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Books that changed the world … Magna Carta

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King John signing the Magna Carta in a woodcut dating from 1864. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Rex

King John signing the Magna Carta in a woodcut dating from 1864. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Rex

The only remaining original copies of Magna Carta, one of the world’s most enduringly influential documents, are to  be brought together for the first and probably only time.

Two copies in the British Library’s collection will be joined by one from Lincoln Cathedral and one from Salisbury Cathedral to mark the 800th anniversary of an agreement that has become a symbol of liberty and law.

The four copies will remain at the British Library for three days. On Tuesday 1,215 people who won a ballot to see them – randomly selected from 43,715 applicants from 20 countries – will be given access.

The following day, the world’s leading academic experts on the document will get their turn, part of a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

On Thursday, the manuscripts will travel to the House of Lords before being returned to their separate homes and exhibitions. The British Library’s display, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, runs from 13 March to 1 September. All four copies have differences, including their shape, with one of the two at the British Library and the Salisbury version being in portrait format, while the Lincoln copy is square and the other British Library version is landscape.

Claire Breay, head of medieval manuscripts at the British Library, said: “Magna Carta is one of the most famous documents in the world, let alone one of the most important things we have in the collections at the British Library. We’ve been working towards this with Lincoln and Salisbury since 2010, so it is very exciting to see it come to fruition.”King John agreed the terms of the charter at Runnymede in 1215, sealing it on 15 June. Most of Magna Carta’s clauses dealt with specific grievances England’s barons had with the king, but buried within the document are agreements that have become totemic across the world, not least the 39th article giving all “free men” the right to a fair trial.

At least 13 copies were made on sheepskin parchment and sent out to bishops. The two copies in the British Library came into the national collection in 1753 as part of the enormous library of the MP and antiquary Sir Robert Cotton.

Seeing Magna Carta is an almost spiritual event for many visitorsto the Library . Breay said: “People really want to have stood in front of this incredibly famous document. Even though it is written in medieval Latin and in medieval handwriting and most people can’t actually read it, people recognise its historic and symbolic importance as a symbol of freedom and rights and liberties.”

She said it seemed a fitting start to the Magna Carta anniversary. “It is a unique opportunity, a never-to-be-repeated opportunity, to see them side by side.”

[article credit: The Guardian, retrieved 4 February 2015 from http://www.theguardian.com]

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