Have you ever wondered what lurks inside the buildings that line the Royal Academy courtyard? Five learned societies have their homes in Burlington House; the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Geological Society, the Linnean Society and the Society of Antiquaries. Every time I visit I try to work out which of the people in the courtyard are scientists or antiquarians. Imagine my joy when I spotted a sign outside the Society of Antiquaries proclaiming that there was a Magna Carta exhibition inside and, what’s more, it was free.
Three copies of Magna Carta are on view, the Society has never done this before. First of all we see a copy made from a discarded draft of the original. This ended up at Peterborough Abbey where it stayed until the Dissolution of the Monasteries when it passed into the ownership of the Cecil family. In 1778, Brownlow Cecil, 9th Earl of Exeter gave it to the Society. Nearby you can see minutes made at the time that thank his Lordship for a ‘curious and valuable present’. The survival of a draft of the final document has provided valuable insight into the negotiating process that led to the final document.
Magna Carta was annulled by the Pope almost as soon as the sealing wax was dry. By 1225 King Henry III (son of John) issued Magna Carta again along with the Charter of Forest which covered Royal Forests. Peter des Roches was Bishop of Winchester and a key advisor to Henry III; he founded the Halesowen Abbey and that is where the scroll stayed until the Dissolution of Monasteries (sound familiar?). Also on display is the Hart Book of Statues which is a fourteenth century copy of the 1225 document and shows that it was now an accepted and important piece of legislation. Nearby are copies of the first printed edition of Magna Carta, hot off the presses in 1508, and the first printed translation dating from 1534. If you’re heading to the Royal Academy this summer take time to turn left and see some amazing documents.
Time spent gazing at ancient texts made me hanker after seeing some newer books. Assouline claim to publish the most sophisticated books in the world. The books are so lavish that white gloves are provided to leaf through some of the copies on display at Maison Assouline on Piccadilly. In the midst of the books there is bar that serves from breakfast to early dinner. My cup of coffee was adorned with what may well be the most beautiful teaspoon I have ever seen.
MAGNA CARTA at The Society of Antiquaries
26 May – 31 July 2015
Open: Monday 1pm-4pm, Tuesday-Friday 10am-4pm