Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library 13 March to 1 September 2015.
Did you know that in 1941 Churchill and his war cabinet discussed presenting the USA with an original copy of Magna Carta as some sort of sweetener to induce them to enter WW2? The document in question wasn’t even in their gift, belonging as it still does to Lincoln Cathedral. Desperate stuff, in retrospect, but perfectly true.
The documents pertaining to this incident are on show in the 20C part of this new exhibition on Magna Carta at the British Library. The show, of course, commemorates the 800th anniversary of that totemic, world-famous historical document. It is the biggest such show ever staged.
On show too are many other documents of similar or even greater moment.
As you’d expect we have original copies of Magna Carta from 1215, two of them: the Canterbury, which is virtually illegible except with specialist laboratory science viewing instruments; and the London. Missing are the Lincoln and the Salisbury which were united with the others in London for about a nano-second last month. But this matters little, for in addition we have several dozen other historical rights documents which – it can be argued – are as or more important than Magna Carta itself. These include the American Declaration of Independence, in Jefferson’s own hand; and the original American Bill of Rights. These have a security guard on them at all times, quite probably a condition of the loan from across the Pond. On show is also our own original Bill of Rights from 1689. But re-wind to the 13th century and there are rights documents which pre-date Magna Carta and ones which over the next 100 years or so re-new and reaffirm the bargain between the English monarch and the free men of his Realm, of whom there were relatively few early on.
But the important thing is that these deals led to more and more important, egilatarian and ultimately democratic agreements between the rulers and the ruled. Magna Carta, which was more properly known at the time as the Articles of the Barons on the Charter of Runnymede (“Carta de Ronemede”) led to the Forest Charter of 1225, the 1297 Statute Roll and the 1311 Ordinances of Edward II.
Inexorably on through the English Bill of Rights, American Independence, women’s suffrage, universal suffrage, colonial independence movements and to the 21st Century and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. The exhibition proceeds through all of these which are represented though a collection of well-chosen objects from swords to cartoons to commemorative teapots.
George Cruikshank, ‘Liberty Suspended’, 1817 © British Museum
Votes for Women, 1911, British Library.
Many of our favourite freedom-fighters, politicians, martyrs and charlatans are represented here. Mine – John Wilkes – was, of course, all of these things. He certainly invoked Magna Carta in his time of need.
The structure is essentially a game of two halves. Magna Carta in its own time and the key players who seem almost like pantomime characters to us now: King John, the French King Philip Augustus, the great medieval pope Innocent III, archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, noteworthy troublemaker Simon de Montfort. But this was no panto. Supported by beautiful illuminated books from the Royal Collection and elsewhere, along with body parts of the King, seals, tally sticks, clerical vestments, this part of the show gives us the why and the how, the political and social landscape: the context. And it does it brilliantly.
A first draft of Magna Carta, known as the Articles of the Barons © British Library
King John hunting a stag with hounds, 14th century. British Library.
The second half gives us, as we have noted above, the effects and influences of Magna Carta in the centuries following, down to to-day: how Magna Carta burst its own banks, so to speak. For as we are shown, Magna Carta was almost immediately quashed by Pope Innocent III, making it redundant. And while it has been superceded by greater acts and charters, all but three of its own clauses have been repealed. But what clauses they are. They involve the exclusive rights and privileges of the Church; the exclusive rights and privileges of the City of London; and most importantly of all the right of any free man not to be arrested without reason or to be tried except by his own peers.
Finally, though, the show includes unobtrusive (ie via headphones) video of academics and politicians giving contextual commentary. I’m usually wary of this sort of thing, but these are very good indeed.
Magna Carta London copy, 1215. British Library.
Great Seal of King John, 1203 © Eton College Archives
This is a substantial show, a thoughtful show, the equal of the heady topic it represents and brilliantly executed. Standard ticket price is £12 and worth every penny. I’m delighted that under 18s go free, for these are important matters for young minds to know about and to think about.
It’s not the end of March yet and I may already have seen the London exhibition of 2015.
Check out the British Library’s special web space for Magna Carta 800. You can book your tickets from there too.