From 19 June to 9 September, Durham Cathedral’s Open Treasure exhibition will proudly display all three issues of the cathedral’s Magna Carta together with their associated Forest Charters. We spoke to not one, but two members of the team about the historical significance of these documents and what it takes to get them display-ready.
‘We’ve got three Forest Charters which we’re going to be displaying alongside three issues of the Magna Carta as well,’ explains Marie-These Mayne, Exhibitions officer at Durham Cathedral. ‘We have the 1216 edition of the Magna Carta – which is the only one surviving from that period – and the Forest Charter – the very first one of those – which was issued the following year in 1217.’
Marie-Therese tells us that these documents were issued in the time of Henry III. However, the young king had not quite come of age at the time of their release, so it was his regency government who handled things. ‘They took several clauses out of the 1216 Magna Carta and expanded on them’ Marie-These explains. ‘They issued the Forest Charter at the same time as the revised edition of the 1217 Magna Carta. It refers to what’s known as the Royal Forest – although it didn’t just include wooded areas, it also included heathland, moorland, sometimes even villages and farmland. These were areas of land that had been effectively designated as hunting reserves – specifically for the use of the King. They were subject to their own sets of laws and the penalties for anyone caught breaking those laws within the forest were severe. People could be punished or even executed for something as simple as gathering firewood.
‘The Magna Carta and the Forest Charter vastly reduced the area designated as Royal Forest,’ Marie-Therese continues. ‘They also mitigated a lot of the punishments – where previously you might have been executed for a crime, it would be a fine or imprisonment. They also set out a lot of the different Forest Laws, such as where you could collect firewood and when you could pasture certain animals.’
As well as talking knowledgeably about the documents themselves, Marie-Therese also speaks very enthusiastically about the exhibition in which they’ll be housed. ‘It’s going to be within Open Treasure,’ she tells us. ‘It will be in our temporary exhibition gallery as part of our rolling exhibition programme. As well as the documents, there’ll be information boards where you can read a bit more about each of the different aspects and there’ll be labels with information about the documents themselves.
‘We’re trying to give it very much a North East focus,’ she continues. ‘As well as finding out about the documents, there’s information about the Northern Barons who were involved in the rebellion against King John. Two of the Barons were very local – from Alnwick and Warkworth. Interestingly, because more than half of the rebel barons were from the North of England – a lot of them came from Yorkshire as well – the whole group came to be known as the Northerners.’
We also spoke to Liz Branigan, Senior Conservator at Durham Cathedral, to find out what sort of work goes into preparing such important documents for exhibition. ‘The Cathedral’s lucky in that all their documents are in really good condition,’ she explains.
‘Initially, all of these parchment documents were stored folded when they were first produced,’ Liz continues. ‘Anybody who visits will probably be able to see the fold creases still on the documents. What we’ve had to do is open them all out and flatten them. We repeatedly humidify the document in a humidification chamber and then gently flatten it under blotting paper until it lies flat. We then mount them on a museum-grade foam. They’re not displayed vertically because that would be too much strain on the seal attachment, they’ll all be displayed at about 10 or 15 degrees – so on a slight slope.’
The exhibition, Magna Carta and the Forest Charters, will run from 19 June to 9 September in the Collections Gallery of Durham Cathedral’s Open Treasure exhibit. For more information visit www.durhamcathedral.co.uk