Historical texts

Explore the documents that mark crucial events in the world's political and social history.

From Chinese oracle bones recording the names of Shang-dynasty rulers more than 3000 years ago, to Magna Carta in 1215 and the ultimatum letter which signalled the beginning of World War Two, the British Library’s collection contains a wealth of documents, letters and charters, that mark some of the most iconic and important events in the world’s political, legal and social history. Included are the handwritten musings of Henry VIII; letters from the reformer Florence Nightingale; the pre-battle plans of Horatio Nelson before his crushing victory at Trafalgar; and the final words of the explorer Captain Scott. The selection below offers a taste of the breadth and wealth of the British Library’s historic collection.

Chinese oracle bone

Oracle bones were used for divination over three thousand years ago in ancient China and they are the oldest items held in the British Library. This is the recto image.

Oracle bones were used for divination over three thousand years ago in ancient China and they are the oldest items held in the British Library.

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Magna Carta 1215

Original 1215 edition of Magna Carta, Cotton Augustus ii.106

One of the four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta containing the famous clause ‘to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice’.

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Magna Carta, 1225

Magna Carta 1225

On 11 February 1225, King Henry III (r. 1216–72) issued what became the final and definitive version of Magna Carta. It is clauses of the 1225 charter, not the charter of 1215, which are on the Statute Book of the United Kingdom today.

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Genealogical chronicle of the English Kings

Ancestry of King John

Chronicles of English history were presented both in codex (book) and roll form.

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Yongle Dadian 永樂大典

Great Canon of the Yongle Reign

The Yongle Dadian covers all aspects of traditional Chinese knowledge and contains the most important texts of that time.

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Bede's ecclesiastical history

The Venerable Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People)f.5v

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People was created in 731. It tells the story of the conversion of the English people to Christianity.

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Lady Jane Grey's Prayer book

Page from Lady Jane's Prayer book, f.74v

This tiny Book of Prayers, written in English, is probably that used by Lady Jane Grey on the scaffold at her execution in 1554.

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Henry Vlll Psalter

Henry Vlll Psalter. The illustration shows King Henry Vlll siting in his ante-chamber reading his Psalms, f.3

Written and illuminated in 1540 by an emigré from the court of the French king Francis I, King Henry VIII’s Psalter is Jean Mallard’s most lavish production.

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Elizabeth I's Tilbury speech

Elizabeth I’s Tilbury Speech,f.87

This document records the famous speech delivered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 to her troops assembled at Tilbury Camp to defend the country against the Spanish Armada.

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Admiral Lord Nelson’s Battle of Trafalgar Memorandum

Admiral Nelson's Trafalgar Memorandum,f1

This document detailed the basis of Nelson’s tactics for the Battle of Trafalgar, now widely regarded as a masterpiece of naval strategy.

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Florence Nightingale's letter to Sidney Herbert

Florence Nightingale's letter to Sir Sidney Herbert, Secretary of State for War,f.164

This frank letter was written by Florence Nightingale to the Secretary of State for War, Sidney Herbert.

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James Gillray's satirical prints

Carlo Khan's Triumphal Entry into Leadenhall Street James Sayers (1783)

This album of satirical prints is about the stormy relationship between the British government and the East India Company in the late 18th century.

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Captain Scott's diary

The last entry in Captain Scott's Diary f.39

Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) and his four companions reached the South Pole on 7 January 1912, just one month after their rival Norwegian party, led by Roald Amundsen.

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Christabel Pankhurst in Daily Graphic

The Daily Graphic showing Christabel Pankhurst on her way to court

Christabel Pankhurst, together with her mother Emmeline and sister Sylvia, was one of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain, fighting for votes for women.

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The Communist Party manifesto

The Communist Party Manifesto, front cover

The Communist Manifesto (Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei) has been described as the single most important piece of foreign-language printing ever produced in Britain.

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World War ll ultimatum letter

Draft of Britain's World War Two Ultimatum Letter to Germany f.161

This is Britain’s ultimatum letter to Germany, delivered at 9 am on 3 September 1939. It states that unless Hitler’s troops withdraw from Poland, Britain will ‘fulfil its obligations to Poland’.

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One and Other

One and Other website as preserved in the UK Web Archive.

This is the single largest collection in the Library, numbering millions of UK websites, many of which are no longer “live” or have changed completely.

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The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.