From November 6 through January 19, 2015, the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, one of four remaining originals from 1215 will be on display along with other rare materials from the Library’s rich collections to tell the story of 800 years of its influence on the history of political liberty.
Using your search engine of choice, do a quick image search for “King John signing the Magna Carta.” No doubt, the results page will return dozens of images of the king clutching a quill and poised over a piece of parchment while the barons stand around him in anticipation of him inking the document with his signature.
Well, that’s not exactly what happened.
You may have heard the phrase “to seal the deal.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces the phrase’s origin to the 1200s, and there’s a good reason for that. Signatures were not common during medieval times; it was more common to stamp a legal document using a wax seal.
King John’s seal was not stamped directly onto the paper (or vellum, in the case of Magna Carta). Instead, it was affixed to the document by a cord – made from a strip of vellum or other material – threaded through a hole at the bottom of the document. Often, the bottom of the document had to be folded several times to strengthen the paper so it could bear the weight of the seal before the holes were punched. Of the four extant exemplifications of Magna Carta from 1215, only that of Salisbury Cathedral retains its original seal.
The seal you see in the images below is a replica crafted by Wendy and Alan Alstin of History Box, in Suffolk, England. Cast from an original King John seal and reproduced in deep green beeswax, this seal measures 96 millimeters (3.78 inches) in diameter. A braided, green silk cord is sandwiched between the two halves of the seal.
On the obverse of the seal, King John is seated upon the throne. He wears a three-pointed crown. He holds a sword in his right hand, symbolizing his power. In his left hand, he holds the sovereign’s orb* that is sprouting a plant-like stem, atop which is a cross. The text around the king reads: Iohannes dei gracia rex anglie dominus hibernie – John the grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland.
On the reverse, King John is mounted on horseback, again with his sword in hand. He wears a flat-topped helmet instead of a crown and carries a shield. The text on this side reads: Iohs dvx normannie et Aqvitannie comes Andegavie – John [in shorthand], Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou.
From what I’ve seen, architectural decorations and statuary tend to get it right: King John is poised over a representation of Magna Carta from which dangles the royal seal. We’ll have more about those friezes and statues in another post.
*UPDATE: Thank you to Bill Seebeck for pointing out the significance of the orb.