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The Making of Magna Carta

Only four original copies of Magna Carta survive. Two are kept in the British Library (one of which was badly damaged by fire in 1731), one in Salisbury cathedral, and one in Lincoln castle. They were all written out by different people, and while little is known about who those people were, the documents themselves provide a fascinating insight into their labours.

The work was done in a hurry. Under pressure to produce copies—at least 13 had been made by July 1215, and perhaps another 30 were produced—clerks from the royal chancery at Windsor, which produced documents such as charters and writs, probably asked other copyists to assist them. Hugh of Wells, Bishop of Lincoln, who was interested in record keeping, may have employed one of his priests to copy out the Lincoln Charter. Priests were the most educated people and among the few who could read and write, while the bulk of the population, like the barons—and perhaps even the king—were illiterate.

The scribes needed a piece of parchment large enough for the whole document. Two to three small manuscripts could be got out of one sheepskin. The scribes ruled the sheet with closely spaced lines, but left a bit of room at the end just in case. The scribes who wrote down the words of both British Library Charters missed out some of the text and had to write it out at the bottom. The scribes had to calculate how many words they needed on each line to fit in the approximately 3,500 words of Magna Carta, many of which were shortened to save space. The documents were written in Latin, the language of the Church and the law, and translated into French, the everyday language of King John and the barons.

The scribes used iron gall ink made from growths on oak trees caused by parasitic wasps. The galls were crushed and mixed with water and honey, and sometimes with vitriol—sulphuric acid—gum arabic, which is a binding agent, and iron shavings from the bottom of cauldrons to make blue/black ink. Over time, the ink rusts, so the writing on the four Magna Cartas is now brown. The scribes used a quill pen made from the thick end of the feather from a large bird, usually a goose. The feather was sharpened and split at one end to create a nib, which had to be frequently re-sharpened. If the scribe made a small mistake, a knife could be used to scrape off a thin layer of parchment and provide a clean surface.

The four surviving Magna Cartas are all written in cursive script, which means that the letters are joined together in a flowing style. This was a step down from the most formal chancery handwriting. The advantage of such a script was that it could be written more quickly than a highly regular and upright hand, but the Magna Cartas would still have taken about eight hours to write out. The scribes used almost no embellishments, although they sometimes added capital letters. The Lincoln scribe spread out the words on the last line to fill up the space; in the other three Charters, part of the last line was left blank.

The extra space at the bottom was necessary to allow a strip to be folded up to provide extra strength to support the weight of the seal. The Lincoln Magna Carta has such a turn-up, and the three holes for holding the seal can still be seen.  The damaged British Library copy is the only one of the four 1215 Charters that still has its seal.  Magna Carta was not signed by King John or any of the witnesses, but sealed by a special official. He put the silk cords or parchment tongue with which the seal was to be attached into the sealing apparatus together with melted beeswax of different colours and resin to stiffen the wax. The apparatus was tightened to produce John's double-sided seal, showing a picture of his head. Once the seal had dried, the mould was removed and the other end of the cord was fixed to the document.

The scribes worked on a large tilted surface, similar to a modern draughtsman's table.  They needed good eyesight and a reliable source of light.  In June 1215 at Runnymede, they would work in tents, mostly during daylight, but by candlelight if necessary.  With a document of such an awkward size and with such long lines of text, it must have been exhausting work.  As the 10th-century scribe Florentius of Valeranica wrote: “Because one who does not know how to write thinks it no labour, I will describe it for you, if you want to know how great is the burden of writing: it mists the eyes, it curves the back, it breaks the belly and the ribs, it fills the kidneys with pain, and the body with all kinds of suffering… as the last port is sweet to the sailor, so the last line to the scribe.”

This article has been written by members of the Hansard writing team with assistance from Lara Artemis.

Image credit: Henry VIII State Opening at Blackfriars (detail), line woodcut print by Unknown © Palace of Westminster Collection, WOA 1352

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The Official Report (Hansard)is the edited verbatim report of proceedings in the House of Commons. There is also an official report of the House of Lords known as Lords Hansard.