“I just had it here somewhere.”
That’s the thing about paper documents: They’re so easy to misplace. Put a document down somewhere and, poof, it’s gone.
Sometimes for 700 years.
That’s what happened recently when a researcher discovered an unknown copy of the Magna Carta in a Victorian scrapbook in Maidstone, belonging to the town of Sandwich, while he was actually looking for a different document. (Isn’t that always the way it is?)
In case you didn’t take copious notes in European History class, the Magna Carta is to England what the Declaration of Independence is to the United States, except almost four times as old. It was sealed (not signed) in 1215 by King John (the same King John whose life Robin Hood was supposed to have made miserable). In it, the king agreed to limit his powers, and it is seen as the forerunner of modern Parliament—though even today, people still argue about it.
“For the first time the monarch was subject to the rule of law instead of governing by whim,” writes the Mirror. “In theory, he was no longer permitted to seize lands when it suited him or chuck anyone who displeased him into the dungeon. This was hailed as a fundamental break with the past.”
Originally, about 20 copies were made, of which it is believed that only four survived: two in the British Library in London, and one each in the cathedrals of Salisbury and Lincoln. “Hand-written in Latin on sheepskin, it’s around 3,500 words,” the Mirror explains, going on to note that—as with the Declaration of Independence—“the four copies are from different hands and the transcribers made mistakes.”
The Magna Carta went on to be reissued a number of times in the 13th century, and there are now a couple dozen copies of the newer iterations, including the most recent discovery. For example, Australia has one that was issued in 1297, and is one of only two copies outside of England. The country bought it in 1951 for £12,500 and, in commemoration of the anniversary, is planning to have it scanned and put in a new exhibit. Similarly, last fall researchers took one of the two owned by the British Library, which had been damaged by fire in 1731, and scanned it using multispectral imagery to be able to read the text.
The Sandwich find is expected to be worth significantly more than £12,500. For example, the only other copy outside England was sold in the U.S. in 2007 for more than $20 million. Because this newly discovered copy has been significantly damaged by water, it may be worth only $10 million.
Coincidentally, this discovery occurred just as England was about to honor the 800th birthday of the Magna Carta, earlier this month. The celebration involved bringing all four of the known existing copies together, which required security like you wouldn’t believe. It also gave Magna Carta experts the chance to study all four copies together, presumably to compare the differences among them, before the four copies all went back to their respective homes.
But the Magna Carta celebrations aren’t over. This summer, one copy of the Magna Carta is scheduled to go on a boat ride down the Thames on Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee barge. The city of Lincoln is developing the “Charter Trail” by designing and building up to 25 “Baron” sculptures (after the original 25 Barons who sealed it along with King John), which businesses can sponsor and personalize. The Cunard shipping line will display one of the original four copies this summer on its liners Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria. And naturally, the BBC put together a documentary about it.
Meanwhile, with the Sandwich discovery, other English towns are debating whether they, too, might have their own copy moldering away in a basement somewhere—no doubt when somebody “just put it down for a minute.”
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