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The Australian Magna Carta

30th May 2021 @ 6:06am – by John Tilling
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Audlem and District History Society

History Shorts 60 by John Tilling

The Australian Magna Carta

Australia is understandably proud of its copy of the Magna Carta, which is very nicely displayed in the Parliament House in Canberra. We chanced on this during a visit to see Alison, our youngest daughter, which happened to be just after I had attended an interesting series of lectures about the Magna Carta given by Roger Wickson in Nantwich Library.

The history of the Magna Carta is interesting enough in its own right of course, but the story behind Australia's acquisition of its "own" copy is a nice tale of opportunity grabbed and chances taken.

Magna Carta

The original Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, is generally regarded as the first time that the rule of law placed the king himself under legal constraint and as every reader of 1066 and all that knows, includes clauses which prevent anyone from being hung twice for the same offence, and many others. The first Magna Carta was almost immediately repudiated by King John (quite possibly the nastiest and least principled of England's motley collection of monarchs over the centuries) and also by the Pope.

magnacarta-britishlibrarycottonmsaugustusii
The Magna Carta (originally known as the Charter of Liberties) of 1215, written in iron gall ink on parchment in medieval Latin, using standard abbreviations of the period, authenticated with the Great Seal of King John. The original wax seal was lost over the centuries. This document is held at the British Library and is identified as "British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106" (Public domain)

forest-charter-1225-c13550-78
The Charter of the Forest, 1217, held by the British Library. 13th century original is anonymous; photograph by British Library. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

King John died the following year, and subsequent kings found it politically expedient to renew and re-issue the Magna Carta when they needed to keep the barons off their backs. The copy in Canberra is one of four known surviving copies of the 1297 version issued by King Edward. Copies of it, together with an associated Forest Charter, were issued to all English counties, and this one in Canberra is the one originally sent to the County of Surrey.

The Somerset connection

Bruton is a pleasant, small town in Somerset situated on the River Brue.

The 1297 Charter was found in King's School, Bruton, in the 1930's, among a collection of nearly two hundred old documents relating to the foundation of the school.

The King's School was originally founded in 1519 by Richard Fitzjames, Bishop of London, and was closely attached to the Augustinian Abbey in Bruton. So, the school suffered when the Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1534, but it was then re-founded by Edward VI in 1550.

The impressive collection of manuscripts in the archives of the school included many of the period of its foundation and re-foundation, but how has a 1297 copy of Magna Carta crept in among them?

There is a suggestion (unsubstantiated, as with all the best apocryphal stories!) that the Magna Carta and its associated Forest Charter had been in the possession of a local family and the Magna Carta had mysteriously "jumped boxes" while in the basement of a local solicitor.

Whatever, the governors of King's School re-re-re-discovered the Magna Carta and took it to the British Museum in 1951 and then to Sotheby's to be valued.

The struggle for possession

The British Museum desperately wanted to buy, but could not afford the going rate and, in a bitter and personal row, attempted to stop any export licence.

The chairman of the governors of King's School, Lord Blackford, had many influential contacts, and he had approached the Australian High Commission to see whether they were interested in buying the document. They were certainly very keen. The Lord Mayor of London in 1951, Sir Leslie Boyce, was an Australian and Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia, found the cash (£12,500) to ensure the purchase.

The (new) Conservative Government became involved and pushed the Australian case. Pressure thus came from several sides, an export licence was granted, and the sale eventually went through, despite a last-minute hitch when it was realised that the document could be sold, for a significantly higher price, to the USA. But apparently Lord Blackford said that he had given his word and refused to break it.

And so it came to Canberra.

magna-carta--1297-version
The Australian Magna Carta.(Marcus Wong, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
canberra
Parliament House, Canberra (Thennicke, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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Footnote 1

The King's School got their cash and Australia got its Magna Carta. But over the next few years another copy was found in England. This was sold at first for a $1 million and then in 2007 sold again for $22.7 million. Think how many pencils and rubbers the school might have had if they had hung on to their Magna Carta a bit longer.... Except of course that no-one really knows whether it was "theirs" in the first place....

Footnote 2

There has been quite a lot of recent work in Australia to examine and conserve their Magna Carta – you can see the series of youTube updates through this link :

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