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Durham Cathedral's Magna Carta to go on show

A major summer exhibition in Durham will look at Magna Carta in the context of resistance against authority

Jeremy Vine and The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham, study a copy of the Magna Carta
Jeremy Vine and The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham, study a copy of the Magna Carta

Already there has been much advance publicity about the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition – Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy – which opens in London on March 13 marking 800 years since the sealing of the famous document.

But coming in the summer is a Magna Carta exhibition which is much closer to home and for which tickets go on sale in March.

Magna Carta and the Changing Face of Revolt will open at Palace Green Library, Durham University, on June 1, filling the space occupied by the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition a couple of summers ago.

At its heart will be the only surviving 1216 copy of Magna Carta which has been at Durham Cathedral since it was first published.

You might have been unaware that other editions of Magna Carta were issued post-1215 but the cathedral has three – the 1216, a copy of the 1225 and a copy of the 1300, the last year it was issued as a separate entity.

Magna Carta is celebrated today as an early establishment of the principles for sound government.

A copy of the Magna Carta dating from 1216 which is in the keeping of Durham Cathedral
A copy of the Magna Carta dating from 1216 which is in the keeping of Durham Cathedral

But there is more to it than meets the eye, as I learn from Emma Hamlett and Dr Sarah Price of Durham University Library and Heritage Collections. Emma is curating the exhibition and Sarah is in charge of the related learning programme.

They explain that the 1215 Magna Carta was sealed by King John – at Runnymede, near the Thames, on June 15 – but he later complained he had been bullied by rebellious barons who objected to the taxes he wanted to impose to fund his adventures in France.

King John appealed to the Pope and the document was quashed. “It disappeared almost as soon as it appeared, within about eight weeks,” says Emma.

King John then died, leaving his nine-year-old heir, Henry, in the hands of loyal protector William Marshall. When Magna Carta was reissued, with Papal authority, its terms were much more favourable to the Crown.

Rather than look at Magna Carta as a document of wisdom and magnanimity, the Durham exhibition will put it in the context of resistance to authority, including the Wars of the Roses, the Great Reform Act, women’s suffrage and the recent Occupy movement.

According to Emma and Sarah, Magna Carta should perhaps be viewed as a less saintly document.

Of its 63 clauses, three are still on the statute book, including the right to a fair trial, but the bits about fish weirs and alehouse weights and measures have been largely forgotten.

One of the Durham copies of the Magna Carta
One of the Durham copies of the Magna Carta

And the only reason it was called Magna Carta, according to my informants, was because it was bigger than the Forest Charter which set out rules about access to forests.

Alongside the 1216 Magna Carta in the exhibition will be objects from Durham University’s collections and loans from other regional and national collections.

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