Canterbury's Magna Carta rediscovered in time for 800th anniversary

16 January 2015

Eight centuries after it was sealed by King John at Runnymede, one of the four surviving copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta has been identified as the charter that was issued to Canterbury Cathedral.

The remarkable discovery, unveiled in a new book Magna Carta by Professor David Carpenter, reinforces the role that Canterbury and Archbishop Stephen Langton had in one of the most famous and revolutionary documents in our history.

Cressida Williams, Head of Archives and Library at Canterbury Cathedral, explains: “Professor David Carpenter has compared the text of a transcription made in the 1290s of the 1215 Magna Carta then held at the Cathedral with one of the two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta in the British Library. He has shown that the text is the same. The Canterbury Cathedral Magna Carta was given to Sir Robert Cotton in 1630 by Sir Edward Dering, the Constable of Dover Castle who was a notorious collector of archive material from Canterbury Cathedral. We are delighted to know that, after 800 years, Canterbury Cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta still survives. This strengthens the links between the Cathedral and the story of Magna Carta, which established, amongst other rights, the freedom of the Church in England.”

Professor Louise Wilkinson of Canterbury Christ Church University, one of the Co-Investigators of the Magna Carta Project with Professor David Carpenter (Kings College London), added: “This is an amazing discovery by Professor David Carpenter. Only four copies, from the 13 known to have been issued in 1215, remain in the world today; one is held by Lincoln Cathedral, another by Salisbury Cathedral and two are in the Cotton Collection at the British Library. It is one of these two in the Cotton Collection that has been identified as Canterbury Cathedral’s Magna Carta.

“Canterbury has a unique connection to Magna Carta. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Stephen Langton, was the central figure and lead negotiator between the King and barons during the meetings at Runnymede in 1215. He was probably involved in drafting the Charter which, for the first time in history, placed limitations upon the king, making him subject to the law, and protected the rights of freemen to justice and fair trials.”

The discovery comes as the City prepares to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, highlighting the special and pivotal role Canterbury played in this turning point of British history.

To mark the anniversary in June, Canterbury City Council including The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, Canterbury Christ Church University and Canterbury Cathedral Archives have joined together with Visit Kent to host a series of public events and exhibitions across the City, as part of the Kent-wide Magna Carta Rediscovered summer touring exhibition.

Councillor Georgina Glover, Canterbury City Council Executive Member for Museums and Galleries said: “The City of Canterbury is delighted to be commemorating the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta during 2015. Canterbury has important connections with this defining document which will be highlighted and celebrated by an exciting programme of events and exhibitions throughout the year.”

From Saturday 6 June to Sunday 6 September, The Beaney will host a free exhibition, Canterbury in the Age of the Magna Carta. The exhibition will feature items from the Cathedral Archives that are very rarely put on public display, including the copy of Magna Carta made in the 1290s. It will focus on the characters that lived in the City and their stories during the age of Magna Carta and will be accompanied by an exciting learning programme.

Other events will include a conference hosted by Canterbury Christ Church University and Canterbury Cathedral Library and Archives on Saturday 6 June examining Canterbury and Kent’s Magna Carta Connections, a city procession and a special bell peal at Canterbury Cathedral.

Joanna Jones, Director of Museums and Galleries at Canterbury City Council, said: “The programme is designed to appeal to a wide audience and will promote awareness and understanding of Magna Carta, which has great relevance to our lives today.”

The Canterbury events will form part of the Kent-wide Magna Carta Rediscovered summer touring exhibition, organised by Visit Kent and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The British Library will exhibit the copy of the ‘Canterbury’ Magna Carta in a major new exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy.

Notes to Editor

For more information on Canterbury in the Age of the Magna Carta visit:

For more information on Magna Carta Rediscovered can be found here:

Marking the 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta, the British Library is holding a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition exploring the history and significance of this globally-recognised document. The British Library, as the custodian of two original Magna Carta manuscripts, will be drawing on its rich historical collections to bring to life a story that remains relevant today. Also on display will be Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten text of the Declaration of Independence, an original copy of the US Bill of Rights, together with other key documents and artefacts. The exhibition is sponsored by Linklaters.

The Magna Carta Project (visit: is a three year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by Professor Nicholas Vincent, University of East Anglia, with Dr Louise Wilkinson, Canterbury Christ Church University, Professor Paul Brand, All Souls’ College, Oxford, Professor David Carpenter, King’s College London, Dr Claire Breay of the British Library and Professor Andy Day from UEA. The three-year project, which coincides with the 800th anniversary of the charter’s issue in 2015, will supply the first proper edition of Magna Carta ever presented in all its guises, including the first commentary since 1914 on the original version issued by King John in 1215.

Magna Carta, by David Carpenter, Professor of Medieval History at Kings College London, published by Penguin Classics on 1 January 2015.

Canterbury Cathedral is the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion and seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Cathedral is both a holy place and part of a World Heritage Site. For further information please see the website:

Canterbury Christ Church University is a modern university with a particular strength in higher education for the public services. With nearly 20,000 students across Kent and Medway, its courses span a wide range of academic and professional subject areas. For more information on undergraduate and postgraduate courses visit:


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Last edited: 14/12/2018 22:19:00