Oxford's Bodleian library holds a quarter of the world’s Magna Cartas

9 November 2007

A new survey has revealed that nearly a quarter of the world’s original 13th-century manuscripts of Magna Carta are held at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

The survey, conducted in advance of a Sotheby’s sale of the a Magna Carta belonging to Ross Perot, has found seventeen surviving Charters, of which four are in the Bodleian.

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 reissued throughout the 13th century by England’s rulers. It was the most significant early influence on the extensive historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law today, and its influence extends to the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.

There are four surviving manuscripts from the 1217 issue, of which the Bodleian holds three. ‘These three 1217 Charters are a unique historical collection,’ says Sarah Thomas, 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.’

Two Charters were sent to Oxfordshire by the Exchequer and have remained in the county for almost 800 years. The Bodleian also holds a 1225 issue, which would once have held the Great Seal of Henry III, now lost.

The seventeen original manuscripts of the Magna Carta are engrossments, not copies: official documents from the Royal Chancery bearing the ruler’s seal. Those not held at Oxford are distributed between nine other locations in Britain, Australia and the United States.
The four Oxford Charters will be displayed together in public for the first time in 800 years in the Divinity School at the Bodleian Library on Tuesday 11 December 2007.

The Bodleian aims to build a Depository at Osney Mead to move its stock into safer conditions than are currently available, with better flood protection and humidity control. In the longer term the New Bodleian, in the centre of town, will be revamped to improve access to treasures like Magna Carta for the public and scholars.

Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library, said: ‘The Bodleian Library was founded in 1602 after a time of turmoil in the world of learning during the Reformation. A key part of its role was to provide a safe home for classic, irreplaceable manuscripts such as these – records of our development as a civil society. This is a task to which we continue to be devoted, and it is essential that we develop better facilities to store our material. Through building the Bodleian Depository and renewing the New Bodleian building, we will be able to provide the safe environment appropriate for important documents such as Magna Carta.'

‘Two of our 1217 Charters were given to Oxfordshire and were stored at Oseney Abbey until it was dissolved in 1539 during the Reformation. They came to Oxford University in the 17th century.’

Dr Sarah Thomas, Bodley’s Librarian, said: ‘This new survey has demonstrated the truly unique significance of the Bodleian’s collection. No other institution can boast such a concentration of Magna Cartas.

‘Only in Oxford can scholars bring such a number of these Charters together for comparative study and research. We are keen to make the best use of these incredible collections and to do so we need to improve our facilities. Our current plans will provide better access to material for scholars and the public, as well as providing the best conditions so that this outstanding material can be preserved for future generations.’

For more information, or for images of the Magna Cartas, please contact Oxford University Press Office on 01865 270046 or email james.worron@admin.ox.ac.uk

Notes to editors

  • The new survey of Charters has been conducted by Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia as a result of the sale of a thirteenth-century Magna Carta owned by American billionaire Ross Perot. This is a 1297 Charter originally sent to the county of Buckinghamshire. It has also belonged to the Brudenell family of Deene Park, Northamptonshire. The auction will be held in New York on December 11 and the four Oxford Charters will be displayed in Oxford the same day.
  • The Survey has found that there are 17 Charters dating from before 1300. These comprise four Charters from the first issue of 1215, one from 1216, four from 1217, four from 1225, none from 1265 and four from 1297.
  • In addition to the four 13th-century engrossments, Oxford holds two further engrossments from 1300, one at the Bodleian and the other at Oriel College.
  • After 1215, Magna Carta was reissued on five occasions in the 13th century. The Bodleian holds three of the four surviving manuscripts from the 1217 issue, which were originally sent out to each county. Oxfordshire seems to have received at least two and these were stored at Oseney Abbey until it was dissolved in 1539 during the Reformation. The Charters re-emerged during the 17th century, when they were acquired by antiquarian collector Anthony Wood and bequeathed to Oxford University. The third 1217 exemplar at the Bodleian was originally stored at Gloucester and came to Oxford in 1755.
  • The fourth Oxford Charter dates from 1225 when Henry III had nearly reached the age of majority. This charter may also have been sent to Oxfordshire and preserved at Osney. Magna Carta was issued twice more in the thirteenth century – in 1265 when Henry III was a prisoner and Simon de Montfort was the effective ruler of England, and again by Edward I in 1297. Elements of this 1297 version remain in Statute Law to this day.
  • Besides the Perot charter, the Survey lists single Charters now held at Lincoln, Salisbury, Hereford, Canberra and the London Metropolitan Archives; two each at Durham and the National Archives in London, three at the British Library and four at the Bodleian Library.
  • Professor Vincent’s study has used modern scholarship to define more exactly the status of the 17 originals. The 1225 Charter was for a long time thought to be merely a copy but has now been definitively confirmed as an original.
  • All four Bodleian Charters are catalogued and duly indexed under ‘Magna Carta’ in the Calendar of Charters and Rolls preserved in the Bodleian Library by W H Turner and H O Coxe (Oxford 1878). The Bodleian also preserves several single-sheet copies of the 13th and 14th centuries, and other copies as transcribed in bound volumes (Registers of Writs).
  • The 1297 version of the Charter remains in Statute Law in amended form: