Original Magna Carta copy belonged to Canterbury Cathedral, historian finds

There are only four surviving copies of the original Magna Carta from 1215. One these originals has now been identified as first belonging to Canterbury Cathedral.

Magna Carta - photo courtesy Canterbury Cathedral

The discovery has been outlined in the new book Magna Carta by Professor David Carpenter of Kings College London, who is also one of the members of The Magna Carta Project. His finding reinforces the role that Canterbury and Archbishop Stephen Langton played in one of the creation of one of England’s most important medieval documents.

Cressida Williams, Head of Archives and Library at Canterbury Cathedral, explains “Professor David Carpenter has compared the text of a transcription made in the 1290s of the 1215 Magna Carta then held at the Cathedral with one of the two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta in the British Library. He has shown that the text is the same. The Canterbury Cathedral Magna Carta was given to Sir Robert Cotton in 1630 by Sir Edward Dering, the Constable of Dover Castle who was a notorious collector of archive material from Canterbury Cathedral. We are delighted to know that, after 800 years, Canterbury Cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta still survives. This strengthens the links between the Cathedral and the story of Magna Carta, which established, amongst other rights, the freedom of the Church in England.”

Professor Louise Wilkinson of Canterbury Christ Church University, one of the Co-Investigators of the Magna Carta Project with Professor David Carpenter, added, “This is an amazing discovery by Professor David Carpenter. Only four copies, from the 13 known to have been issued in 1215, remain in the world today; one is held by Lincoln Cathedral, another by Salisbury Cathedral and two are in the Cotton Collection at the British Library. It is one of these two in the Cotton Collection that has been identified as Canterbury Cathedral’s Magna Carta. Canterbury has a unique connection to Magna Carta. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Stephen Langton, was the central figure and lead negotiator between the King and barons during the meetings at Runnymede in 1215. He was probably involved in drafting the Charter which, for the first time in history, placed limitations upon the king, making him subject to the law protected the rights of freemen to justice and fair trials.”

The discovery comes as the city of Canterbury prepares to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, highlighting the special and pivotal role they played in this turning point of British history. To mark the anniversary, there will be a series of public events and exhibitions that will take place during the summer in the city.

Joanna Jones, Director of Museums and Galleries at Canterbury City Council, commented, “The city of Canterbury is delighted to be commemorating the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta during 2015. Canterbury has important connections with this defining document which will be highlighted by an exciting programme of exhibitions and events which will take place across the City from June to September this year. The programme is designed to appeal to a wide audience and will promote awareness and understanding of Magna Carta, which has great relevance to our lives today.”


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