Exhibition commemorating the 800-year anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta will feature royal relics
King John is coming to the British Library for the exhibition celebrating the most famous event of his reign, the sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede 800 years ago.
The king will be represented by two extraordinary loans; two teeth are coming from Worcester city museum, where they have only occasionally been on display, and a thumb bone which was also taken as a souvenir from his tomb but returned to Worcester cathedral 160 years later. The cathedral is also lending its original copy of John’s will.
They will be on display in the British Library’s Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy opening on March 13, the largest exhibition mounted on the charter that inspired centuries of declarations of human rights.
The teeth and bone were taken when John’s splendid tomb at Worcester cathedral was opened in 1797 – supposedly to verify it held the king, but part of a late 18th century antiquarian craze for opening royal tombs. The tomb stayed open for almost two days and the cathedral was heaving with sightseers until the authorities were forced to close it to keep order.
John had a particular affection for Worcester: two of his favourite hunting grounds were nearby, and he visited the shrine of the Anglo-Saxon Saint Wulfstan at the cathedral several times. When the king died in October 1216 at Newark castle, probably of dysentery rather than the poison or “surfeit of peaches” of contemporary sources, he requested to be buried there near the saint.
His splendid tomb was opened at least twice, in the 16th century and in 1797 when only rotting scraps remained of the fabulous embroidered robe of crimson damask recorded 200 years earlier. Various fragments of fabric and bits of bone were taken as souvenirs, including the teeth and the thumb.
A local surgeon, Mr Sandford, was present when the tomb was opened and recorded what hapened. The body was found lying in the same position as the effigy, but the bones had been disturbed, with the jaw lying by the elbow.
All but four of the teeth, and most of both hands, had vanished, presumably to earlier souvenir hunters. A note preserved with the teeth says: “These are two teeth taken from the head of King John by William Wood, a stationer’s apprentice, in 1797.”
The skull was wrapped in a monk’s cowl rather than the crown shown on the effigy, and a sword in a leather scabbard lay by the side of the remains. The bones were measured, and John’s height in life estimated at 5 foot six inches. The textiles were interpreted as parts of socks, some shoe leather, as well as the shreds of the damask shroud – scraps of surviving embroidery, including a lion’s head, showed it had once been a truly regal garment.
The will is the earliest surviving English royal example. It was dictated just before John’s death, and is thought to indicate how weakened he was because, instead of spelling out exactly how his possessions should be distributed, he left the decisions to his group of close advisers.
Worcester cathedral is also mounting an exhibition and events programme about Magna Carta.