In 2015, people and organisations around the world will celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. Signed at Runnymede near Windsor, the document was drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to broker peace between the unpopular King John and a group of rebel Barons. Often heralded as the first ever bill of human rights, the charter had a huge impact on English law, and on rights around the world – perhaps most notably influencing the American Constitution, drawn up itself in 1789.
Such a big anniversary deserves commemorating, and luckily there are lots of events to take part in right around the country – whether it’s catching a glimpse of one of the four original charters, or taking in a historic cathedral on a city break. Here are our top tips on where to join in the Magna Carta anniversary celebrations…
Home to the best preserved of the four remaining copies of the original 1215 document, Salisbury Cathedral ought to be a pilgrimage site for all history-lovers this summer. Each of the remaining copies are slightly different, and if you only see one then the Salisbury Magna Carta should be it; having spent most of its life safely tucked away at the cathedral, this copy is written on sheepskin parchment and is clearly legible even after 800 years.
The cathedral is hosting an extraordinary series of events throughout the year, and is really going all out to commemorate the anniversary. Concerts, worship ceremonies, lectures and exhibitions – the main display in the Chapter House and Cloisters, Spirit of Justice, Power of Words, is an interactive exploration of the history of the agreement perfect for all ages. A quirkier trail to discover that’s also great for the family, spot the Baron’s Charter Trail, a special Trussell Trust Project that will see 20+ individually painted Baron Statues dotted around the city waiting to be found outside its most famous landmarks until September.
The Gothic Lincoln cathedral is one of the finest of its kind in Europe, and owns another of the four original copies of the Magna Carta. This copy is however now displayed in a brand new and specially-built visitor centre at nearby Lincoln Castle; set alongside the similarly significant 1217 Charter of the Forest in an underground vault, this unique exhibition is full of history and also includes walks to do along the medieval city walls and a Victorian prison at the castle itself. If you can take a short break in Lincoln on the last weekend in May, be sure to catch the special Medieval Joust happening at the castle that weekend!
That said, no trip to Lincoln is complete without a trip to the striking cathedral – a mere stone’s throw from the castle. Commissioned by William the Conqueror, and consecrated in the late 11th Century, the impressive building was once the tallest in the world. Be awestruck by the architecture, and see if you can spot the infamous Lincoln Imp lurking up in the rafters! Lincoln is also significant in Magna Carta history having been the place where Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton – who drafted the agreement – was raised.
Naturally one of our favourite short break destinations – there’s so much to do in London. That’s no less true this year, added to which you can see a number of wonderful Magna Carta anniversary celebrations going on in the capital; the historic Guildhall is perhaps the best place to start, and the British Library is a must-visit. Long the home of governance in the City of London, the Guildhall’s fabulous medieval Great Hall is well worth touring. The Heritage Gallery – which is free to enter – houses a copy of the 1297 Magna Carta. Free walking tours that uncover the Magna Carta’s influence in the city depart from Blackfriars Station daily throughout the summer.
The British Library meanwhile is positively a treasure trove of artefacts, and remarkably holds the last two of the four remaining copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta document. The biggest exhibition in the history of The British Library, Law, Liberty, Legacy will see both copies of the Magna Carta displayed alongside the US Declaration of Independence between March and September this year. Other fascinating documents relating to the Magna Carta at the library include a 1215 papal declaration denouncing the charter, a sealed copy of the 1225 edition, and the only surviving copy of the Barons’ list of demands.
Always an excellent choice for a city break, historic Durham has one of the finest skylines in Britain. The stunning Norman Durham cathedral and the no-less-impressive Durham Castle are well worth the visit all by themselves, the two monuments having been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now part of the university, the castle is available to tour with a student guide. Durham Cathedral meanwhile was recently voted the UK’s number one landmark, and is arguably one of the most singularly impressive cathedrals in Europe – be sure to take in the views from the top of the central tower!
The cathedral holds three copies of the Magna Carta, dating from 1216, 1225 & 1300. The earliest version of the Durham Cathedral Magna Carta collection – the only surviving copy of the 1216 issue – will be on display at Durham University’s Palace Green Library throughout the summer. Shown as part of a wider exhibition on rebellion through the ages, the display is well worth catching if you’re on a short break in the North East.
Planning to mark the 800th anniversary this year? Tell us how you’ll be joining in by commenting below!