Magna Carta at The British Library

Magna Carta was the Barons’ response to King John’s brutal practices. This exhibition highlights the global inspiration and resonance which it generated in subsequent centuries.

Members of the Society who are familiar with the work of A.A.Milne may remember a verse which starts: “King John was not a good man, / He had his little ways…”. His “little ways”, as recorded by the 13th–century Benedictine monk Matthew Paris, included the following catalogue of major offences: “[John] perverted the excellent institutions of the realm, mismanaged its laws and customs and misgoverned his subjects. His inclination became law; he oppressed his own subjects; he placed over them foreign mercenary soldiers and put to death lawful heirs whom he had taken as hostages, while aliens seized their lands”. Even by the standards of a cruel age, King John’s treatment of those who had illegally hunted deer in royal forests (blinding and castration) or had challenged him (starved to death, like Matilda de Briouze and her son) was exceptionally sadistic.

The outcome of his tyranny was that at Runnymede on 10th June, 1215, King John was obliged to sign the Articles of the Barons. Using the 48 clauses of the Articles of the Barons and issues raised by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops, the royal Chancery prepared Magna Carta itself to which the royal seal was subsequently attached. The Great Charter established the principle that the monarch should be bound by the law of the land.

The British Library’s “once-in-a-lifetime” exhibition highlights the global inspiration and resonance which the Magna Carta has generated in subsequent centuries. Those who have been inspired include not only Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Jefferson but also Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela at whose trial the Great Charter was quoted.

Amongst the exhibits on display are the two original 1215 documents held at the British Library and also Thomas Jefferson’s hand-written draft of the Declaration of Independence. In addition there are examples of Magna Carta being used in political cartoons such as Thomas Rowlandson’s 1793 depiction of the contrast between the British and the French view of liberty as well as its use in 1911 in the on-going campaign for Votes for Women. To mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, the British artist Cornelia Parker has been commissioned to create a new artwork which is to be unveiled on 15th May, a week prior to our visit.

Our visit will take place on a Thursday afternoon in May.