Magna Carta pulls in the crowds

19 December 2007

Nearly 800 people waited in a queue which at its peak snaked around the Divinity School and into Proscholium on 11 December to catch a glimpse of the four documents in the Bodleian Library’s one-day exhibition ‘Magna Carta at Oxford’.

The Library’s four ‘engrossments’ of Magna Carta, three of which date from 1217 and one from 1225 were included in a recent survey undertaken by Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia which revealed that nearly a quarter of the 17 surviving manuscripts of Magna Carta dating from before 1300 are held in the Bodleian.

The survey was conducted in advance of a sale at Sotheby’s, New York of a Magna Carta purchased in 1983 by Ross Perot, the American businessman and politician, an example of the 1297 issue.

The queue peaked at lunchtime as Prof Richard Sharpe, Fellow of Wadham College and Professor of Diplomatic gave a gallery talk in the Divinity School on Magna Carta. He explained that the seventeen surviving manuscripts on the Magna Carta are engrossments, not copies: official documents from Royal Chancery bearing the ruler’s seal.

Prof. Sharpe also revealed why so many examples of the Magna Carta survive. With each issue, a manuscript was written, sealed and sent from the Chancery to each county. Agreed by King John at Runnymede in 1215, the document was revised and re-issued over the next 80 years by successive monarchs. The three 1217 engrossments in the Bodleian were issued by the boy king Henry III and bear the seals of his guardians William Marchal and the papal legate Cardinal Guala. Three of the four Magna Carta were bequeathed to the Library at the close of the 17th century by the antiquarian Anthony Wood.

Magna Carta is considered one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy. Considered by many historians to be the most significant early influence on the process of modern constitutional law, its influence extends to the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.


Prof Richard Sharpe - Gallery Talk on Magna Carta

Listen (MP3, 21.03min, 19MB)

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