Lincoln and Magna Carta

Last weekend I spent two days at Lincoln, attending a historical conference, part of which was devoted to the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

The experience of visiting Lincoln was an eye-opener for me. My family home has always been in London (except for the war years), and I think I had only ever visited Lincoln once for a flying visit. Last weekend showed me how much I had missed. It is a medieval treasure house.

It boasts the third largest Cathedral in England – of which John Ruskin wrote:

I have always held and proposed against all comers to maintain that the Cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly worth any two other cathedrals we have.”

The original cathedral was finished in 1092. It was rebuilt and expanded following a fire in 1141, and then mostly destroyed (“split from top to bottom”) by an earthquake in 1185.   It was rebuilt and expanded again, suffered the collapse of its main tower in 1237, and was finally completed in the early fourteenth century.  A tall lead-encased wooden spire originally topped the central tower (it was then said to be the world’s tallest structure, knocking the tallest of the Pyramids into second place) but the spire was blown down in 1549 and not replaced.

The city also boasts a magnificent Castle, first built in 1068 and very recently the subject of a £22 million restoration programme (with a magnificent walk all round the top of the medieval castle walls).

It boasts picturesque streets, including Steep Hill, which runs from the lower to the upper town, which certainly justifies its name (experto crede[1]) and contains the Jew’s House, one of the earliest extant town houses in England (dating back to about 1160).

And it boasts one of the four original versions of Magna Carta, now on loan to the Castle from Lincoln Cathedral which has had it in its continuous ownership since 1215.

The cathedral also owns one of the two surviving original versions of the smaller 1217 Charter of the Forest, sealed at the direction of King Henry III in 1217 as a complementary charter to the Great Charter. These two priceless documents are now housed in an underground vault, known as the David P J Ross vault, which is part of a new visitor centre: there is space in the vault for an additional exhibit to be added from time to time.

I was sufficiently intrigued by Lincoln’s Magna Carta to do a limited amount of rummaging around (mainly in Professor J C Holt’s Magna Carta[2]) to find out how Magna Carta came to be in Lincoln.

There are in fact four surviving original copies of the 1215 Charter, two at the British Library, one at Lincoln Cathedral, and one at Salisbury Cathedral. They were all brought together in the British Library for the first time for a few days in February this year as part of the national Magna Carta celebrations.   One of the British Library versions was badly damaged in a fire in 1731, but the others are in good condition, although none now carry the King’s seal.

Although 15th June 1215 is the date when King John and the Barons met at Runnymede, all the terms of the Charter were not finally agreed until 19th June. King John certainly did not sign the Charter – there is no evidence that he could read – and he did not seal it, either.   It was the task of the clerks in Chancery to draft the agreed terms once they had been agreed, and in the usual way one of them, known as the spigurnel, would then have sealed the original charter.

On this occasion, however, there is no evidence that a sealed original ever existed. Magna Carta was not enrolled on the Charter roll, and there is no direct evidence that a copy was retained in the Treasury.   Engrossments of the Charter were, however, prepared, and these would be sealed in Chancery to testify to their authenticity.

On 19th June the King directed (in letters patent addressed to his bailiffs) that a writ should be issued which required, among other things, the public reading of the Charter throughout the country. This writ was enrolled on the back of the Patent Rolls (which had only been started 14 years earlier).   A distribution list enrolled immediately after the text of the writ seems to indicate that the writs had gone to 24 counties by 24th June, with two more to be distributed that day, and a further 12 to be distributed at that time, or at any rate before 22nd July.

Although the writs could hardly have been executed properly in the absence of the text of the Charter (which had to be read publicly), it is almost certain that such copies of the Charter as were in fact distributed were sent out separately. The first two charters mentioned in the distribution list were delivered to the Bishop of Lincoln on 24th June, apparently for the counties of Bedford and Oxford, and only 11 more charters are mentioned, as against a probable total of 35 writs. The last six charters were not delivered until 22nd July.

The Lincoln Magna Carta bears the word “Lincolnia” twice on its reverse side. Hugh of Wells, Bishop of Lincoln, had been present at Runnymede and is one of the witnesses to Magna Carta, and Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was one of the prime movers behind Magna Carta, came from a small village called Langton by Wragby, not very far from Lincoln: it is said that he studied ideas of kingship from manuscripts housed in Lincoln cathedral.

12 of the writs and 10 out of the 13 charters mentioned in the distribution list were delivered to the steward to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the other three charters went to the Bishop of Lincoln, for retention or onward distribution.

Professor Holt speculates that these Charters may well have been sent to those who were prepared to pay for engrossed copies, and that some may have made their own copies. At all events he concludes that the Charter must have become known and been applied very unevenly. Although the language of the Charter is Latin, he concludes that it is likely that it would have been read out in local county courts (when this happened) in Anglo-Norman translations.

A final word should go to the National Archives:

“The [Lend-Lease] Act granted material support for Britain’s war effort, and it was suggested in some quarters that presenting Magna Carta to the United States would further mobilise American public opinion in support of the war. Indeed, one British government official wrote that

‘The gift of Magna Carta would be at once the most precious of gifts and the most gracious of acts in American eyes; it would represent the only really adequate gesture which it is in our power to make in return for the means to preserve our country.’

In March 1941 a memorandum proposing that the Lincoln Magna Carta be presented to the United States was brought before the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965).

However, it was soon realised that the document in question was not the property of the British government to give away, and that the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral would be unwilling to surrender their Magna Carta. By mid-April the British government had quietly dropped the proposal, and for much of the remainder of the war Lincoln’s Magna Carta was guarded at Fort Knox, before being repatriated in 1946.”

[1] You should believe someone who has experienced it.

[2] Cambridge University Press, second edition 1992.

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