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

The Dunston Pillar: celebrating the 50 year reign of King George III

George Jubilee 1st Edition

On the 25th October 1809 the jubilee of King George III was celebrated across the nation. Opinion was divided as to whether the jubilee had been celebrated a year too early; 25th October 1809 was the first day of the 50th year of George III’s reign, he had not actually reigned yet for a full fifty years.

4thEarlOfBuckinghamshire
Robert Hobart, 4th Earl of Buckinghamshire

In honour of the completion of the fiftieth year of his reign Robert Hobart, the 4th Earl of Buckinghamshire decided to place a statue of the King, made out of Coade Stone (artificial stone manufactured by Eleanor Coade in Lambeth) on the top of Dunston Pillar in Lincolnshire, an old ‘land lighthouse.’

Land Lighthouse on Lincoln Heath from The Life of Thomas Telford by Samuel Smiles
Land Lighthouse on Lincoln Heath from The Life of Thomas Telford by Samuel Smiles

The Dunston Pillar, originally known as Dashwood’s Lighthouse, stands six miles to the south of the City of Lincoln, actually much closer to the village of Harmston than to Dunstan itself, and the pillar, with a spiral staircase inside and originally with a lantern on top reached by a surrounding balustraded gallery, was erected in 1751 by Sir Francis Dashwood (of Hellfire Club fame) to guide travellers across the dark and desolate heathland and to attempt to deter highwaymen and, so it is said, to please his wife.

It is reputed that Sir Francis, 15th Baron le Despencer, later landscaped the area around the pillar, even adding a two story dining hall and it became a popular place for picnics, known as the ‘Vauxhall’ of Lincolnshire. Around the pillar Dashwood built ‘a square walled garden, less than an acre in extent, within a larger enclosure of heathland. There was an opening or gateway in each side of the wall, and a little stone pavilion at each corner. There were plantations outside the walls, and a bowling green just beyond the opening on the north side’. It was recorded in 1836 that an inhabitant of Lincoln remembered seeing as many as sixteen or eighteen carriages there at one time about fifty years previously.

Sir Francis Dashwood by William Hogarth (via Wikimedia)
Sir Francis Dashwood by William Hogarth (via Wikimedia)

William Wroughton, the Vicar of nearby Welbourn, described the pillar in a letter to Lord le Despencer in 1776 thus:

 . . . the Vauxhall of this part of the world. The Bowling Green is the best and kept in the best order I have ever seen and the plantations are all in a very thriving state and will in a few years be the Paradise of Lincolnshire. It was used for the accommodation of parties resorting thither.

From the gallery at the top of the Pillar the magnificent Lincoln Cathedral could be seen to the north and, weather permitting, the Boston Stump to the south.

Dunston Pillar, unknown artist (c) Museum of Lincolnshire Life; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Dunston Pillar, unknown artist
(c) Museum of Lincolnshire Life; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

A decade earlier than the construction of the pillar a local landowner named Charles Chaplin had remodelled the Green Man Inn, part of the Blankney estate and situated very close to the Pillar, where the ‘Lincoln Club’ which included Dashwood and Chaplin, met in the 1740s, although the purpose or aims of the Club have been lost to time. Indeed, as it is not even known how long the Lincoln Club continued to meet then the story that Dashwood built the ‘land lighthouse’ to please his wife may perhaps more realistically be retold to say that he built it to light his and his friends journey to the ‘Lincoln Club’.

Standing over 90ft high the lantern was lighted every night until 1788 and it was last used in 1808. A year later a storm brought the lantern tumbling to the ground.

On the 9th September, 1810, a Lambeth stonemason named John Wilson, no doubt employed by the Coade works, whilst engaged in fixing the statue of George III to the Pillar fell from the top to his death. He was buried in the nearby Harmston churchyard, his epitaph reading:

He who erected the Noble King,
Is here now dead by deaths sharp sting.
To the memory of John Wilson who departed this life Sept. 9th 1810

The Stamford Mercury newspaper dated 9th November 1810 reported the following once the statue of the King had been firmly fixed atop the pillar:

Among the numerous testimonies of loyalty offered by a grateful people to their Sovereign, none perhaps has been more appropriate than what the Earl of Buckinghamshire has recently completed upon his estate at Dunston, in this county.  In the year 1751, Sir Francis Dashwood erected the Pillar on Dunston Heath, about five miles south of this city.  It was a plain quadrangular building, 92 feet in height, with an octagonal lantern on the top, 15½ feet high, surrounded at its base with a gallery. – It was then of considerable utility to the public, the heath at that time being an uncultivated and extensive waste; but since that period the lands have been inclosed, which has rendered it entirely useless. – Upon the west side of it is the following inscription:-

“Columnan hanc

utilitati publican

D.D.D.

F. DASHWOOD.

MDCCLI.”

The lantern and gallery having been removed, the Earl of Buckinghamshire has erected upon the Pillar a magnificent colossal Statue of our venerable Sovereign. It was executed by Code in artificial stone, and measures 14 feet in height, standing upon a pedestal 9 feet high. His Majesty is represented in his coronation robes, with a crown upon his head and a sceptre in his right hand. – Though its elevation from the ground is 115 feet, yet the features are perfectly distinct, and altogether it makes a grand and magnificent appearance. – Two feet above the old inscription is affixed a tablet, with the following record of his Lordship’s loyalty:-

“The Statue upon this Pillar

was erected A.D. 1810,

by Robert Earl of Buckinghamshire,

to commemorate the 50th anniversary

of the reign of his Majesty

King George the Third.”

During WWII the statue was taken down (and damaged in doing so) and the Pillar shortened to prevent any collision with low-flying aircraft as it was near to two airbases. The bust of King George III, all that remains of the statue, can still be seen in the grounds of Lincoln Castle.

All that remains of the statue of George III, now in the grounds of Lincoln Castle. © Joanne Major
All that remains of the statue of George III, now in the grounds of Lincoln Castle. © Joanne Major

Our forthcoming book, A Georgian Heroine: the intriguing life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs, sheds more light on George III’s jubilee, as Mrs Biggs, amongst her many other achievements, single-handedly planned the event from her modest home near Chepstow in the Welsh Borders. Discover more here.