Magna Carta is one of the most famous and enduring documents in the world. It is the inspiration behind the laws that govern Britain, the United States, Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand and many others. Recently, Magna Carta was cited on behalf of Guantanamo detainees. It has been used to protest everything from European integration to London parking tickets. Magna Carta remains a powerful symbol of democracy, human rights, and protection from injustice. The extensive and exquisitely-presented exhibition at the British Library, four years in the making, explores not only the medieval origins of Magna Carta, but its resonance throughout history to the present age.
Image courtesy of the British Library
King John was forced by his barons to seal Magna Carta (meaning Great Charter) in 1215 at Runnymede. Those familiar with the King John portrayed in the Robin Hood legends will recognise him as one of the most unpopular kings in history. Written across one wall of the exhibition is a quote by Matthew Paris, a thirteenth-century chronicler, which sums up the general prejudice: "Foul as Hell is, it is defiled by the presence of King John." The King's tomb in Worcester Cathedral was opened twice by souvenir hunters in the sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries. The exhibition contains the King's thumb bone and two of his teeth, which are displayed next to a replica of his tomb. King John's will and a beautiful fourteenth century scroll illustrating his genealogy are also on display.
King John's teeth. Image by Worcester City Museum (via British Library)
Most of the provisions in the original charter pertained to specifics of medieval culture. These have since been revoked or fallen into irrelevance. It is the legal precedent set by Clauses 39 and 40 that endures as a foundation stone of several present day legal systems and as the inspiration behind modern declarations of human rights:
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 judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one shall we deny or delay right or justice.
America's founding fathers were greatly inspired by Magna Carta. In the mid-twentieth century the British Foreign Office called America "an eighteenth-century child of Magna Carta." Thomas Jefferson's handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence and one of the original copies of the United States Bill of Rights are on display for the first time in the UK. It is interesting to note that Jefferson's copy of the Declaration contains additional provisions, such as abolishing slavery, which were excised in the final Declaration. Eighteenth-century documents are not America's only connection to Magna Carta. The British Foreign Office in 1941 once considered giving America a copy of Magna Carta (called a "bit of parchment") as a symbol of the "compact to fight to the last in the service of liberty and of law."
Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Image by New York Public Library (via British Library)
There are around 200 objects on display. The final room of the exhibition is devoted to two of the extant copies of Magna Carta. After touring the 800-year impact of the document in the other rooms of the exhibition, the "bit of parchment" inspires a tangible reverence. It has been stated that "Magna Carta competes with the English language as Britain's greatest export." It stands as a powerful symbol of freedom and human rights across many centuries and will continue to do so far into the future. This is truly a once in a lifetime exhibition.
Quotes and background information are from the British Library and Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, and Legacy, eds. C. Breay and J. Harrison (London, 2015)
Special thanks to the team at the British Library for the invitation to this exhibition.