Mark Bateson, an archivist in Sandwich, southern England, found the previously unknown version of the Magna Carta -- which established the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law -- after historian Nicholas Vincent had asked him to look for a separate document dealing with a local forest that he was researching.
After rummaging through a scrapbook of council archives, Bateson found the Forest Charter, a document issued by King Henry III in 1217,
as well as a tattered page that he thought looked like the Magna Carta.
"He wasn't really aware of the fact that they were either rare or that this one was indeed what it purported to be. I think, from his point of view, it was all a bit of a shock," said Vincent, professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia.
But he says there is no doubt that this is a version of the Magna Carta, or "The Great Charter,"
that was published in 1300 under the reign of King Edward I. The original document was issued by England's King John in 1215.
The document is badly damaged, with a third of its text and the royal seal of Edward I missing and the back of it firmly stuck down. But despite its deformities, Vincent said it could fetch millions. "It [the damage] probably would interfere with the value of it if someone were foolish enough to sell it," he said. "But I think there's no question of that.
"This one is in nothing like the condition of the one that went for sale in New York [in 2007, for $21.3 million
] but I would say it's certainly worth in the millions rather than in the tens and hundreds of thousands. And as a pair, they are all the more desirable."
And other discoveries have been made as well.
"The fact that they [Magna Carta and Forest Charter] are both there in Sandwich is particularly interesting because there is no royal forest in Kent. That really tells us something that we really didn't know before about the way that the document was published," Vincent said.
"And given that this is the most important document in English history, people make such a fuss about it, to find out anything new about it is rather exciting."
This is a hugely significant gain for Sandwich. "Through the American Declaration of Independence, continuing in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Magna Carta still underpins individual liberties worldwide," said the town's mayor, Paul Graeme. To own such a document, and the Charter of the Forest, is an honor and a great responsibility."
"What matters is Sandwich now becomes one of a very small number of institutions -- there are only about a dozen -- that own a Magna Carta," said Vincent.
"There are lots and lots of institutions across the Atlantic and elsewhere in the world that would love to have this document."