When I told people of my blogging intentions, most people (while excited) expressed the similar sentiment of disbelief in my ability to post consistently. In the case of London, they were right. So, let me just preface this post with a brief apology for the lack of attention I have given my blog lately. London is HUGE and there is a lot of ground to cover, but first while I sit at the British Library, let’s talk about the Magna Carta.
For those who didn’t know (namely me), the British Library is currently featuring a temporary exhibition of the Magna Carta. It ends September 1st however, so make haste! The exhibition encompasses not only two of the surviving four copies of the infamous document, but also bits and pieces of other historical decrees that were inspired by the Magna Carta; for example, Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence (pause for affect).
This exhibition is truly amazing and displayed in the most efficient manner. Obviously chronological, it begins by giving you a short overview of the chaos of the times that inspired this memorable archive. To paint a better picture of this brief period in history, in conjunction with the actual Magna Carta, there are other historical artifacts that further explain the complete tyranny of King John, as well as insight into the stories of his reign of terror. One may think it to be a lot of conjecture, but the exhibit provides some convincing proof that not all these stories are rumors. One spooky whisper suggests that King John murdered his own nephew, Arthur of Brittany.
At any rate, having little to no awareness about the circumstances in which this charter stemmed from and also not knowing how much it impacted the future of human rights worldwide, I was blown away! As I walked through the exhibition, a museum employee asked me how I was enjoying it and I jokingly replied that my knowledge had increased 100% from when I started (and I was only halfway done!). So, in the spirit of imparting wisdom and trying to sounds all cultured, I will tell you a bit of what I learned. While I wish that I had photographic evidence of this magnificent display and the coveted Magna Carta, photographs were explicitly not allowed!
So, the Magna Carta was originally drafted in 1215 at the behest of barons to stop the abuse of power by the king. Although King John did agree to the terms of the charter and gave it his seal, ten weeks later it was deemed “null and void” by the pope at the time, Pope Innocent III. Apparently, the King had been coerced by the barons to sign the charter, for fear of rebellion.
The Magna Carta has a reputation today as being a cornerstone to modern justice administration. However, at the time of its first circulation, it was the only written record of a standard order. As the exhibition explains, the Magna Carta was an all-inclusive document regulating feudal laws, inheritance, rights of widows, standard units of measure, the practice and upholding of the law, and many other miscellaneous categories. The most important however, was the right of free men to a fair trial and protection by the law which was upheld by everyone, King included.
Of all the charters of the Magna Carta, only three are still recognized today as part of English law. One in regards to the rights of the Church, one involving the customs of London, and finally the most famous charter:
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.
To read the full text, or to learn more about the Magna Carta, click here.
Although the Magna Carta was written in 1215, it was revised several times before its induction into the book of statutes in 1297. The final version, written by King John’s son, King Henry III, was printed in 1225. The final draft is agreeably the most legitimate, having been signed under no coercion and in alliance with the beliefs of the King himself. All of the revisions are on display at the British Library, as well as an illustrative widget that allows you to see where the most change occurred from draft to draft. The most consistent statutes in the Magna Carta relate to feudal laws and the administration of justice (which is still applicable today). Because the Magna Carta dealt with the use and abuse of power, one key consequence of its declaration was the reduction in royal income through taxation. Since all taxation was now being defined and collected rightfully, there was less of it.
As you come closer to the exit, you are also growing closer to more recent chronological events (i.e. Declaration of Independence and later the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). It is not until the very end that you see the coveted pages of the Magna Carta. I mentioned earlier that there are two copies on display at the British Library. One is the Canterbury Magna Carta and the other is the Magna Carta. The two have different origin stories as to how they came to be found and on display and also look completely different! The Canterbury Magna Carta is almost destroyed, however it is thought to be the copy owned by the Canterbury Cathedral. It is very hard to see any legible text over the entire surface of the document. The other one, though, is very well preserved!
Throughout the exhibition, there is also video footage of interviews, historical film, and even a quirky rap battle related to the history and meaning of the Magna Carta. In closing, I present this hilarious little snippet from a Horrible Histories Magna Carta special that premiered earlier this year. Enjoy!