A manuscript predating the Magna Carta is to be seen, in full, online, by the public for the first time thanks to a project involving digital experts at The University of Manchester working in partnership with Rochester Cathedral.
The medieval manuscript, which is almost 100 years older than King John’s Magna Carta and has been described as ‘Britain’s Hidden Treasure’ by the British Library, has never before been seen in its entirety by the public.
Dr Chris Monk, a specialist at the University who worked with Rochester Cathedral on the project, said: “The team here has vast experience digitizing rare books and manuscripts. To work with this particular national treasure, one of such historical significance, has been remarkable. And it will be just as exciting and remarkable for the public to see it up close – no longer a hidden treasure.
The book was originally two manuscripts. The first has the only surviving copies of three Kentish laws, including the Law of Aethelberht who was the King of Kent, from 560 to 616AD, and seen by some as ‘foundation documents of the English state’. King Alfred’s Domboc (book of laws) and King Cnut’s laws are also in this section of the book alongside the oldest copy of the coronation charter of Henry I – the wording of which is echoed in the Magna Carta (1215) and the American Declaration of Independence (1776).
The early legal codes are concerned primarily with preserving social harmony, through compensation and punishment for personal injury. Compensations are arranged according to social rank, descending from king to slave. The initial provisions of the code offer protection to the church. Though the latter were probably innovations, much of the remainder of the code may be derived from earlier legal custom transmitted orally.
The Textus Roffensis has been safeguarded by Rochester Cathedral since its inception and has been digitised by The University of Manchester team as part of a Heritage Lottery Funded renovation and community engagement project at the Cathedral.
The Textus Roffensis itself will go on display in Rochester Cathedral next year, as part of the Cathedral’s Heritage Lottery Fund project, ‘Hidden Treasures: Fresh Expressions’, and will enable public access to its remarkable library and other collections and include exhibitions, workshops, events and activities.
Janet Wilkinson is The University of Manchester’s Librarian and Director of The John Rylands Library. She said: “The University of Manchester Library has long recognised the need to preserve its digital material, as well as print, for future generations. I am reassured that this significant piece of history will now survive for future research purposes.”