Final Month to See British Library’s Magna Carta Exhibit

Magna Carta, London copy, 1215, on display in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. Photography © British Library. Cotton Augustus II. 106
Magna Carta, London copy, 1215, on display in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. Photography © British Library. Cotton Augustus II. 106
Magna Carta, London copy, 1215, on display in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. Photography © British Library. Cotton Augustus II. 106

It’s August, and summer has begun its inevitable wind down. Unfortunately, this means the British Library’s spectacular exhibit, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy is winding down as well. This is the final month to catch a glimpse of the famous 800 year old document before the exhibit comes to a close on September 1st. It was a phenomenal undertaking that has paid off for the British Library, as this has been their best exhibit to date. According to Curator of Medieval Manuscripts, and co-curator of the exhibit, Julian Harrison, this odyssey was 4 years in the making. The effort and care by the British Library is evident; it’s a brilliant retrospective that’s not to be missed.

Magna Carta’s 800th Anniversary

2015 has been a spectacular year for Magna Carta. The 800th anniversary of its sealing at Runnymede has brought renewed interest to its importance beyond being appealing to historians and lawyers. It is piece of legal work that has inspired nations and human rights activists for centuries.


Of the 60 clauses enshrined in the Magna Carta, only 3 remain on the books in English law today. Most of the clauses that have been removed were pertaining to medieval circumstances and customs that are now obsolete, like scutage (a form of feudal taxation), knight’s fees, demesne manor legislation, castle guard and chattels distributed under the supervision of the Church etc. The 3 remaining clauses still in use are:

The confirmation of the liberties of the English church, Clause 1:

“We have first of all granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed, for ourselves and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church is to be free, and to have its full rights and its liberties intact, and we wish this to be observed accordingly, as may appear from our having of our true and unconstrained volition, before discord arose between us and our barons, granted, and by our charter confirmed, the freedom of elections which is deemed to be the English Church’s very greatest want, and obtained its confirmation by the lord pope Innocent III; which we will ourselves observe and wish to be observed by our heirs in good faith in perpetuity. And we have also granted to all the free men of our kingdom, for ourselves and our heirs in perpetuity, all the following liberties, for them and their heirs to have and to hold of us and our heirs.”


The confirmation of the liberties of the city of London and other cities, Clause 13:

“And the city of London is to have all its ancient liberties and free customs, both on land and water. Moreover we wish and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns and ports are to have all their liberties and free customs.”

The affirmation that no man should be arrested or imprisoned without the judgement of his equals or by the law of the land, Clause 39:

“No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”


The Exhibit

The exhibit begins with a brief video describing the history behind the Magna Carta and then continues on in chronological order from the Anglo Saxon period to the present day.

King John's teeth and thumb bone. Photo courtesy of the British Library
King John’s teeth and thumb bone. Photo courtesy of the British Library

There is so much to see in the medieval portion. There is copy of the Anglo Saxon Laws issued by Cnut written in Old English, Henry I’s Coronation Charter, marvellous maps by Matthew Paris, along with his depictions of King John in Books of the Kings of England. There is also beautiful genealogical scroll also by Mathhew Paris detailing the family history of the King’s of England. There are several swords, reliquaries, illuminated books, shoes, seals, and coins from John and Henry II’s reign.

Some important pieces to watch for: The Articles of the Barons and The Statute of Pamiers are both here. There is also the Papal Bull anulling the Magna Carta on Aug 24, 1215 by Pope Innocent III. Some more curious items include scraps of John’s clothes, and a copy of his will from October 1216 and his thumb bone and teeth!


There are 4 copies of Magna Carta on display dated after 1215 in this collection: one from French National Archives dated Nov 12, 1216, the 1217 Magna Carta, a Magna Carta dated Feb 11, 1225 (now considered the definitive charter as issued by Henry III because it was added to the Statute Roll), and lastly, Magna Carta as confirmed by Edward I on October 10, 1297.

Early Modern
There is plenty in the Early Modern section as well. Magna Carta took on a special significance after it was first printed in 1508 in Latin by Richard Pynson, and the first English copy was printed in 1534 by Robert Redman. There are documents belonging to Thomas Cromwell where he mentions the Magna Carta in is his work notes. The charter was also invoked by Thomas More in his trial for his refusal to swear allegiance to Henry VIII. It gained further importance in English law after Sir Edward Coke (d.1634), a lawyer and politician, used it to draft his Petition of Right, limiting the authority of King Charles I. The Magna Carta was used against Charles I during his trial. The document gained ground once again when English jurist, William Blackstone, made sense of the various versions of the Magna Carta in his work,  The Great Charter in 1759. This helped bring the the charter back into vogue and it appeared on various trinkets, keepsakes and pottery throughout the 18th century.

Page 1 of the Declaration of Independence - The New York Public Library. Photo courtesy of the British Library
Page 1 of the Declaration of Independence – The New York Public Library. Photo courtesy of the British Library

The American Colonies
For American visitors, this exhibit offers a fascinating look at the beginnings of American history. It demonstrates the use of the Magna Carta during the early period of the colonies up to its application during the American Revolution. The Magna Carta first appeared in law books in Virginia and Massachusetts in the early 17th century. The Magna Carta was also famously used by the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, as his defense during his trial. Last but not least, the exhibit sheds light on the Magna Carta’s influence in the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights.

Favourite Pieces
Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence was one of my favourite pieces. I’m not American, but aside from medieval history, I really enjoy American Revolutionary history. Seeing Jefferson’s handwriting gave me goosebumps, as did the 1790 copy of the the US Bill of Rights. For my medieval favourites, the two 1215 copies of the Magna Carta came out on top. Sadly, one of the 1215 copies was very badly damaged by fire in 1731 and then again, by a botched restoration attempt in the 1830s. Fortunately, multispectral imaging was used to help make the burnt text visible again for visitors. Lastly, John’s teeth! John’s tomb was opened by British engraver, Valentine Green in 1797, and his thumb bone, and teeth are on display. There was also scrap of his shoe, pieces of his funerary shroud and clothing.


Demonstrating the Magna Carta’s global significance to non-historians is a daunting task. The exhibit isn’t just old, crumbling, bits of paper, it features: swords, books, pottery, personal effects, clothing and interactive videos. The British Library manages to marry legal history and artefacts in an unforgettable display that spans well over 1,000 years, detailing legal history 600 years before the Magna Carta in codified Anglo Saxon laws, to its use by different nations after 1215. It’s an all encompassing display that not only helps explain British legal history, but explains how the Magna Carta has made its mark in the United States, France and the eventually, the European Convention on Human Rights. If you’re going to do anything in London this August, this would be it.

~Sandra Alvarez

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