Travel disruption keeps Bodleian Library's Magna Carta in New York

21 April 2010

Magna-CartaOne of the earliest originals of Magna Carta in existence, belonging to the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, is the latest object to be caught up in the travel disruption caused by volcanic ash – and New Yorkers are the beneficiaries.

The 1217 Magna Carta was transported to New York last week to mark the North America Reunion of Oxford University alumni. As it had to stay in the USA for longer due to cancelled flights, the Bodleian Library and The Morgan Library in New York have arranged for it to go on public display there from Wednesday, 21 April to 30 May.

Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library, who is accompanying Magna Carta in New York, says: ‘We realised that a public exhibition was the silver lining to this particular ash cloud.’

Although the UK airspace has just reopened, the unexpected opportunity to display the ancient document in New York will go ahead.

The historic manuscript arrived in New York last week and was exhibited as the centrepiece of the Oxford alumni event at New York. It was the first time it had ever left Britain since it was issued 800 years ago.

There are seventeen surviving original manuscripts of Magna Carta, of which the Bodleian Library holds four. The British public had the opportunity to see these back in 2007 in Oxford, and they will go on permanent display in Oxford once the University’s Weston Library is redeveloped to include public exhibition space.

Richard Ovenden said: ‘This is a great and unexpected opportunity to put the Bodleian Library’s Magna Carta on public display in New York for the first time. Once we realised that our travel plans had been disrupted we drew upon the experience and resources developed over years of arranging international loans of our great treasures. We immediately got in touch with our old friends at The Morgan Library who were glad to make available to us their state of the art high-security facilities. After some discussions, we realised that a public exhibition was the silver lining to this particular ash cloud.

‘We are grateful to our American colleagues that they have been able to mount a display so quickly to share this iconic document with the people of New York and to keep it securely for us until it can return safely to Oxford.’

‘We are deeply grateful to our colleagues at the Bodleian Library for permitting the Morgan to display Magna Carta while new arrangements are made to return it to Oxford,’ said William M. Griswold, director of The Morgan Library & Museum. ‘This is an extraordinary and fortuitous event for the people of New York, who will now have the opportunity to see an original version of what is without a doubt one of the most important legal documents in history.’

Magna Carta or ‘Great Charter of English Liberties’ was signed at Runnymede near Windsor on June 15, 1215 and was reissued throughout the 13th century by England’s rulers. The copy which goes on display in New York was issued in 1217 and has not left Oxford in almost 800 years, since it was sent there by the royal chancery.

There are seventeen surviving original manuscripts of Magna Carta. They are engrossments, not copies: official documents from the Royal Chancery bearing the ruler’s seal.  There are only four surviving manuscripts from the 1217 issue, of which the Bodleian holds three.

Just one of the original 17 manuscripts is in the USA, at the National Archives in Washington. Magna Carta now in New York is an earlier manuscript than the Washington version.

Magna Carta had travelled securely to New York prior to the global travel disruptions. The Bodleian Library has a rigorous loan and courier protocol procedure in place for the transfer of books and manuscripts to peer institutions for exhibitions around the world. Magna Carta will return via secure travel arrangements to Oxford at an agreed date in the future.

Richard Ovenden said: 'Magna Carta is considered one of the most important documents in history. Along with the Declaration of Independence it is one of the few documents that everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of.’

The charter was the most significant early influence on the extensive historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law in the UK today, and influenced the drafting of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.


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