Magna Carta...

'Here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it’ Sir Winston Churchill

As the national custodian of two out of the four original Magna Carta documents from 1215 the British Library displayed the four original charters, for one day only on 3 February 2015, to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. In commemoration of this anniversary, the Folio Society commissioned The Authenticated Facsimile of British Library Cotton MS Augustus ii.106

On 15 June 1215, King John – the archetypal bad king, – was compelled to submit to The Great Charter, Magna Carta, which became an enduring symbol of the rule of law over the arbitrary authority of the despot and is the most famous single document in the history of England, if not the world. In its clauses the King pledges to right the injustices of his reign, renounce his absolute power and, among many other concessions, grant his subjects the right to a fair trial. It embodies the spirit of defiance and moderation of extremes which has long been associated with the character of the English people. 'Here', the historian Thomas Macaulay was to write over 600 years later, 'commences the history of the English nation'.

Though almost immediately annulled, Magna Carta was re-established during the wars which followed John’s death a year later. It survived to be cited as a touchstone of liberty in the great quarrels between King and Parliament, in the English Civil Wars of the 1640s and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and then spread far beyond the English realm. Magna Carta informed the debates which fuelled the American Revolution in the 1770s, and was a primary source for the Declaration of Independence and both State and Federal Constitutions in the American colonies. It inspired the French revolutionaries a decade later, yet was cited as a reason why Britain escaped the turmoil which engulfed Europe during the Napoleonic age. Ultimately, it brought about the break-up of the British Empire, as India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa sought and won their own freedom in the clauses of Magna Carta.

The original Magna Carta sealed by King John at Runnymede is lost. Of the copies distributed to the country at large during June and July 1215, only four survive – one each in the cathedrals of Lincoln and Salisbury, and two in the British Library. The two British Library copies suffered contrasting fates. Cotton MS Charter xiii.31a, the only one to retain its original seal, was badly damaged in a fire in 1731 which destroyed part of the collection of the antiquarian and MP Sir Robert Cotton. However, Cotton MS Augustus ii.106 – the copy reproduced in this facsimile – is splendidly preserved.

Nothing is known of the original destination of Cotton MS Augustus ii.106. The manuscript makes its first recorded appearance on 1 January 1629, when it was given to Sir Robert Cotton by the barrister Humphrey Wyems. Its survival is apparently owed to a remarkable stroke of luck – according to one account, it had been found in a London tailor’s shop and was narrowly rescued from being cut up into suit patterns.

The Authenticated Facsimile of British Library Cotton MS Augustus ii.106, with Letterpress certificate and book

This facsimile of Cotton MS Augustus ii.106 has been painstakingly created, by the Folio Society, to capture the appearance and feel of the original document. It is printed on a single piece of parchment hand cut to replicate the exact shape of the manuscript. Although the original manuscript has lost its seal, there are sufficient examples of the Charter to produce a scrupulously accurate likeness of the original, depicting the King in majesty on the obverse. The replica seal is attached to the document with a parchment tag, as it would have been 800 years ago.

The presentation of the facsimile is faithful to the stateliness and elegance of the original artefact. It is displayed on a linen-mounted board covered by protective glass, in a handsome oak frame bearing a descriptive brass plaque. The edition is limited to 480 copies, and on the reverse of the frame is a label stating the unique limitation number. The size of the parchment is 12½” x 20” within a frame of 22” x 27”

The facsimile of Magna Carta is accompanied by a certificate of authentication signed by David Way, Head of Publishing at the British Library. The certificate is printed letterpress on Zerkall paper with deckled edges and numbered by hand; it is presented in an envelope also printed letterpress.

In addition, a copy of the most recent and authoritative study of Magna Carta is included with each facsimile – Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215–2015, published by Third Millennium Information in collaboration with the British Library and the Magna Carta Trust. For this richly illustrated volume, the acknowledged world authority on the subject, Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia, is joined by a range of experts from around the world to provide a definitive account of Magna Carta, its genesis, its antecedents and its subsequent influence across the centuries. The book also contains a complete English translation of the 1215 text of Magna Carta.

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