occasion. I can hardly wait! See the Magna Carta 2015 webpage for more info: http://magnacarta800th.com/
[2] I take these figures from the most recent and thorough census of extant copies, prepared by Nicholas Vincent and Hugh Doherty for Sotheby’s on the occasion of the sale of the 1297 engrossment formerly owned by Ross Perot, see: The Magna Carta (Sotheby’s: New York, 2007). The BL copies are: (1215) MS Cotton Charter xiii.31a; MS Augustus ii.106 (shown here); (1225) MS Additional 46144; (1265) Cotton Claudius ii. (Statutes etc.) f.128v (138v, 125v); and MS Harley 489 ff. 4r-8v.