Parry Mitchell on his personal campaign to bring all four Magna Cartas to Parliament
‘Awesome’ is a much overused word, but this morning I witnessed something that truly was awesome.
To celebrate the octocentenary of King John sealing the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, the four remaining original documents (out of 13) have been brought together and put on display in the Royal Robing Room at the House of Lords. Seeing them beautifully displayed was breathtaking especially since they were accompanied by 7 other historic documents that play such a crucial part in our democracy – Petition of Right (1628); Draft Declaration of Rights (1689);Bill of Rights (1689);Habeas Corpus Act (1679); Great Reform Act (1832); Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act (1928); Human Rights Act (1998).
Tonight the four Magna Cartas will be removed from their displays and returned to their respective homes – Salisbury Cathedral, Lincoln Cathedral and two to the British Library. But the exhibition will continue until the end of February and in place of the four Magna Cartas there will be one perfect facsimile of the Salisbury document – I am proud to say that this facsimile belongs to me and in normal times is to be found on permanent display in the Royal Gallery.
So how come I own such a wonderful piece of history?
In 1987 I stood for Parliament in Salisbury. I stood for the SDP and I was naively convinced that I was going to win – so convinced that I bought a stunning house in Cathedral Close. But the good people of Salisbury thought otherwise and despite the 20,500 votes cast in my name, my opponent got more, I was out on my ear.
While I was licking my wounds the Dean of the Cathedral invited me in for tea. He explained that the Cathedral’s spire was in major disrepair and they desperately needed money to restore it and make it safe. Did I have any ideas? Funnily enough I did.
That very week in New York a Van Gogh painting had been sold for $50 million, what price a Magna Carta I thought to myself? Of course the Magna Carta was not for sale but maybe the copyright could be? So I put a proposition forward. Suppose we could make 13 limited edition facsimile editions of the Magna Carta, print them on vellum (just like the original), mount them beautifully and sell them on the open market.
Tentatively the Dean asked me how much we should charge. £50,000 each I replied. He looked at me with sad, disbelieving eyes, but he agreed to support me.
The first job was to get the document copied. Against a lot of opposition we transported it to Kew where a very high tech camera was located. I couldn’t face watching it all and I went home and stared at the telephone. I could hear the conversation ‘sorry but it disintegrated in our hands’, the phone did ring and a voice said ‘piece of cake, it was as tough as old boots, you could have left it in a bucket of water overnight’. Thank God.
I then set about selling them. We sold nine and raised nearly £500,000. Again the Dean invited me into tea and by way of a thank you he told me that they had printed an extra copy to give me by way of a thank you. I was overwhelmed.
For ten years it was on my wall at home. When I came into the House of Lords I asked if it could be placed on permanent display in the Palace and it was agreed. During the next three weeks it will come into the prominence it deserves.
Lord Parry Mitchell is a backbench Labour Peer. He tweets @LordParry
Published 5th February 2015