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Magna Carta plate

​Engraving for Mountague's History of England

Illuminated by the Sun: Magna Carta

We continue our series of articles inspired by A Place in the Sun, the long-running and continuing project to index the Sun Insurance Office fire policy registers. Isobel Watson describes a timely discovery.

With superb good timing, a Sun volunteer has discovered that in register 335, policy entry 513454 for 30 December 1785 (CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/335) consists of an insurance by ‘the proprietors of the plate and print of King John signing Magna Charta’. There is very little more information in the entry, beyond the value (£800) and location of the plates, at the brick (‘a small part timber’) premises of ‘William Palmer, printseller, 163 in the Strand’. This was presumably the same William Palmer whose will, for which probate was granted in 1800, resides at the National Archives (TNA PROB 11/1345/44); rather than the contemporary engraver, of the same name, of Islington.

It remains uncertain what this image looked like, who the artist and engraver were, or why the printers’ plates were specially insured at this time. (Even if this had been a significant date in the life of the Great Charter, such anniversaries did not then receive the sort of public attention they do now.) The plates may or may not have been newly-created, and their owners remain unnamed. An internet search for 18th century engravings of this topical subject elicits just one, pictured here, produced in the previous decade for Mountague’s ‘New and universal History of England till the end of the year 1770’, and the insurance perhaps indicates an offprint. The British Museum, indeed, who identify the engraver as Benjamin Collyer, date their copy (the same image, but without the elaborate borders) to around 1780. No other seems to have been widely advertised as available, so this may be the same as referred to in a notice for what looks like a forced sale in 1797, along with similar prints of the death of General Wolfe and the Battle of the Boyne, being the effects of ‘a gentleman leaving the country’ (Times, 18 March 1797).

The City of London’s 1297 copy of Magna Carta will go back on display in the City of London Heritage Gallery from 6 June until 1 October 2015 as part of a worldwide programme of events to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta on 15 June 1215.

12 May 2015
Last Modified:
27 September 2018