Yesterday, 3rd February I was at the British Library. I had been lucky enough to win tickets in a ballot for what the British Library were calling the Magna Carta Unification. What this in fact meant was that for the first time ever, the four surviving copies of Magna Carta were in one place, unified for the 800th anniversary of the granting of the Great Charter by King John. Two of the copies are already housed in the British Library, the other two copies were loaned by Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals. I think all those of us attending – and there were 1215 of us through the doors yesterday – felt privileged to be there, we had won our tickets out of almost 50,000 people who had applied.
Why is Magna Carta so important? Well, today particular clauses in the document are held up as the origins of our democracy. Back in 1215 it was a way for King John to get the Barons off his back. The document was sealed at Runnymede in Berkshire, a beautiful meadow which is nowadays used for picnicking by the River Thames. It’s geographical importance in June 1215 was that it was between Windsor, where King John was staying and Staines where the Barons were camped out, ready to fight to protect their rights. And make no mistake – in 1215 it was all about the Barons’ rights, not your average man in the field’s. However, it is seen as the beginning, a first stage in the long, bloody path to a democratic society. It was the first document to suggest that the King wasn’t above the law of the land – if only Charles I had read it! Its most important clauses though are 38 and 39. Clause 38 states: : “No official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.” Clause 39 is possibly the best known. “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights and 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.”
Unfortunately King John, being the rotter that he was, reneged on the deal as soon as the Barons tried to enforce the terms of the Charter. The King persuaded the Pope to agree that Magna Carta was illegal and unjust, especially to the King, harming his royal rights! The Pope declared the charter was null and void. Unsurprisingly this led to full scale civil war which only came to an end when John died in 1216. Nevertheless, some of the principles outlined in the Charter are relevant today and are the very foundation of our (unwritten) constitution as well as the constitutions of many other countries, including the United States.
Yesterday’s event at the British Library was a mixture of fun and facts. It began with a fascinating talk by historian Dan Jones (author of ‘The Plantagents’ – a brilliant book in my opinion) and presenter of the recently aired television programme ‘Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty’. He explained a little of the background to the granting of Magna Carta and talked about the four copies we were about to see.
Then we were led into the British Library itself, greeted by a variety of medieval characters, including knights, barons, bishops, jesters, soldiers and peasants. On the stairs a medieval scribe was painstakingly writing out a copy of the Charter while a knight stood reading it out aloud. A nice touch! Then we proceeded to the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery to view the documents. All four were remarkable in their own right and quite different from each other. One of them housed at Canterbury Cathedral in the Middle Ages, had been slightly damaged in a fire in the 18th century. This was the only charter with a seal attached (although somewhat melted!). It was a very moving moment, to see what, eventually, became the basis for our democracy, written on parchment in ancient script.
Photo courtesy of British Library
On the way out of the exhibition gallery we were given a ‘goody bag’. Among the postcards and pens and chocolate Magna Carta seals, was a ‘golden ticket’ which entitled the holder to free entry into the Magna Carta exhibitions being held throughout the year at the British Library and Salisbury and Lincoln Cathedrals. There was also a certificate on which a scribe entered my name in beautiful calligraphic script and which was subsequently sealed.
I felt the British Library got the balance just right – the event was informative and fun and I felt extremely fortunate to have been able to attend.