Only four original copies of the Magna Carta, the famed 13th-century document that brought England’s king under the rule of law, are known to exist today—the “best preserved” of which is housed at the Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire. This week, the calm at this historic house of worship was shattered when a visitor pulled out a hammer and smashed at the glass case containing the Magna Carta, allegedly in an attempt to make away with the manuscript.
As the Guardian reports, a 45-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of trying to steal the document. It wasn’t a particularly well-executed crime; according to NPR’s Bill Chappell “a number of witnesses” were present when the suspect began attacking the case on Thursday afternoon. His attempt to break through the glass also triggered a silent alarm, and cathedral staff members were able to prevent him from fleeing.
“He walked out of the chapter house and tried to leave the cathedral via our work yard and he was detained there and restrained until the police arrived,” says Canon Nicholas Papadopulos, dean of Salisbury Cathedral, according to the Guardian. “[H]e had been carrying a hammer so our guys were very courageous. They were able to restrain him and they held him for 12 minutes.”
Salisbury Cathedral, which was first built in the 11th century, is believed to have acquired its copy of the Magna Carta in 1215, in the days after King John sealed the treaty at Runnymede near the River Thames. John had little choice but to accept the terms of the document. He had run afoul of England’s powerful barons, who were frustrated by the king’s taxation policies and his conflicts with the Catholic Church, which led the Pope to declare that people from England could not receive the sacraments or be buried in sacred ground. A group of rebel barons captured London in May of that year and renounced their allegiance to John. The king was forced to negotiate with them.
The Magna Carta contained 63 clauses that dealt with the barons’ various grievances. In the short term, the treaty wasn’t very successful; by September, civil war had broken out between the barons and the king, who was disgruntled over having been forced to accept the document. Today, all but three clauses have been abolished.
But the document was nevertheless exceptional, not only because it curtailed the overweening power of the sovereign, but also because it functioned as Europe’s first written constitution. Leading figures of the American Revolution would look to the Magna Carta when staking their own claims of independence from England’s monarchy, and its influence can be seen in the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. Its 29th clause, which as a matter of fact, appeared for the first time in the 1225 version of the Magna Carta, that established a principle that has become a bedrock of free society: the right to justice and a fair trial.
Fortunately, the attacker at Salisbury Cathedral only broke through one of two screens protecting the church’s rare copy of the Magna Carta, and no harm came to this remarkable document. The Cathedral has taken the copy off display, but Salisbury officials said in a statement that they will “have it back on display as soon as we can.”