One of the four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, this document is now so badly damaged as to be barely readable with the naked eye. It suffered fire damage in 1731, but its current condition seems to be principally the result of a failed restoration attempt in the 1830s.

This copy, once in the hands of the antiquary, Sir Edward Dering (1598-1644), was sent to Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) from Dover Castle in 1630. It has often been speculated that this charter was dispatched in 1215 to the Cinque Ports. However, recent comparison of its text with copies of the 1215 Magna Carta in a cartulary from Canterbury Cathedral suggests that this is the Magna Carta originally preserved among that cathedral’s records, perhaps having passed through the hands of Archbishop Stephen Langton (1150-1228). A few textual additions were made at the foot of this document and the British Library’s other 1215 Magna Carta; these additions were included in the main body of the text of the Lincoln and Salisbury Magna Cartas.

Both of Sir Robert Cotton’s Magna Cartas entered national ownership in 1702. The whole Cotton library was later moved for safekeeping to Ashburnham House, Westminster, where disaster struck on the night of 23 October 1731. A chimney caught alight and the fire spread quickly to the library. A handful of the Cotton manuscripts were destroyed completely, and many others damaged to varying degrees, among them this Magna Carta. Although the damage caused to the text may have been minimal, the Great Seal of King John melted into a shapeless lump of wax. The state of this Magna Carta is all the more regrettable because it had been the only one of the four surviving originals to retain the Great Seal.

Ahead of the 1215 anniversary, a technique known as ‘multispectral imaging’ was carried out on the burnt Magna Carta. Following the first image, which shows the document as it appears to the naked eye, some of the results of this work are shown. These colour UV and enhanced, processed images reveal text invisible to the human eye and previously thought lost forever.