magna carta

Kent County Council archivist Dr. Mark Bateson with the Sandwich Magna Carta (all images courtesy Kent County Council)

Imagine holding a copy of the Magna Carta, folding it up, and forgetting about it. You can’t, because a copy of the Magna Carta would be a rare, extremely valuable historical document nearly a thousand years old — a kind of Declaration of Independence for the ages. Created by King John in 1215 CE, it put limits on the rights of kings and is now considered a pioneer on the path to democracy and human rights. Just holding it in your hands would be an unforgettable experience.

But that’s exactly what an official at the British Museum did in the late 19th century. He tucked a copy of the ancient treatise inside a Victorian scrapbook — yes, a scrapbook, though hopefully not the kind pasted with blushing cupids — that remained closed and unknown until an incredulous historian in Kent, England, stumbled on it while looking for something else.

According to Live Science, the man had been sent to the Kent History and Library Centre in the town of Sandwich by Nicholas Vincent, a leader of the Magna Carta Project, a group researching the document’s history in the months before it turns 800 years old this June. He was searching for the parish’s Charter of the Forest, a missing document dating to 1217, when he found the copy along with the charter.

“We are absolutely delighted to discover that an original Magna Carta and original Charter of the Forest, previously unknown, are in our ownership,” Mayor Paul Graeme said in a statement. “Perhaps it is fitting that they belong to a town where Tom Paine lived, who proposed in his pamphlet Common Sense a Continental Charter for what were then the American colonies, ‘answering to what is called the Magna Carta of England … securing freedom and property to all men, and … the free exercise of religion … ‘”


The newly rediscovered copy of the Magna Carta

The Sandwich copy is one of only 24 others in existence. It measures about 1.6 feet long and dates to 1300, when it was issued by King Edward as an affirmation of his grandfather’s democratic promises to the country’s barons. Its location in coastal Kent widens the historical understanding of the Magna Carta’s audience. “It must have been much more widely distributed than previously thought because if Sandwich had one … the chances are it went out to a lot of other towns,” said Nicholas Vincent, the University of East Anglia professor who authenticated the document, in conversation with The Guardian.

Sadly, Sandwich’s Magna Carter has been significantly damaged by water, and nearly a third of its text has crumbled away. Historians were still able to confirm its authenticity, citing its historically accurate layout, handwriting, text and date. As one of 24 copies of the Magna Charter dating to the 13th century, its worth could be up to $10 million. The town intends to keep the document and capitalize on its value as a tourist attraction. Let’s just hope they find a good place to put it.

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...