This year marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the 12th-century English charter that helped lay the foundations for modern democracy. The four known surviving original copies of the Magna Carta (issued in 1215) were brought together at the Houses of Parliament in London last week as part of the anniversary celebration. Now, historians have turned up an early edition of the Magna Carta dating to 1300 in the archives of Kent County, home to the coastal town of Sandwich. Tucked into the pages of a scrapbook back in the late 1800s, the long-forgotten parchment is said to be worth more than $15 million.
Originally issued under the rule of England’s King John back in 1215, the Magna Carta outlined the basic rights of citizens and declared that no one was above the rule of law—not even the king. Though the charter, drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, helped avert civil war between the king and a group of rebel barons, its true impact would only become evident in the centuries to come.
Over time, various groups would hold it up as a symbol of freedom from oppression, and turn to it as a model for how to protect what they saw as their own all-important rights. Both the U.S. Constitution and various state constitutions featured ideas and in some cases even language that can be traced to the Magna Carta, and the historic charter also inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948.
King John’s successors reaffirmed and reissued the Magna Carta throughout the 13th century, and the final known issue occurred in 1300, under King Edward I. To celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta’s original issue, four of the 1215 editions went on display to a select group of observers (chosen by public ballot) at the Houses of Parliament last week. Those on display included editions from Salisbury Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral, as well as two from the British Library. Now, on the heels of that momentous gathering, comes the announcement that a local historian in Kent County, England, has discovered a previously unknown original edition of the Magna Carta from the final issue in 1300, tucked away in the archives of the county council.
Late in December, at the request of the Magna Carta Research Project, Dr. Mark Bateson went looking in the Kent County Council archives for a local copy of the so-called Charter of the Forest. The document, which dated to 1217 and granted land rights to commoners, was considered a companion to the Magna Carta; the edition in question belonged to the coastal town of Sandwich, located in Kent County. In the process of searching for the charter, Bateson discovered a soggy, battered parchment measuring some 3 feet long, which experts have confirmed is one of the Magna Carta editions issued by royal decree of King Edward I in 1300.
The ancient document was found pressed into a scrapbook compiled by E. Salisbury, an official of the British Museum, at the end of the 19th century. Badly damaged due to dampness, it was found to be missing about a third of its text, along with its royal seal, which each copy of the 1300 Magna Carta carried. Despite its condition, the Sandwich Magna Carta is especially valuable because it was found alongside the Forest Charter—a coincidence that has only occurred one other time in history. (The other pair of documents is housed at Oxford’s Oriel College.) Professor Nicholas Vincent, a specialist in medieval history from the University of East Anglia, told BBC News that the newly discovered Magna Carta could be worth up to 10 million pounds, or more than $15 million.
Not that local officials have any plans to sell it. As the mayor of Sandwich town council, Paul Graeme, toldthe Guardian: “On behalf of Sandwich town council I would like to say that we are absolutely delighted to discover that an original Magna Carta and original Charter of the Forest, previously unknown, are in our ownership…To own one of these documents, let alone both, is an immense privilege given their international importance.”
According to the Magna Carta Research Project, the discovery of the Sandwich document brings the number of surviving originals of the 1300 Magna Carta to seven. The new finding backs speculation that the Magna Carta was distributed more widely than previously thought—to at least 50 cathedral towns and ports—and sparks hopes that more copies are yet to be discovered. In all, 24 editions of the Magna Carta are currently known to exist.