In the 1930s the small King’s School in Bruton in Somerset in the English West Country acquired an original 1297 Magna Carta. In 1951 the impoverished school took it to the British Museum for authentication, which was duly made, with a view to sale to raise money. It was formally identified as an original of the 1297 Magna Carta, at that time one of only two known to exist (two others were discovered later). There is uncertainty about how it came into the school’s possession, but the best account seems to be that in the decades before, the school’s lawyer, who had been keeping the document for someone else whose family had probably acquired it from Easebourne Priory in Sussex, put it into the school’s documents box by mistake.

The British Museum was prepared to offer £2,000-2,500. The school had it independently valued at £10,000 (£12,500 with seller’s commission), but the British Museum would not move and the school 13 engaged Sotheby’s. After much manoeuvring (a story in itself) the Library Committee of the Australian Parliament purchased it in 1952 for £12,500 (15,672 Australian pounds) and the document is now on display in Parliament House, Canberra. An area in Canberra near Old Parliament House has been designated Magna Carta Place.

The United States of America has another original of the 1297 charter, purchased in 1983 by Ross Perot for $US1.5 million from the Brudenell family of Deene Park in Northamptonshire. In 2007 Perot sold it for $US21.3 million to David Rubenstein, who has since gifted it to the US National Archive.

This address was originally given at the Magna Carta Symposium, Sydney, 7 May 2015.