MAGNA CARTA: LAW, LIBERTY, LEGACY at the British Library

Magna Carta, arguably the world’s most famous document.  Being a shallow soul I’ve always imagined it to be a bit bling.  You know the kind of thing: illuminated initial letters, maybe a few heraldic beasts dotted around for good effect and all topped off with a large seal.  Only four copies of the 1215 Magna Carta still exist and two are on display at the British Library at the end of a comprehensive and excellent exhibition.

Magna Carta

Portrait of King John and other kings by Matthew Paris, C13
© British Library

Laws didn’t start with Magna Carta and one of the first things that you see here is the Law-code of King Cnut.  1,000 years ago Archbishop Wulfstan of York drafted the code for Cnut, it is written in Old English and begins ‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice supressed’.  Unfortunately King John was not quite so diligent in promoting justice.  Matthew Paris was a Benedictine monk and in his history branded John a tyrant.  We learn that the Magna Carta was not signed but rather sealed and a rather fine example of John’s seal is on display.

Magna Carta

Great Seal of King John, 1203
© Eton College Archives

Ten weeks after Magna Carta was signed, Pope Innocent issued a papal bull declaring it to be illegal but it continued to be a touchstone for future generations of radicals wanting fairer government. Later, Thomas Jefferson was strongly influenced by its ideals when drafting the United States’ Bill of Rights.  Medieval documents are not the only things on display the junior CWs were particularly taken with the Horrible Histories Magna Carta rap.  If you are unable to get down to the Euston Road, the British Library have set up a brand new Magna Carta website with animations narrated by Terry Jones.

Magna Carta

1215 Magna Carta, damaged Canterbury copy with seal
© British Library

Right at the end of the exhibition you come face to face with two of the four surviving originals.  Bling is very much not in evidence.  The Canterbury Magna Carta looks like (and here I write from experience) the early part of a Year 1 pirate map homework where the paper has been prepared but the map yet to be drawn.  In 1731 it was involved in a fire and then in 1836 a restorer decided to soak it and then set about it with a rolling pin to attach a backing sheet.  Barely any writing is visible.  No bling except King John’s seal but still iconic.  The London copy, also on display has words but no seal.  Chief Justice Lord Bingham wrote ‘the significance of Magna Carta lay not only in what it actually said, but in what later generations claimed and believed it said’.  He was right and might have added that appearance isn’t everything.

Coffee and cakes are pretty standard in the café at the British Library but it is a wonderful place to go.  Most people are either tapping away on laptops, engrossed in a book or engaged in earnest conversation, you can almost hear big brains whirring.

MAGNA CARTA: LAW, LIBERTY, LEGACY  13 March – 1 September
96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB
Open: Monday-Thursday 0930-2000, Friday 0930-1800, Saturday 0930-1730, Sunday 1100-1700
Admission;  Adult, £12.00, Senior 60+, £10.00, Student, £5.00, Under 18 free


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