The Lincoln Magna Carta in the early 19th Century

In the first decade of the 1800s a centuries old copy of the Magna Carta was rediscovered in the archives of Lincoln Cathedral.

Cathedral Church at Lincoln exhibited 1795 by Joseph Mallord William Turner, exhibited 1795. (www.tate.org.uk)
Cathedral Church at Lincoln exhibited 1795 by Joseph Mallord William Turner, exhibited 1795. (www.tate.org.uk)

Magna Carta, or the Great Charter, was ‘signed’ by King John in 1215 at Runnymede near Windsor (his seal was affixed to the document by the royal chancery). It is one of the most famous documents in the world, a ‘peace treaty’ and established the principle that everybody, including the King, was subject to the law. It was signed by twenty-five Barons, and also by various Bishops and Abbots, and one of those who signed was Hugh of Wells, Bishop of Lincoln who attended alongside Lincolnshire’s Cardinal Archbishop Stephen Langton. It is thought that Bishop Hugh, who was named in the document as one of King John’s advisors, probably brought this copy back with him to his Cathedral on his return from Runnymede, and that it had been lodged there ever since.

The Record Commission gave preference to the Lincoln Magna Carta in their ‘Statutes of the Realm’ published in 1810, inserting this copy in its publication.

Lincoln Cathedral from the Holmes, Brayford circa 1802-3 Joseph Mallord William Turner. (www.tate.org.uk)
Lincoln Cathedral from the Holmes, Brayford circa 1802-3 Joseph Mallord William Turner. (www.tate.org.uk)

The Lincoln Magna Carta is widely travelled, having made quite a few trips ‘over the pond’ to America for displays there, most recently to Boston, Williamstown and Washington during 2014. During the 2nd World War, whilst the document was on show at the Library of Congress when America entered the war, it was stored for security in Fort Knox in Kentucky alongside America’s gold reserves, not returning home until 1947.

Since 1993, the Lincoln Magna Carta has been on view in Lincoln Castle, but now, in 2015, to better preserve it and to mark 800 years since the Magna Carta was sealed, the document has a new home in a vault in the refurbished Lincoln Castle, which reopened to the public on the 1st April.  The Charter of the Forest, dating from 1217, will also be on display there. In honour of this, we have a couple of early references from the newspapers relating to the 19th Century rediscovery of the Lincoln Magna Carta.

A New Cure for Jackobinism or A Peep in the Tower, Charles Williams, 1810. © Trustees of the British Museum. Featuring Sir Francis Burdett who thought the actions of Parliament were an unconstitutional violation of Magna Carta.
A New Cure for Jackobinism or A Peep in the Tower, Charles Williams, 1810. © Trustees of the British Museum.
Featuring Sir Francis Burdett who thought the actions of Parliament were an unconstitutional violation of Magna Carta.

Stamford Mercury, 6th December, 1811

It has been lately discovered by the Commissioners of Public Records, that the most correct and authentic manuscript of Magna Charta, is that now in the archives of Lincoln Cathedral, which is supposed to be the charter transmitted by the hands of Hugh, the then Bishop of Lincoln, who is one of the Bishop’s named in the introductory clause. The parchment on which it is written measures about 18 inches square, but has no seal.

Stamford Mercury, 22nd August, 1823

CHARTERS OF ENGLAND – That there might be a complete edition of the Statutes (which is now in progress of printing, under the sanction of Parliament,) the Royal Commissioners of Public Records lately caused the most extensive examinations to be made. For the purpose of examining all charters, and authentic copies and entries thereof, two Sub-Commissioners have occupied one whole summer in making a progress through England and Ireland, to every place where it appeared such charters, copies, or entries might be preserved; and searches have been made successively at every Cathedral in England which was known to possess any such documents, also at the Universities, &c. They have made some most valuable and interesting discoveries. Besides the rare Chantularies or collections of charters found in Rochester, Exeter, Canterbury, and other Cathedrals, in Lincoln Cathedral they found also “An Original of the Great Charter of Liberties granted by King John in the 17th year of his reign,” in a perfect state. This charter appears to be of superior authority to either of the two charters of the same date preserved in the British Museum. From the contemporary endorsements of the word Lincolnia on two folds of the charter, this may be presumed to be the charter transmitted by the hands of Hugh, the then Bishop of Lincoln, who is one of the Bishops named in the introductory clause; and it is observable that several words and sentences are inserted in the body of this charter which in both the charters preserved in the British Museum are added by way of notes for amendment, at the bottom of the Instruments.

Liberty suspended! With the bulwark of the constitution! by George Cruikshank, 1817. © Trustees of the British Museum. Magna Carta used as condemnation for the government banning habeas corpos during the economic crisis following the Napoleonic Wars.
Liberty suspended! With the bulwark of the constitution! by George Cruikshank, 1817. © Trustees of the British Museum.
Magna Carta used as condemnation for the government banning habeas corpos during the economic crisis following the Napoleonic Wars.

And, incidentally, George Washington was descended from King John and twelve of the Barons who were involved in Magna Carta.

Magna Carta - George Washington

Sources not mentioned above:

Magna Carta: Through the Ages, Ralph V. Turner, 2003

Magna Charta Barons, Charles H, Browning, 1915

British Library website

 

Further reading:

http://www.lincstothepast.com/exhibitions/treasures/magna-carta-/-charter-of-the-forest/

http://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-english-translation

http://lincolncathedral.com/library-education/magna-carta/

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