STAFF at Salisbury Cathedral wrestled a man wielding a hammer to the ground after he attempted to snatch one of the oldest surviving copies of the Magna Carta.
Wiltshire Police said a 45-year-old suspect has been arrested in connection with the botched plot at around 4.45pm yesterday.
Visitors watched in horror as he smashed protective glass casing around the historic document in the Chapter House of the building, leaving three holes in the display.
The more than 800-year-old manuscript was saved from being ‘very seriously damaged’ by a second layer of glass, the Dean of Salisbury said today.
The Rev Canon Nicholas Papadopulos said several ‘courageous’ cathedral employees cornered and restrained the vandal as he tried to leave.
They remained with the man for 12 minutes until police arrived, who then arrested him on suspicion of attempted theft, possession of an offensive weapon and criminal damage.
Canon Nicholas said: ‘He walked out of the Chapter House and tried to leave the cathedral via our work yard and he was detained there and restrained until the police arrived.
‘It was members of our staff — he had been carrying a hammer so our guys were very courageous.’
The drama unfolded towards the end of the visiting day when evensong was approaching, Canon Nicholas said.
Members of the public, staff and volunteers were all present when the suspect launched his onslaught.
‘There were people around so the cry went up, it was pretty thick glass so it hadn’t yielded easily despite having a hammer hit it,’ the Dean added.
He said of the manuscript: ‘It is over 800 years old, it’s extraordinarily valuable, it’s housed in its own tent which is there to minimise the amount of daylight that falls upon it — had broken glass or the hammer come into contact with it, it would have been very seriously damaged.
‘It was a great shock but everyone responded magnificently, both our staff and volunteers and members of the public. They raised a cry and he did not get away.’
Salisbury Cathedral’s copy of the text is one of four that remain in existence from the original 1215 charter.
King John issued the Magna Carta after agreeing peace terms with a band of rebel barons.
It established for the first time that neither monarch nor government was above the law and set out principles of liberty which echoed through the centuries.
The copy in Salisbury Cathedral was written immediately after the rights were formally agreed at Runnymede and sent out across the country as evidence of the decision.
It features Latin text written on sheepskin by hand and still bears marks where King John’s seal was attached, according to the cathedral website.
Other surviving copies of the Magna Carta are in the British Library and Lincoln Cathedral.
Police are appealing for witnesses to come forward and the suspect has been taken to Melksham for questioning.
The disturbance once again thrusts the Wiltshire city into the spotlight after it became the focal point of tensions between Russia and Britain.
Two Russian men were accused of attempting to assassinate former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury using a highly toxic nerve agent.
The pair prompted ridicule when they claimed they had been visiting the city as tourists and wanted to see the cathedral.