Patriot Ross Perot Invests in the Past, Buying a Magna Carta for the Land of the Free

updated 11/12/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

The Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776) and the Constitution (Sept. 17, 1787) are justly revered as America's founding documents, but in the beginning there was the Magna Carta. The granddaddy document of them all was sealed in 1215 by England's bad King John. It guaranteed the rights of his barons and planted the seeds of individual liberty that came to full bloom during the American Revolution. So when self-made Dallas billionaire and ultrapatriot H. Ross Perot heard that a 687-year-old version of the historic charter was up for sale, he decided he'd buy it for America. The British Brudenells, an aristocratic brood who'd had the Magna Carta copy stashed in a forgotten trove of archives for centuries, were only too happy to sell the treasure to Perot—for $1.5 million. As one Brudenell cousin remarked on the sale: "Not a bad price for a piece of old animal skin."

For Perot, 54, purchasing the pricey parchment was just the latest in a series of much-publicized exploits. In 1969 he sent a 707 jet loaded with Christmas gifts and food for American POWs in Hanoi only to be rebuffed by the North Vietnamese. Then, in 1979, when two employees of his phenomenally successful computer enterprise, Electronic Data Systems, were arrested by Iranian revolutionaries, Perot staged a daring rescue that became the subject of Ken Follett's best-seller On Wings of Eagles. As one of America's wealthiest individuals, Perot had no trouble picking up the tab for the Magna Carta copy in a brisk negotiation last summer. "I had talked to the Smithsonian and the National Archives in Washington and they both expressed interest, but they didn't have the wherewithal to get it," he says. "There was so much going on with my company that when I heard we could finally get the document, I felt only a mild kind of relief."

The Brudenells had been trying to unload the water-stained piece of vellum since it surfaced in 1974 during an inventory of family records. When Marian Brudenell, 50, first told British Museum experts of the discovery, they mistakenly concluded that the Magna Carta copy was a Victorian reproduction. "They were so patronizing," recalls Marian. "They treated me pityingly, as a half-witted girl." Even when the document's authenticity was proved, the museum valued it at a paltry $23,000. The Brudenells decided to wait for a buyer with a better appreciation of the charter's worth. For one thing, they needed the money to pay for the upkeep of Deene Park, the 10,000-acre Northamptonshire estate and 100-room manor they hope to bequeath to the eldest of their three children, Robert, 28, a realtor born seven minutes before his twin brother, Thomas, an attorney. The couple also have a daughter, Anna Maria, 24, a secretary. "Works of art and historic documents don't pay the grocer," explains Edmund Brudenell, 56. "And once the Magna Carta's value was established, it then was a worry to have it in the house." Before Perot came along, the Brudenells missed a chance to sell the charter to Ashland Oil heir Charles Atkins for the $2 million original asking price. Financial difficulties forced the New York-based Atkins to back out at the last minute. After that, says the Brudenells' London agent, Randall Crawley, "Everybody was anxious to get it over with."

Perot's new acquisition is a copy of the charter that was issued by King Edward I in 1297. All four of the original 1215 charters remain in England, and Perot's is one of perhaps a dozen extremely old copies. It probably entered the Brudenell family through Edmund Brudenell, who was attorney general under Richard II (1377-1399), or Sir Robert Brudenell, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas under Henry VIII (1509-1547). "One of them, as you might say, retained it," posits Marian.

In the ensuing centuries the precious document lay forgotten while Deene Park became famous as the residence of James Thomas Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan. Besides inventing the sweater that bears his name, Brudenell gained a reputation for folly during the Crimean War by leading some 250 men to pointless death in the charge of the Light Brigade on Oct. 25, 1854. "Brave and peppery," sums up the current proprietor of Deene Park, "but very stupid and arrogant. That was the way of the world then." The Earl had an infamous second wife, Adeline de Horsey, with whom he had carried on a scandalous affair before his first wife was properly dead. "She was a nympho," huffs Marian. "Deene became a house of ill repute. No respectable lady would set foot here, certainly during her lifetime." The Earl had no legitimate children, so the current Brudenells are not his direct heirs. "He had lots of illegitimate children," says Marian. "They were all around the village." "So wise," quips husband Edmund. "If you want servants nowadays, you've got to breed them."

Edmund's father, the Earl's distant cousin, inherited Deene Park in 1917 and soon began selling off the family furniture because of its association with Adeline. Edmund remembers his father as an eccentric with a reckless disregard for financial matters. "The family nearly went under because of my parents' gross mismanagement and overspending," says Edmund. "They never paid the butcher's bill. They owed the tradesmen, the taxman, everybody."

The house, meanwhile, began to fall apart. "They pigged it," says Edmund. "Every room was like a bomb site. They'd sold off all but a few heirlooms. My mother used to say she was the right wife for my father because she 'didn't mind it rough!' " Deene's decay worsened during World War II, when troops billeted there, and when the crash of a bomb-laden American plane at a nearby air base blew out the great hall's 17th-century stained-glass windows. After the war Edmund began putting the place to rights with government war compensation funds, installing electricity in 1948. These days the Brudenells get by with a housekeeper, a cook, two gardeners and a half-dozen part-time servants. The owners make do by opening their home to the paying public, throwing dinner or luncheon parties for American visitors willing to pay to hobnob with the gentry. "There are still old fogies like us who want to keep a house like this rather than see it sold off to the nation and become another sterile museum," says Edmund. "So if you have something like the Magna Carta, you sell it to keep the family heritage together and in private hands."

For now, the Magna Carta is safe at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin, where preservationists will study it before building a special display case with automatic temperature, lighting and humidity controls to protect the ancient parchment, which bears 68 lines of close-writ Latin script. Perot plans to place the Magna Carta on display in the National Archives beside the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, then send it on a national tour. "We are very fortunate to have our freedoms in this country and it is very important for the children to know this," says Perot. "The day I see the exhibit and see a large crowd of children captivated and learning, that day I will be happy. That's the why of it."

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