Magna Carta in the Guildhall Library

The City of London has a special relationship with Magna Carta, one of the most celebrated documents in history. The City is the only place to be named in the charter and the Corporation has two Magna Cartas the most impressive one being the 1297 version, which is presently on display in the Heritage Gallery in the Guildhall until 1 October 2015.

Magna Carta of 1297 Retro

Guildhall Library holds a host of material that represents how the Magna Carta has been used throughout history, some of which are currently on display in a short exhibition. This post will look at some of the material in the exhibition.

There are two, small, hand sized books from the sixteenth century that were possibly used for reference on legal purposes. One dating from 1542 is The great charter called in latyn Magna Carta, with diuers olde statutes whose titles appere in the next leafe newly corrected Imprynted at Londo[n] Paules church yerde at the signe of the Maydens heed: Thomas Petyt.

This work is one of the first editions printed in English. It is the final, corrected edition of George Ferrer’s translation of the Magna Carta.  The first edition in English was printed by Robert Redman, The boke of Magna Carta, 1534, but it contained many errors. This edition was printed by Thomas Petyt in 1542, who announced that ‘a great deal of care’ had been taken to correct the text. Ferrers’s corrected English translation of Magna Carta ran to many editions in the 16th and 17th centuries.

George Ferrers (c. 1500 – 1579) was a writer and a Member of Parliament.  In 1542, he played a key role in the development of parliamentary privilege. Ferrers was arrested for a debt whilst on his way to the House of Commons, but was saved by fellow MPs who ordered his release and summoned the arresting sheriffs. The sheriffs were subsequently charged with breach of parliamentary privilege and committed to the Tower for two days. The incident established the immunity of members of the Commons from civil arrest while the House was in session.

A Latin edition from 1556 is Magna Charta, cum statutis quæ antiqua vocantur iam recens excusa, & summa fide emendata, iuxta vetusta exemplaria ad Parliamenti rotulos examinata: quibus accesserunt nonnulla nunc primum typis edita: apud Richardum Totelum. It was published in London by Richard Tottel. As well as containing a Latin edition of Magna Carta, it also constitutes the first published version of the Statutes of the Realm. The signature of the title page identifies it as having belonged to William Fleetwood (born c. 1525-1594), MP and Recorder of London, 1571-1591.

Magna Carta Pic2Update

Fleetwood’s marginal annotations and underlinings suggest this was a well-used working copy, but he also used this book to record notable events in the life of Henry VIII including details of his wives, the coronation of Elizabeth I and the death of Thomas More. More personally, he also recorded the birth of his daughter, Cordelia at Bacon House, Foster Lane, London on 20 August 1579.

In the seventeenth-century Magna Carta took a central role in the political conflict between king and Parliament as a defence against the Stuart kings’ assertion of the royal prerogative. The champion for the revival of the Magna Carta was Sir Edward Coke (1552- 1634), judge and, later, opposition politician. Coke viewed the Great Charter as a reaffirmation of liberties enjoyed by the English people from time immemorial. Coke repeatedly used Magna Carta to oppose the early Stuarts, in particular James I. Coke declared that ‘Magna Carta is such a fellow, that he will have no sovereign’.

Coke’s wrote the Institutes of laws in England, or The second part of the Institutes of the laws of England. Containing the exposition of many ancient and other statutes … by Edward Coke London : printed for E. and R. Brooke, Bell-Yard, Near Temple-Bar, 1797. It was a pioneering four-volume treatise on English common law. The first volume was published in 1628, the final three volumes after Coke’s death. Coke’s manuscripts were confiscated on the orders of Charles I. The confiscation was prompted by Coke’s Second Institute which included an extensive analysis of Magna Carta. Charles I’s efforts to suppress the work proved short-lived.  Parliament ordered in 1640 that Coke’s papers be recovered and published. Coke’s Second Institute was finally printed in 1642 on the eve of the English Civil Wars.

Magna Carta Pic3Update

In the eighteenth century the political narrative continued with books telling the stories of John Lilburne (1614-57) a Civil War officer and Leveller, and John Wilkes (1725 – 1797) repeatedly invoked Magna Carta as a symbol of the fundamental laws of England, which were threatened by tyrannical government.

The nineteenth century saw the Magna Carta appear in many satirical representations and history books displaying King John “signing” the charter. Good examples on display are from Punch, 1848 displaying a parody of the events at Magna Carta and The comic history of England by A Beckett, 1897.

Magna Carta Pic1Update

Finally, from the 20th century there are reviews and a programme from the play the Left Handed Liberty by John Arden. Arden was commissioned by the City of London Corporation to write a play for the 1965 commemorations of Magna Carta. Performances were in front of the Queen visiting dignitaries and schoolchildren at the Mermaid Theatre.

The Magna Carta exhibition runs from 17 to 25 September at Guildhall Library. A Magna Carta Son et Lumiere took place in Guildhall Yard on the evening of 19 September.

Here is a 7 minute edited version: Magna Carta Son et Lumiere

By: Howard Benge, Events and Development Manager


One thought on “Magna Carta in the Guildhall Library

  1. Pingback: Gobbets of the week #25 | HistoryLondon

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