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Magna Carta: The Road to Runnymede

This is one of the two Magna Carta owned by the British Library (c) The British Library Board
This is one of the two Magna Carta owned by the British Library (c) The British Library Board
This is one of the two Magna Carta owned by the British Library (c) The British Library Board

Magna Carta: The Road to Runnymede

Presented by Alexander Lock – Researcher and  Julian Harrison – Head Curator, British Library

This year marks the 800 year anniversary of the Magna Carta, the contract between the crown and realm under King John (1199-1216) in 1215. The Magna Carta has inspired numerous important documents, including the American Declaration of Independence. Harrison walked the audience through the organization of the exhibition and a brief history of the document saying, ‘It was never intended as a blueprint for human rights, it was initially an agreement between King John and his barons after the King administered justice in rather brutal ways’.

King John has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the worst kings in British history. He taxed his barons extortionately to finance his attempts to regain the loss of his French lands. After many years of discontent, the barons finally rebelled against John’s tyranny and presented him with this manifesto at Runnymede in 1215. A few interesting facts: the Royal Seal missing from the document. It appears King John never signed it! The actual scribes, unfortunately, are unknown.

Alexander Lock (left) and Julian Harrison (right) talk about the Magna Carta at a presentation about the 4 year journey to completing the exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (March 20, 2015) . Photo by Medievalists.net
Alexander Lock (left) and Julian Harrison (right) talk about the Magna Carta at a presentation about the 4 year journey to completing the exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (March 20, 2015) . Photo by Medievalists.net

How has Magna Carta Been Appropriated Since the 16th Century?

The first printing of the Magna Carta was in Latin in 1508. From that point onward, the document took off in legal culture and it was used extensively in court cases during the 16th century. How was it used in North America by the new colonies and eventually in the American Revolution? The British Library currently has two significant Revolutionary documents on loan from the New York Library that borrowed from the Magna Carta. The British Library has the first version of the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson. The Magna Carta was also used in France during the French Revolution, and more recently, it has been used in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

English Radicalism and Reform: The Magna Carta as a Symbol of Liberty

The Magna Carta was used by government agitators in later periods. It became a symbol of English liberties during the 18th and 19th centuries. Harrison showed several satirical cartoons about the Magna Carta from the 17th century to recent times. One of the funniest was a 1788 print using Magna Carta to make fun of Charles James Fox (January 24, 1749-September 13, 1806), a prominent Whig politician and radical Opposition MP. Fox and his supporters wanted to erect a “Revolution Pillar” celebrating the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. His detractors had other ideas and created a vulgar parody depicting a Fox hanging from a gibbet defecating “Runny mead”. Fox was close friends with future King George IV (August 12, 1762-June 26, 1830) so this jab poked fun at his contradictory views. In more recent history, Nelson Mandela mentioned the Magna Carta during his trial.

1788 Revolution Pillar parody of Charles Fox. Courtesy of the British Library
1788 Revolution Pillar parody of Charles Fox. Courtesy of the British Library

What Goes Into An Exhibition

The exhibition was four years in the making under the guidance of lead curators, Julian Harrison and Claire Breay. They drew up chart to help decide what items to display using the following criteria;

  • Wow factor
  • Humour
  • Different media types
  • Condition of the pieces and their conservation needs
  • Relevance to Magna Carta
  • Visibility and legibility

They explained decision making process that goes into curation by showing the audience why some letters were used and others were excluded. They included the letter of King Charles I in 1634 over a document actually mentioning Edward Cooke and Magna Carta written in 1632 by Thomas Barrington because the first document was easier to read and looked better for display purposes.

There are 202 objects in this exhibition that help tell the story of the Magna Carta over its 800 year history. Paying for pieces from France or the U.S. is extremely expensive. There is a huge cost involved for loaning pieces from other libraries and museums. It would have run up the entire budget of the exhibition for two special documents alone, so the curators were grateful for the financial support that assisted with borrowing the American documents from Washington.

The British Library used multi spectral imaging (a form of X-Ray) to help see the document after it was burnt and rendered illegible. There are 4 surviving manuscripts of the Magna Carta and each has a slight variance in the text. The first translation in 1534 was distorted and inaccurate, rife with printer’s mistakes. Lock mentioned that although ‘it was corrected in the 17th century, jurists had issues figuring out which version to use and it led to discrepancies in meaning and interpretation’ 

When famed Elizabethan jurist Sir Edward Coke (February 1, 1552-September 3, 1634) came along and revived Magna Carta, he mistakenly applied the term ‘to all free men’ to mean everyone. What was a freeman in the Middle Ages, though? Most men were not free but tied to their lord on the land and the law certainly didn’t apply to women. What’s interesting is that the Suffragettes used the Magna Carta in their fight for equal rights even though it makes no mention of women being considered equal.

Lastly, they attempted to answer the question on everyone’s mind: Why wasn’t it mentioned in Shakespeare’s King John? There were two possibilities: One, he didn’t want to rock the boat by presenting something that challenges and rebels against the monarchy. The second argument is that he didn’t know it was written in John’s reign due to subsequent rewrites by many kings.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy runs at the British Library until September 15th, 2015.

Lastly, I leave you with a very humorous video created by the British Library, and narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, to make learning about the history behind the Magna Carta fun!

For more about the Magna Carta, please see: Ten Short Videos About the Magna Carta

For more about the Magna Carta, please see: 715 Year Old Copy of Magna Carta Discovered

~Sandra Alvarez



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