Cathedral steps in to purchase 18th century engraving of Canterbury’s Magna Carta in sale at The Canterbury Auction Galleries


A rare engraving of “Canterbury’s Magna Carta” of 1215 has been saved for the city after it appeared in a sale at The Canterbury Auction Galleries.

The facsimile of what is regarded as “the most celebrated legal document in the English-speaking world” was purchased by Canterbury Cathedral Archives with funds from The Friends of The National Libraries, and Friends of Canterbury Cathedral.

It sold for £3,400 after being discovered at one of the auctioneers’ free Friday valuation mornings.

Printed on vellum in 1733, the engraving is a facsimile of what experts believe was the copy of Magna Carta preserved originally among the cathedral’s records, perhaps having passed through the hands of Archbishop Stephen Langton (1150-1228).

Only four copies of the original Magna Carta survive. One is owned by Lincoln Cathedral, another by Salisbury Cathedral, while the remaining two are held at the British Library in London.

It was thought previously that one of the latter was sent to the Cinque Ports in 1215, but new research has shown conclusively that it was kept at Canterbury Cathedral in the Middle Ages, and that it must now be re-designated the Canterbury Magna Carta. It was removed from the cathedral collections in the 1630s.

However the Canterbury Magna Carta, the only one to have the Great Seal of King John still attached, was damaged in a fire in 1731. A failed attempt at restoration in the 1830s rendered it barley readable by the naked eye. 

The engraving in the auction was made by John Pine (1690-1756) a publisher, print and map seller, who was also Bluemantle Pursuivant at the College of Arms, and Engraver to the King's signet and Stamp Office. It is a first striking, produced importantly on vellum, in 1733. After that date, what further copies exist were printed on paper.

Cressida Williams, Head of Archives and Library at Canterbury Cathedral, said the Pine Magna Carta “will be the best item in our collections to tell the Magna Carta story”.

She said: “We have a ‘registered’ version of Magna Carta – ie a copy of the document written into a medieval book – but this does not have the same impact as something which represents the document itself.

“We anticipate presenting the Pine Magna Carta to visiting groups to tell the story of the Canterbury Magna Carta. We regularly receive visits from school groups who are studying this period. General interest groups also have a high level of interest in Magna Carta.

“The Archives and Library receives over 100 group visits a year. We also anticipate that the item will be used in interpretation and outreach work related to The Canterbury Journey, our £25 million development project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund”.

She thanked the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral and the Friends of the National Libraries for their support and also The Canterbury Auction Galleries for waiving its buyer’s premium to “help bring a Canterbury Magna Carta back home”.

For further information, please contact the auctioneers, telephone 01227 763337.

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