Engraving of the burnt Magna Carta


The Cotton library of manuscripts was damaged by fire in 1731. The damaged Magna Carta seems not to have been severely injured by the fire, despite its present appearance. A transcription (now British Library Cotton Charter XIII 31B) was made in December of that year by the commissioners appointed to investigate the fire, and reveals that the text was then almost intact. Moreover, this engraving of Magna Carta published by John Pine (1690–1756) in 1733 has this statement by David Casley (1681–1754), Deputy Keeper of the Cottonian Library, at the foot:

There are two Originals of King Johns Magna Charta, of the Liberties of England, in the Cottonian Library … [the fire] shrivell’d up both sides of [this] Magna Charta, and melted the Wax of the Seal, so that the Impression cannot now be discerned … And to transmit to Posterity the Writing thereof, this Copy is engraven in the same Form and Hand; having only Nineteen Letters supply’d from the other Original, which are wanting in this by reason of two holes in the Parchment.

The engraving was further authenticated by Casley and the other commissioners on 9 May 1733.

Comparison of the Pine engraving with the damaged original is revealing. The script of the facsimile is so realistic that it can only have been made directly from this Magna Carta, as the commissioners reported. The script is also consistent with a document dating from 1215, confirming that this Magna Carta is indeed one of the originals. John Pine did embellish the engraving, however, by adding the coats of arms of King John’s barons around the edge of the text. The first impressions of the engraving were printed on vellum, with this version, representing the second state, being on paper. Pine’s son was Robert Edge Pine (d. 1730–88), who painted the famous portrait of John Wilkes (1725–97), also in this catalogue.

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Engraving of the burnt Magna Carta
Charter / Illustration
John Pine
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One of the four surviving 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts was burnt in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731. Then a failed restoration attempt in the 1830s rendered much of its text illegible. In the charter’s 800th anniversary year, Dr Christina Duffy explains how a new scientific technique known as ‘multispectral imaging’ has revealed text thought to have been lost forever.

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