Even if you’re not a history lover like me, you’d be hard pressed to have missed the publicity surrounding the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta this year. The British Library, naturally enough, have installed an exhibition celebrating this document and its impact on the world, entitled Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.
The exhibition explores how the Magna Carta came about, the context in which it was designed, and its immediate impact, as well as looking at the ways in which it has inspired campaigners throughout the centuries and impacted on political events. Linked to this, it examines how it has been exploited and perceived by the media and by people in general.
The treaty came about after King John, who had lost much territory in Northern France, imposed huge taxes on his wealthy subjects. The barons, angry, forced him into a negotiation, resulting in the “Carta de Ronemede”. Though much of it is now obsolete – one clause, for instance, covered fishing in the Thames – it still had a significant impact, as the exhibition shows. In addition, clauses 39 and 40 – guaranteeing the right to a fair and speedy trial – are still in force today.
The exhibition was very busy when I visited, but that was probably my own fault as I chose to go at the weekend. I did find that it was incredibly interesting and much more thorough than I had imagined. Partly this was because of the quality of the artefacts on display: two of the four original Magna Carta documents from 1215, plus Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence and an original copy of the US Bill of Rights, which both owe a debt to the Magna Carta. Statues, paintings and an assortment of manuscripts also added to the exhibition.
British judge Lord Bingham wrote that: “The significance of Magna Carta lay not only in what it actually said, but in what later generations claimed and believed it has said.” This exhibition brilliantly demonstrates this.