Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library from 13 March to 1 Sept 2015

Exhibition Review – Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library from 13 March to 1 Sept 2015

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The long awaited British Library exhibition entitled Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy brings together  over 200 exhibits, including iconic documents, such as two of the four surviving 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, artworks, medieval manuscripts, Royal remains and 800 year old garments.  The exhibition also includes 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 which will be seen  in the UK for the first time.

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The exhibition begins by placing Magna Carta  into its historical context, it may be a surprise to many that there were other documents that predated Magna Carta  that represented treaties between a king and his subjects. Two of the most important of these treaties , the Coronation Charter of Henry I (1100) and the Statute of Pamiers (1212) are shown at the exhibition.

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Although  other treaties were signed, they have not the historical significance of  the Magna Carta  which was not conceived as a democratic document, but was considered a practical solution to a political crisis 800 years ago.  The exhibition brings together some of the leading characters of the signing of the Magna Carta  to explain how the power struggle between Barons,  King John and the Church led to unintended consequences regarding the nature of law and democracy. Perhaps more importantly it stresses that  the 1225 version of Magna Carta issued by Henry III  took some of ideas further and enshrined them in law.

Although Magna Carta contained 63 clauses when it was first granted, only three of those clauses remain part of English law. One defends the liberties and rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, but the third is the most famous:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice

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Important documents  such as the Articles of the Barons (1215), King John’s Ancestry and the Papal Bull that annulled the treaty are surrounded with a series of  13th century artefacts including King John’s teeth and thumb bone, removed from his Worcester Cathedral tomb in 1797 when it was opened to verify that the king was buried there.  Worcester Cathedral has also loaned King John’s original will and Canterbury Cathedral has loaned clothes recovered from the tomb of Hubert Walter (Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England under King John).

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The Magna Carta’s foundation in medieval history is just part of the story, the exhibition goes on to illustrate how the document has been used over the last 800 years in the fight for rights and freedoms. 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).

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Significant occasions when public figures have used or quoted Magna Carta include  Thomas More at his trial(there is also a letter about More from Thomas Cromwell),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).

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These widely known references contrast with a  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. Although it never got past the Cabinet stage, this potentially controversial document is one of the major surprises of the exhibition.

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The two copies of the Magna Carta at the end of the exhibition will disappoint those who expect wonderfully illustrated documents, one of the copies called the Canterbury Magna Carta was almost destroyed in a fire  but does have the King John seal and the other is a small piece of sheepskin parchment. However as the exhibition illustrates it is the ideas and law behind the documents that make them some of the most famous documents in the world.

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This intriguing and often surprising multi media exhibition is just part of a wider range of programmes  to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of the document. For anyone interested in historical documents and how these provide ideas that change the world, this will be a must see exhibition. It is unlikely that we will ever see these documents in one place again suggesting it will have a wide appeal and be extremely popular and may be well worth booking tickets as soon as possible.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like more information and book tickets, visit the British Library website here 

Exhibition runs from  13 March  to   1 September 2015

 Opening hours Monday 9.30 – 18.00, Tuesday 9.30 – 20.00, Wednesday – Friday 9.30 – 18.00, Saturday 9.30 – 17.00, Sunday and English public holidays 11.00 – 17.00.

Tickets Full Price: £12.00; Under 18: Free

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