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King John’s teeth and thumb bone. Photography © Clare Kendall

The 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta is being marked by a major exhibition which features some fascinating finds from this colourful period of history – including some royal teeth and a thumb bone.

Visitors to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy  will find the regal relics – taken from King John’s tomb by souvenir hunters – on display along with ancient documents. The teeth and bone were taken in 1797 when the tomb in Worcester cathedral was opened and on view to the public for just two days, during which time, the cathedral became so packed with sightseers that it was eventually forced to close its doors.

A note kept with the molars, on loan from Worcester City Museum, explains: “These are two teeth taken from the head of King John by William Wood, a stationer’s apprentice, in 1797.”

This was not the first time that the tomb had been opened, or raided – it had evidently happened before, some time in the 16th century. A local surgeon, Mr Sandford, who was present when the tomb was opened in 1797, noticed that the bones had been disturbed, and most of the hands and teeth had vanished.

The king was buried at Worcester Cathedral at his own request, as laid down in the earliest surviving English example of a royal will, dictated shortly before his death in October 1216. John had visited the shrine of the Anglo-Saxon Saint Wulfstan at the cathedral several times and asked to be buried near the saint. An original copy of the will on display in the exhibition is on loan from Worcester Cathedral, which is also lending the thumb bone, which was returned some 160 years after its disappearance.

Magna Carta C The British Library

Magna Carta C The British Library Board

The original aim of the Magna Carta, drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and agreed by King John in 1215, was to make peace with a group of rebel barons.  “The Great Charter”  was the first document to establish that no-one was above the law, including the king.

A revised version issued by Henry III in 1225 became the definitive version of the text. Three clauses of the 1225 Magna Carta are still part of English law. One defends the rights of the church, another relates to the laws of London and other towns, but the third is the most important:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. 

Two copies of the 1215 version of Magna Carta are housed in the British Library. While only 24 editions were previously known to exist around the world, another original has now been discovered in the town of Sandwich in Kent, along with a rare Charter of the Forest, which together are valued at up to £10 million.

Law, Liberty, Legacy is on view at the British Library  from Friday 13 March to Tuesday 1 September. The library is also holding a conference and a series of lectures, and has commissioned a commemorative artwork. Tickets for the exhibition are priced £12, with free entry for under 18’s. Other concessions are available. For further details about the exhibition telephone (0)1937 546546

Further information about events in London and around the country is available at Magna Carta 800

Find out more fascinating facts about London’s colourful past on an  Alternative History Walking Tour