Making history: Four original surviving Magna Carta manuscripts are brought together for the first time

Magna Carta unification: the four original Magna Carta manuscripts being prepared for display at the British Library. Photographer credit Clare Kendall

Magna Carta is one of the world’s most influential documents – an agreement granted by King John in 1215 as a practical solution to a political crisis, which in the centuries since has become a potent symbol of liberty and the rule of law.

Today the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral have made history by bringing those four original surviving Magna Carta manuscripts together in one place, for the first time. This unification event, sponsored by the global law firm Linklaters, is taking place at the British Library over the next three days, and is part of a year of international celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of the issue of the Charter by King John in 1215.

The original Magna Carta manuscripts were dispatched over a period of a few weeks in late June and early July 1215. The surviving four, which have never all been in the same place before, will be together at the British Library for three days, from Monday 2 February to Wednesday 4 February.

Following the event, the manuscripts will then travel to the House of Lords for one further day on Thursday 5 February, before being separated and put on display by their home institutions in major anniversary exhibitions: the British Library will host Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from 13 March-1 September, Salisbury Cathedral will open their new permanent exhibition Magna Carta: Spirit of Justice, Power of Words from 6 March, and Lincoln Cathedral's Magna Carta will go on display in Magna Carta: Power, Justice and Accountability in the newly-built David P. J. Ross Magna Carta Vault at Lincoln Castle from 1st April 2015.

What will happen during the 3 days of the unification at the British Library?

The unification event will formally open tonight at the British Library, at a special celebratory reception hosted by the partnering organisations.

On Tuesday 3 February, the manuscripts will be viewed by 1215 people who won the chance to attend the event after entering a public ballot launched last year. The winners were randomly selected from 43,715 applicants from over 20 countries, who all entered the ballot to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime event.

They will be welcomed to the British Library by historian and journalist Dan Jones, who will explain the history of the Magna Carta and its enduring legacy, before the ballot-winners view the four manuscripts together in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery.

On Wednesday 4 February, a group of world-leading Magna Carta academics will have the chance to examine the manuscripts side by side as part of a major research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

They’ll be using this unique opportunity to look at the handwriting of each of the scribes, consider evidence of the ownership of the documents over 800 years, and examine the four manuscripts in context of several hundred other King John charters they have already studied during the course of the three-year research project.

What is the history of the four 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts?

King John agreed the terms of the Charter of Runnymede, subsequently known as Magna Carta, on 15 June 1215. Like other medieval royal charters, the original Magna Carta documents which were drawn up for distribution across the kingdom were authenticated with the Great Seal, not by the signature of the king.

The original Magna Carta manuscripts were dispatched over a period of a few weeks in late June and early July 1215. It isn’t known exactly how many copies were drawn up in 1215, but of the original Magna Carta manuscripts, only four survive.

The two copies of Magna Carta held at the British Library came into the national collection in 1753 as part of the vast private library of the MP and antiquary Sir Robert Cotton. One of the British Library’s Magna Carta manuscripts has a remarkable story of survival against the odds. In 1731 it was damaged in the Cotton Library fire, and subsequently staff at the British Museum Library used early-19th century techniques to try to flatten and mount it, which has led to parts of it being very difficult to read with the naked eye. In 2014 conservation scientists in the British Library were able to use multi-spectral imaging to view parts of the text which haven’t been seen properly for nearly 200 years.

The Salisbury Magna Carta has been at the Cathedral since the thirteenth century. It may have been deposited there by William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury and one of King John’s chief advisers, or it may have come via Elias of Dereham, who supervised the building of the Cathedral from the 1220s. The manuscript has rarely left the Cathedral in its 800 year history.

The Lincoln Magna Carta has belonged to the Cathedral for 800 years. It is arriving at the British Library directly from the United States after being on display in Massachusetts and Washington, DC, where over 200,000 people went to view it. On its return to Lincoln, the manuscript will move from the Cathedral into a new permanent home at the ‘Magna Carta Vault’ in nearby Lincoln Castle.

Click here for a full timeline of the historical events of 1215.

The partnership

Claire Breay, the Head of Medieval Manuscripts at the British Library, the Very Reverend Philip Buckler, Dean of Lincoln, and the Very Reverend June Osborne, Dean of Salisbury, released this joint statement:

“King John could surely never have anticipated the enduring global legacy of Magna Carta when he agreed to its terms in 1215. 800 years later, the international interest and excitement about this unification event is testament to the extraordinary significance and symbolic power of these four manuscripts.

We are thrilled to be staging this moment in history together, as partners, at the start of the 800th anniversary year. For each of our institutions, this unique event marks the beginning of our own celebrations in 2015. The British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral will all be staging exhibitions and events later this year to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of this iconic document.”

Robert Elliott, Linklaters Chairman and Senior Partner:

“In marking this anniversary, we are celebrating the rule of law itself, and the essential role it plays to support human progress and economic activity, based on protecting life, liberty and property.

“The fundamental principles expressed in Magna Carta are as resonant and relevant today as when they were first written in 1215. We must never take those principles for granted and remind ourselves of the Charter’s continuing significance in the 21st Century, ensuring that the rule of law is safeguarded and promoted today, and that it will endure into the future.” 


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Notes to Editors

Please note that rough cut and edited broadcast and online footage is available free and without restriction. This will include GVs of the exhibition displays, the manuscripts (not behind glass), and interviews with key spokespeople available to any media to bolster your reports.

Details on access:

Magna Carta Comes Together for first time ever: Online Press Office

Online Press Office URL:   

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Rough cut footage available:     1700hr GMT Sunday 1st February 2015

Embargo time:                                0001hr GMT Monday 2nd February 2015

You will be required to enter your name, the name of your organisation, a valid email address and the above password to gain access to the site.  Please note that the password is case sensitive. 

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The British Library’s major exhibition ‘Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy’ will run from 12 March-1 September 2015. For more details on this exhibition and on the Library’s anniversary programme more broadly, visit our Magna Carta website.

Magna Carta: Power, Justice and Accountability: Lincoln Cathedral's Magna Carta will take pride of place from 1st April 2015 in a new state-of-the-art visitor attraction, the David P J Ross Magna Carta Vault at Lincoln Castle, part of a £22m restoration.

Salisbury Cathedral will open a new permanent exhibition from 6 March 2015, Magna Carta: Spirit of Justice, Power of Words. The new Magna Carta exhibition will present the Cathedral’s copy of the Magna Carta document in its medieval context, and explore its legacy, both historic and contemporary. 

For more information:

Sophie McIvor
The British Library
t: +44 (0)20 7412 7790

Evenings and weekends:
+44 (0) 20 7412 7150

Press Office contacts

Linklaters LLP is a leading global law firm, supporting clients in achieving their strategies wherever they do business. We use our expertise and resources to help clients pursue opportunities and manage risk across emerging and developed markets around the world.
We believe that the rule of law is essential to human progress, underpinning economic activity and the development of society. Our work is to enable the world of business to benefit from the rule of law, and the integrity, fairness and certainty that it brings. We know that trust in us comes from giving principled advice, which means not just doing things right, but doing the right things – and helping our clients to do likewise.

Salisbury Cathedral is one of Britain’s finest medieval cathedrals. It offers a warm welcome to all who visit and seeks to strengthen church and community life in the diocese. Salisbury Cathedral celebrates the presence of God through worship, music and art and has a special commitment to challenging injustice and fostering reconciliation, both at home and abroad. Over 250,000 people visit the Cathedral each year to marvel at the peace and beauty of the 750 year old building and admire Britain’s tallest spire. An original copy of the 1215 Magna Carta is on permanent display to visitors in the Chapter House.

Lincoln Cathedral was built by William the Conqueror’s cousin, Remigius, Bishop of Lincoln, and was consecrated as his Cathedral in 1092. It was subsequently restored in the gothic style, leaving a cathedral offering the subtle blend of sturdy Norman arches and fine gothic carving. For centuries since it has been a place of pilgrimage, a place of holiness and of prayer, but also a place to explore. The writer John Ruskin declared: “I have always held... that the cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have."  For almost 300 years it was the tallest building in the world. The Cathedral’s original 1215 Magna Carta is normally displayed in nearby in Lincoln Castle. From now until it returns to Lincoln Castle’s purpose built new home in early 2015, Magna Carta will be going on tour.