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Durham Cathedral to display landmark medieval charters

26 May 2017

Durham Cathedral

Sole survivor: Durham Cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta

Sole survivor: Durham Cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta

TWO landmark documents of Brit­ish history are to be ex­­hib­ited together in Durham Ca­­thed­ral this summer as part of the ca­­thedral’s £10.9-million Open Treasure programme.

Durham Cathedral’s Magna Carta copy is the only surviving example of the original 1216 version; and the less well-known but historically significant Char­ter of the Forest dates from 1217. For the first time, they will be displayed together with the 1225 and 1300 issues of Magna Carta (clauses of which still form part of English law) and their associated Forest Charters. The exhibition, “Magna Carta and the Forest Charters”, will run from 19 June to 9 September.

The Charter of the Forest was significant in that — in contrast to Magna Carta, which dealt with barons’ rights — it provided real rights, privileges, and protections for commoners against increasing abuses by the aristocracy. It was issued on 6 November 1217, as a complementary charter to Magna Carta, and was reissued eight years later with small changes of wording. It was formally joined with Magna Carta by the Confirmation of Char­ters in 1297.

Durham CathedralComplementary: the Charter of the Forest dates from 1217The Charter was issued when the royal forests were still the most important source of fuel for cook­ing and heating, and industries, includ­ing charcoal-burning. Commoners’ rights included pannage (pasture for their pigs), estover (collect­ing firewood), agistment (grazing), and turbary (cutting of turf for fuel).

Under it, the King was required to “disafforest” Royal Forest. This was not the felling of trees, but halting the growing royal acqui­sition, particularly by Kings John and Richard, of forest, which could also be heathland and other open ground. It also allowed common access to royal lands, repealed the death penalty for hunting deer, and abolished mutilation as a lesser punish­ment.

A second, permanent, exhibi­tion, “The Treasures of St Cuth­bert”, will open on 29 July, to dis­play Anglo-Saxon artefacts. Its centre­piece will be the preserved wooden coffin of the cathedral’s patron saint. The exhibition will be in the recently restored Great Kit­­chen, one of only two surviving monastic kitchens in England.

The Open Treasure project seeks to turn some of the cathedral’s most historic spaces into a world-class exhibition that tells the story of Christianity in the north of Eng­land, monastic life in Durham, and the life of the cathedral today.


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