10 december 2007

Magna Carta on display at the Bodleian

Sarah Thomas and Magna Carta
Bodley's Librarian Dr Sarah Thomas examines the Charters. Credit: Rob Judges.

The Bodleian Library is putting on special public display its four Magna Cartas for the first time in 800 years. They can be viewed in the Divinity School on Tuesday 11 December 2007 between 10 am and 4 pm.

A gallery talk by Professor  Richard Sharpe, Fellow of Wadham College and Professor of Diplomatic will take place at 1:15 pm

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

The survey, conducted in advance of a Sotheby’s sale of 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. 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 Carta.’