British Library, London: 800th birthday celebration planned for the Magna Carta

IT WAS all done on a bit of a whim, really; a spur-of-the-moment "let's nip into the British Library while we're nearby" sort of thing. 

You can understand why the UK's national library isn't at the top of too many people's must-see lists: from the outside it's possibly one of the world's ugliest buildings. Even the sculptures that dot the entrance plaza can't take away from the fact that this is a red-brick brutalist monstrosity; unloved and unlovable. Step inside, though, and it's all forgotten. One glance at the King's Library Tower will do that: bequeathed to the nation by King George IV after his father's death, the old king's 70,000-strong Age of Enlightenment book and pamphlet collection is now housed in an impressive six-storey floor-to-ceiling glass tower that dominates the entrance hall.

Yup, this is no ordinary library. 

It is, in fact, the largest library in the world by number of items catalogued (170 million) and it adds some 3 million new items every year – that's about 10 kilometres of new shelf space annually.

It also boasts one of the world's largest stamp collections (8 million items) – the highlights of which can be pulled out of the wall on glass mounts on the upper ground floor near the cafe – and is a major reading and resource centre to which anyone can get a reader's card.

To be honest, I didn't even know the Magna Carta was there, bold as brass, just in through the wonderful Sir John Ritblat Gallery and hiding in plain sight in the Treasures Gallery past a Gutenberg Bible, a Shakespeare First Folio, Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Arundel, the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels, an Alice in Wonderland with drawings by Lewis Carroll himself and the original lyrics of Lennon and McCartney scrawled on bits of paper.

It was earlier this year, so one of the most important pieces of English history was a mere 799 years old and, therefore, of little interest to anyone. Indeed, according to a poll commissioned by the British Library, nearly half of the UK population does not know what the Magna Carta is, and only 32 per cent knew that it was signed by King John and his barons and established for the first time that the king was subject to the law, rather than above it.

It was, it's universally agreed, the first step towards constitutional law and, ultimately, democracy in the UK.

At the time, you could wander in without queuing and spend as much time as you liked gazing at the yellowing parchment and the mysterious beauty of its Medieval Latin lettering.


That, explained my guide, will all end in 2015 – the Great Charter's 800th anniversary. Yes, in 2015, the Magna Carta is getting the pop star treatment. It's even going on the road.

To be perfectly correct, that should read "they are going on the road". There are, in fact, four remaining copies of the original document in existence: two in the British Library (one badly singed after a fire in 1731), one in Lincoln Cathedral and one in Salisbury Cathedral.

And for the first time in 800 years all four of them will be in the same space – the British Library – on February 3, 2015. So fierce is the interest in this historic one-day event (dubbed The Unification) that the library is holding a free ballot to determine who will get tickets. The closing date is October 31, if you're interested (

On February 3, the 1215 (geddit?) lucky ticket holders will be divided into six 2½-hour time slots during the course of the day, starting at 9.30am and ending at 8.30pm.

According to the library website: "On arrival, winners will be welcomed to the British Library by historian and TV presenter Dan Jones, who will explain the history and significance of Magna Carta. To the sound of live medieval music in the British Library's entrance hall, winners will then be taken by costumed characters from the 13th century to view the four original Magna Carta manuscripts on display together for the first time."

The British Library day is just one of a series of events planned throughout the year. The Magna Carta Committee (patron: Queen Elizabeth II) has plans that include everything from stamps, to commemorative coins, a new visitor centre at Runnymede – the meadow by the Thames in Surrey where the document was originally signed – and, more prosaically, traffic calming, pelican crossings, reduce speed limit and heritage signs at a roundabout on the nearby A308.

And this is quite apart from a tsunami of specially commissioned documentaries and books, academic conferences, exhibitions, community events and five special Magna Carta tourism trails.

The trails, which were launched in September, take in the 10 "charter towns" that sent representatives to Runnymede. Running the length and breadth of England, the trails cover Salisbury and the West Country, the cathedral cities of Durham, York and Lincoln, as well as St Albans and Bury St Edmunds.

For instance, Trail 1 – London to Windsor, begins at the Heritage Gallery in the City of London, where you'll find the 1297 Magna Carta (sealed by Edward I), and proceed to the British Library and Runnymede before ending at King John's beloved Windsor Castle.

Other commemorative items planned include a Hornsby toy 1215 cart "in a set of forms of transport through the centuries", a new opera, a Magna Carta poem from the Poet Laureate, a Magna Carta theme at the Notting Hill Carnival and a 13th century hop-less beer, the Magna Carta 800th ale.

The 800th Committee website also makes passing mention of "branded goods" – so expect a few Keep Calm And Sign T-shirts. Or, Get Carta, perhaps? 




The British Library is at 96 Euston Rd, London NW1 (next door to St Pancras station); entrance is free but some special exhibitions have separate entrance fees. For more details on Magna Carta events, see