On 15th June 1215, Magna Carta agreed at Runnymede in Surrey. A contract between the barons and King John, it was designed to place limitations on the power of the latter. The 1215 agreement would ultimately not hold, and so the charter would be re-issued and renewed in slightly different formats in 1216, 1217 and 1225 under Henry III, and 1297 under Edward I.
Only four original editions of Magna Carta – known as exemplifications – survive today. These were the editions that were made and used by the Royal Chancery, before being sent out to important officials across the country. The Bishop of Worcester would certainly have received the document, as did the Bishops of Lincoln and Salisbury, whose copies remain in their respective Cathedrals. The other two exemplifications are held by the British Library.
Magna Carta was an extremely important document, and so it is little surprising that many copies of the original issue were made by the officials that received them. These copies are much more common than exemplifications, but are still precious documents from a time when literacy was scarce and not much was written down.
Worcester Cathedral Library holds two separate copies of the 1225 exemplification. The one in the monastic register A.2 was written at some point the 13th Century – while Q.36, a legal reference book, was likely written down between 1300 and 1310. The fact that the Magna Carta was still being copied years after it was issued perhaps demonstrates how important the laws within it were perceived to be at the time.
Magna Carta would have been sealed and not signed. The convention of the day, as it had been for centuries, was to authenticate documents using a seal matrix pressed into hot wax, which would then harden upon drying. Authentication of documents using a hand-written signature – as we are familiar with today – didn’t become widespread until hundreds of years afterwards.
It was therefore a little surprising when earlier this year the Royal Mint announced the release of a new two pound coin commemorating Magna Carta, showing King John with quill pen in hand!