How astonishingly neat. If utilitarian. Given the importance of the document in front of me, I had expected some ornamentation – a flamboyant drop capital letter at least. Yet Magna Carta has no such artistic flourishes. Back in 1215, were the scribes in too much of a hurry?
They were producing several copies (at least 13, say medieval experts, possibly as many as 40) of a charter so radical that these needed to be despatched in something of a rush. For all the probable haste, though, the beautifully rendered Latin text of Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral shows no slips of handwriting, no blots in the brown ink (made, I learnt, from oak gall). I peered in baffled fascination at the density of the calligraphy, and at the twirls and horizontal marks that are a complex code of abbreviations.
Sunlight filtered through the windows of the cathedral's Chapter House, where Magna Carta is displayed, adding a magical touch as I took in this modest-looking single sheet of parchment. It seems a feat of orthographical wizardry that 63 clauses are crammed in here, among them a groundbreaking stricture imposing limits on the king's authority, and the trail-blazing injunction that no man can be imprisoned, outlawed, or dispossessed except "by judgement of his equals or the law of the land". The latter has, of course, become a bedrock notion for human rights more or less across the world.
The manuscript at Salisbury Cathedral is the best preserved of four surviving original copies of Magna Carta, which were written up shortly after a beleaguered King John met and agreed terms with 25 rebellious barons at Runnymede meadow in Surrey on 15 June 1215. Two of the others are housed in the British Library in London while one is held at Lincoln.
At least that's normally the case. In a few days' time, all four copies will be on display together. On 3 February a unique exhibition takes place at the British Library, open only to selected academics or those who won a ticket in a ballot held last year. But never mind if you're not invited to the party, for in Magna Carta's 800th anniversary year there are a host of commemorations open to all. After the one-off, four-document display is over, the British Library will open a tremendous public exhibition about Magna Carta. The Salisbury and Lincoln manuscripts will be returned to their home bases – in both cases to state-of-the-art new exhibition spaces. In addition, a great parade of talks and performances begins across the country, relating to the 1215 Magna Carta and to later versions housed at Durham, Oxford, Hereford and elsewhere.
My take on Magna Carta had been that it's a dim and dull memory of schoolroom history, but that was turned on its head. My trip to Salisbury was part of a journey to the homes of the original copies of Magna Carta where I was given a preview of what's in store for the charter's 800th year.
The most all-encompassing exhibition on Magna Carta takes place at the British Library from 13 March to 1 September. It's a thought-provoking treasure trove of a show, with the library's two copies of Magna Carta (one in good condition, the other rather less so) featuring in splendour at the very end. About one-third of the display is devoted to medieval times: the background; the events at Runnymede; what happened next. There are several priceless manuscripts to see, including the "Articles of the Barons", which is a preliminary draft of Magna Carta, and a document issued by the Pope in August 1215, just two months after King John put his wax seal on the charter. This annulled Magna Carta, although the charter was later redevised – indeed several times.
Two-thirds of the exhibition concentrates on the impact beyond the 13th century, showing how Magna Carta became a rallying cry for rights and freedom. Most potently in America: the charter contains a clause effectively stipulating that there can be no taxation without representation, and in the 1770s enraged colonists used this as justification for revolution. Exceptionally, the US authorities have lent two documents to the exhibition: on display will be Jefferson's handwritten Declaration of Independence and one of the original written copies of the Bill of Rights.
Make time, too, to see one of the most intriguing Magna Carta-related sites, and head to the Inner Temple, a short Tube ride from the British Library. For all the formality of this part of London's legal quarter, visitors may wander the public spaces and visit the Temple Church. Built by the Knights Templar in the 1160s (although much reconstructed after Second World War bombing), it is the oldest Gothic church in the country, and in the 13th century was one of the two London bases for King John – the Tower of London being the other.
Although the king was under the protection of the Templars here, for a week in January 1215 he was confronted by a belligerent group of barons at the church. They were ready for war and demanding the king agree to a charter. He managed to delay proceedings, but, of course, in June was forced to accept their terms.
This year, the church features an absorbing exhibition about the encounter and the build-up to the events at Runnymede. The hero of the time, you learn, was William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, who mediated between the barons and the king and averted all-out civil war. He lies buried here and there's a striking effigy of him in the circular nave.
Although not as handsomely written as the Salisbury document, Lincoln's Magna Carta is the celebrity of the quartet of manuscripts. For many years it has periodically taken UK and international tours – indeed it was in America for much of the Second World War. After the attack on Pearl Harbor it spent the rest of the war years in Fort Knox. I was told that when travelling by air today it has its own seat, and afterwards recuperates in a darkened room. It is owned by Lincoln Cathedral but since 1993 has been displayed at Lincoln Castle. However, it hasn't been on show here for several months because Lincoln's 11th-century fortress has been in the throes of a mighty transformation; a five-year, £22m project culminating in the construction of a new building dedicated to Magna Carta.
The castle is a considerable complex: its Norman walls encompass a six-acre site that contains Lincoln Crown Court and Georgian and Victorian prisons. Now the great walls have been restored, and I ambled along part of the high walkway that has been added along the fortifications, taking in ancient observation towers and terrific views across to the city's majestic cathedral.
Within the walls is a newly built centre teaching "heritage skills" – tapestry making; wood turning; stone carving; even how to make an illuminated manuscript. The Victorian prison has also been revived, though not for inmates. It was an experimental establishment, keeping prisoners strictly separated, even in individual booths in the adjoining chapel. Now a museum, it presents fascinating records and stories about crime and punishment and the prisoners incarcerated here.
Perhaps best of all is its old exercise yard. Here a cutting-edge, high-security underground vault has been constructed to showcase Magna Carta and present a lively film about the charter in a widescreen cinema. The revitalised castle will open on 1 April.
In all its 800-year history, Salisbury Cathedral's Magna Carta has rarely left the building (although its early life was briefly peripatetic, in that it moved from the old cathedral to the new around the 1260s). In many ways the manuscript is part of the very fabric of the place, I was told by one of the guides. By way of illustration, she showed me to the Lady Chapel where the striking, cobalt blue Prisoners of Conscience window, unveiled in 1980, resonates with the cathedral's ethos of support for human rights – and with the most famously influential clause of Magna Carta.
Salisbury Cathedral, she added, has gained a reputation for progressive and innovative thinking. And the new Magna Carta displays encapsulate this. Set in the serenely good-looking Chapter House and along part of the cloisters, a new permanent exhibition opens on 6 March. The charter itself will be set with due dignity alongside a child friendly multi-media show, including costume medieval armour. In part, the exhibition explores the story of Elias of Dereham, stone-mason and churchman, who attended the seminal meeting at Runnymede and later masterminded the cathedral's construction.
But that's by no means all. Temporary exhibitions, starting in June, include two light installations: a walk-through show in the North Porch, and a remarkable, interactive display in the Morning Chapel in which changing words from Magna Carta will be illuminated on the walls. In June, too, the youth arm of Salisbury Playhouse will be performing at the cathedral in a specially written new play that explores the relevance of Magna Carta to young people now.
Indeed, making Magna Carta pertinent: that's what all this year's events are essentially about.
Magna Carta Law, Liberty, Legacy, British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB (01937 546546; bl.uk/magna-carta). Entry £12.
Temple Church, London EC4 (020 7353 3470; templechurch.com). Entry £5.
Lincoln Castle (01522 782040; lincolncastle.com) walls, prison and Magna Carta £12; jail and Magna Carta £10.
Salisbury Cathedral (01722 555105; salisburycathedral.org.uk), recommended donation £6.50 (includes Magna Carta exhibition).
For details of other events, visit magnacarta800th.com
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