The New-York Historical Society is currently displaying a rare early copy of the Magna Carta, one of the most important historical documents in the world, in an exhibition titled Magna Carta 800: Sharing the Legacy of Freedom. On loan from Hereford Cathedral in England, this 1217 version of the Magna Carta will be on view at the New-York Historical Society for just a week. Originally issued in 1215, with subsequent reissues based on the revised 1217 version on display there, the Magna Carta celebrates its 800th anniversary this year. The document will be accompanied by the King’s Writ of 1215, also on loan from Hereford Cathedral, which is the only known surviving copy of instructions issued by John at Runnymede to local Sheriffs to prepare for the coming of the Charter. xxxxx
The exhibition at the New-York Historical Society is the only U.S. appearance and the first stop in a global tour of the Magna Carta, in a partnership between Hereford Cathedral and the GREAT Britain Campaign, which will also pass through China (including Hong Kong), Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, and Singapore.
Right: the document being signed by King John in 1215.
“The Magna Carta is a hugely important part of our history and stands as a beacon for our values today,” UK Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire said. “The tour is a fantastic way of enabling people from America to Asia to see it first hand, and to reflect on all that it stands for.”
“We are thrilled to offer New Yorkers a chance to experience the Magna Carta, one of the most influential historical documents of all time, on the occasion of its 800th anniversary,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “The Magna Carta established fundamental principles that inspired America’s Founding Fathers when they wrote the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, so this seminal document will allow our visitors to trace an important path of history back to its very origins.”
The document that became known as the Magna Carta, or “Great Charter,” was initially developed in 1215 and issued by King John as a peace treaty with rebel barons to address specific grievances of his rule. Although the treaty did not hold, the document established the principle that everyone, even the king, was subject to the law, with all free men granted the right to justice and a fair trial. As such, the document has enormous symbolic power, granting protection against tyrannical rule and defending civil liberties, a central source of inspiration for future constitutional documents.
In his book, A History of Britain, the historian Simon Schama writes that Magna Carta is not the birth certificate of freedom but rather the death certificate of despotism. And Mark Juddery, author of Overrated: The 50 Most Overhyped Things in History, argues that the interpretation of the charter over the centuries as a call for freedom is not the reality of the original document.
So what is Magna Carta?
The Magna Carta outlined basic rights with the principle that no one was above the law, including the king:
◾It charted the right to a fair trial, and limits on taxation without representation;
◾It inspired a number of other documents, including the US Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
◾Only three clauses are still valid – the one guaranteeing the liberties of the English Church; the clause confirming the privileges of the city of London and other towns; and the clause that states that no free man shall be imprisoned without the lawful judgement of his equals.
“What Magna Carta now means is great, but it did not have such lofty ideals at all,” he says. “It was great if you were a nobleman because it gave you the right to land. They really didn’t like paying rent. That was the main reason they formulated Magna Carta. It wasn’t really a case of this feeling that there should be a lot more freedom and that everyone should be equal. “There was nothing about King John’s numerous acts of cruelty and murder.”
Indeed, the majority of the clauses in the original document were focused on rights relating to the barons. And of the 63 clauses, only three have not now been repealed or become obsolete. The most famous of these is: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled. Nor will we proceed with force against him. 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.”
Despite that clause being the touchstone for countless causes related to liberty, it was afforded no real prominence and was buried deep in the document. “It’s interesting that the key one which says ‘no free man be seized or imprisoned’ was not even for everybody,” says Dr Claire Breay, who is lead curator of medieval manuscripts at the British Library. “There were more freemen than barons but the majority of the population were the unfree peasantry, so the majority were not directly affected by Magna Carta in 1215.”
According to a 2012 article on the BBC, Dr George Garnett, a history lecturer at Oxford University, specializing in English history in the 10-13th Centuries, says that while Magna Carta has proved to be enormously influential, that wasn’t its original intention. “It was designed to be a quick fix in an impossible and
unprecedented set of circumstances,” he says. “The king was absolutely desperate and within six months he’d persuaded the pope to annul it.
“But because he then died shortly afterwards, and because his son was a minor and remained a minor for about 10 years, the country was then ruled by a council of barons and they ensured that the suitably amended Magna Carta was reissued.” It was reissued several times in the 13th Century, with the text changing from the 1215 original. The version that became part of the first English statute in 1297 was the one signed by King Henry III in 1225. Breay says although the meaning of Magna Carta over the centuries has become different from its original purpose, it still represents a pivotal moment in British history.
Also on view with the Magna Carta at the New York Historical Society will be an original copy of the King’s Writ, issued on June 20, 1215, by King John to inform the sheriff and other royal officials in each county of the terms of the peace treaty. The 1215 treaty was modified and reissued in subsequent years, in part to garner support for King Henry III, who was just nine years old when he succeeded the throne in 1216. The 1217 version, which will be on view at New-York Historical, was issued by John’s immediate successor—the young Henry III—and contains significant additions, which would be retained in subsequent reissues of the Charter by English monarchs. Only four copies of the 1217 version survive.
Right: The memorial at Runnymede, England
Copies of the Magna Carta have traveled to New York in the past, most notably for the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, where it was displayed at the British Pavilion. In more recent years, copies of the document have been on view in New York and Washington, D.C., but this is the first time that the Hereford Cathedral copy has traveled to New York.
By Richard J. Friswell, Managing Editor