Finally, after what seems like years of barely restrained anticipation, Magna Carta has officially turned 800. Like most 800th birthday parties, we’re celebrating it by looking at pictures from the subject’s wild youth, and exclaiming over how young it looks.
Corpus Christi College MS 16 is an autograph copy of Matthew Paris’ Chronica Maiora, which contains a depiction of the charter, with hanging seal, on f. 42r. Although the manuscript was created 30-40 years after the 1215 signing of Magna Carta, it works with Roger of Wendover’s contemporary account of the events surrounding the signing that forms the first part of the chronicle. The text of Magna Carta in MS 16 is not entirely accurate to any extant official version, as Wendover never worked with an original, and Paris never chose to carefully edit the text, but it is based on the earliest 1215 and 1217 versions.
This manuscript is currently on display at the British Library’s temporary Magna Carta exhibition, and will remain there until September 2015.
A later version of Magna Carta is to be found in CCCC MS 59, f. 182r. This early 14th century manuscript contains a variety of historical documents and short chronicles, and the version of the charter is the confirmation of 1225, which was substantially the same was the 1217 version but was confirmed by King Henry III and announced to be sealed from his own free will, which underscored its legitimacy in tempering the power of the king.
Finally, a late 14th century collection of English statutes which forms part of MS 377 contains the version of Magna Carta that was reissued in 1297, by Edward I. This is the final version of the core text, and the one that is still in statute today, albeit with most articles now repealed.
The manucripts at the Parker Library that contain editions of Magna Carta attest to the profound importance it had on medieval English scholars. It was copied and recopied, updated and provided with commentary, in a way that grounded its legitimacy and created the basis of its importance in later eras.
While the original text has long been outdated, the importance of a government based on clearly defined relationships between all parties has not. Honestly, for 800 years old, Magna Carta is looking pretty good.