Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, on loan from The New York Public Library, and the Delaware copy of the US Bill of Rights, on loan from The US National Archives, two of the most iconic documents in American history, will be in the UK for the first time and on display at the British Library from Friday in the world’s largest exhibition about Magna Carta. The loans are sponsored by global law firm White & Case LLP.
Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy unites over 200 exhibits, including iconic documents, such as two of the four surviving 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, artworks, medieval manuscripts, Royal remains, weaponry and 800 year old garments, through to modern interpretations and satires of the document, to tell a revealing story of how Magna Carta has become a global symbol of freedom.
On display will also be little known government papers from the British Cabinet in 1941 proposing to give one of the original 1215 Magna Carta documents to the USA in return for their support in World War Two. The papers, on loan to the Library from The National Archives and on display for the first time, are annotated by Winston Churchill and describe the suggested gift of Magna Carta as ‘the only really adequate gesture which it is in our power to make in return for the means to preserve our country’ – an example of the charter’s enormous influence.
Iconic documents on display which build on the legacy of Magna Carta include the Petition of Right (1628), the English Bill of Rights (1689) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), while lesser known documents include treaties between a king and his subjects which are similar to, but in fact predate, Magna Carta, such as the Coronation Charter of Henry I (1100), the Statute of Pamiers (1212), the ‘Unknown Charter’ (1215) and the ‘draft’ of Magna Carta from the field of Runnymede itself, known as the Articles of the Barons (1215).
The exhibition invites us to consider why Magna Carta is so important today and why it is often hailed as the foundation of democracy, even though the idea of democracy would doubtless have horrified the barons, let alone King John.
Co-curator of the exhibition, Dr Claire Breay, says:
“Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is the biggest exhibition there has ever been on Magna Carta, one of the most famous documents in the world. It brings together manuscripts and objects from a thousand years of history to tell the story of the granting of Magna Carta, how it has been re-used around the world over the centuries since, and how it has evolved into an international symbol for freedom and the rule of law. Magna Carta was not conceived as a democratic document, but as a practical solution to a political crisis 800 years ago. The exhibition challenges visitors to consider what Magna Carta has meant over time, how it acquired its iconic status and meaning, and why it is still so resonant 800 years after it was first granted.”
Telling the story of Magna Carta and King John are intriguing 13th century artefacts including King John’s teeth and thumb bone, on loan to the Library from Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum and Worcester Cathedral, removed from his tomb in 1797 when it was opened to verify that the king was buried there. Alongside these artefacts, Worcester Cathedral has lent John’s original will.
On display will also be the earliest account of what happened when the King met the Barons at Runnymede and Magna Carta was agreed. This account was recently re-discovered at the British Library in the Melrose Chronicle, a medieval manuscript written by monks at Melrose Abbey in Scotland.
As well as Magna Carta’s foundation in medieval history, the exhibition tells a story through the Library’s fascinating collections of how the document has been used over the last 800 years in the fight for rights and freedoms. From the English Civil Wars to the reform of Parliament, from Chartism to women’s suffrage and continuing to modern satirical cartoons, it has been cited and invoked time and again.
Julian Harrison, co-curator of the exhibition, comments:
“We hope that, by seeing Magna Carta alongside other documents it has inspired — including the Declaration of Independence and US Bill of Rights — our visitors will be encouraged to reflect on the charter’s influence over the past 800 years and what it means to them today. Magna Carta established for the first time that everybody was subject to the law and that nobody, not even the king, was above the law, principles that we often take for granted.”
Richard Godden, partner at global law firm and sponsor of the exhibition Linklaters, comments:
“Although most of Magna Carta is no longer part of English law, its foundational concepts and some of its most famous provisions have been replicated in the laws of countries around the world, transcending borders and languages. It is common to encounter people confusing democracy with the Rule of Law. But history teaches us that, given the unpalatable choice, it would be better to choose the Rule of Law without democracy than democracy without the Rule of Law."
Significant occasions when public figures have used or quoted Magna Carta include Winston Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain Speech (1946); ‘A Farewell Letter’ (1914) of Mohandas Gandhi, later known as Mahatma Gandhi, in reference to The Indian Relief Act; and Nelson Mandela’s Rivonia Trial statement (1964), a recording of which was restored by the Library in 2000 and now plays in the exhibition.
The Library has filmed a series of interviews with prominent politicians, historians and public figures to provide a commentary on Magna Carta and what it means today. These include Aung San Suu Kyi, Bill Clinton and William Hague and will play throughout the exhibition. Playing in the exhibition will also be the recent Horrible Histories Magna Carta ‘rap battle’ between King John and the Barons, as well as fascinating archive video footage.
For young visitors, the Library has produced a free children’s audio guide to the exhibition, kindly funded by the Magna Carta 800th committee, with whom the Library has worked closely to mark the anniversary year.
Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is at the heart of a wider cultural programme of events and digital projects at the British Library.
Later this year the Library will unveil a major new art installation by British artist Cornelia Parker, which responds to the identity of Magna Carta in the digital age. The artwork, named Magna Carta (An Embroidery), will be a 13-metre-long embroidery of Magna Carta’s Wikipedia page, stitched by over 200 people, from prisoners to civil rights campaigners to public figures who have dominated headlines in recent years, and will be on display from 15 May.
A brand new comprehensive Magna Carta website accompanies the exhibition featuring over 150 digitised collections items, newly-commissioned animations narrated by Terry Jones, a selection of films and teaching resources. The website features in-depth articles by 20 leading experts including Shami Chakrabarti, legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg, and historian and journalist Dan Jones.
We are also excited to be part of a pioneering online schools project, Magna Carta: My Digital Rights, which challenges students to create a bill of rights for the digital era, announced earlier this year with BBC Radio 1. The results of the project will be announced in June around the anniversary of Magna Carta’s sealing.
The next six months will see law professionals, historians, journalists, democratic figures, activists, comedians and musicians in debate, song and performance as part of an extensive programme of public events exploring democracy. Guests include musician Saul Williams, Director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti, politician and civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson, celebrated lawyers Geoffrey Robertson, Albie Sachs, Philippe Sands and Bryan Stevenson, comedian and activist Mark Thomas, historians Nicholas Vincent, Helen Castor, Dan Jones and David Starkey and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales among many others.
For students there will also be a programme of exhibition workshops available to Primary and Secondary schools to support the History and Citizenship curriculum. We’re also working in partnership with The Historical Association, The National Association of Citizenship Teaching and the Schools History Project on a series of special teachers’ events to accompany the exhibition.
Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy opens on Friday 13 March and runs until 1 September 2015 at the British Library. The exhibition is sponsored by the global law firm Linklaters LLP.