March 12, 2015
Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, British Library, review: ‘rich and authoritative’
The Telegraph, 12th March 2015
By Sameer Rahim.
Click here to read this article on The Telegraph.
‘On the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, a rich and authoritative new exhibition at the British Library explores how the original treaty came to be written and its enormous political legacy. Bringing together two original manuscripts from 1215, plus an early draft and later iterations, the show is a feast for anyone with an interest in medieval history or how the freedoms we cherish were devised and defended.
King John, having lost much of his territory in Northern France, taxed his wealthy subjects severely. The barons were powerful enough to force him to the negotiating table, and in 1215 they agreed the “Carta de Ronemede”. Its 63 clauses covered many issues, from the right to claim inheritance unhindered to fishing in the Thames. Though many are now obsolete, these rulings showed that the king could not pass laws without consulting those whom they affected. Clauses 39 and 40 – which guarantee the right to a fair and speedy trial – are still in force today.
The first half of this exhibition tells this fascinating story with exceptional clarity. There are many beautiful illuminated medieval manuscripts as well as lovely scene-setting objects, including the magnificent Savernake hunting horn made from ivory and silver. (John loved hunting.) Looking at the copies of the Magna Carta side by side you see how its status was gradually elevated. A 1216 manuscript is on a single sheet with cramped writing, while later versions are more elaborately presented on larger sheets and in a smoother hand.
In the second half, it tells the equally significant story of how Magna Carta has been interpreted over the centuries. During the English Civil War, Magna Carta became iconic. Later, it inspired Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (his personal copy is on display here) and Nelson Mandela. As Lord Bingham wrote: “The significance of Magna Carta lay not only in what it actually said, but in what later generations claimed and believed it has said.”
The curators – mindful perhaps of visiting schoolchildren – have done an excellent job with the visual multimedia. You can watch a video of Bill Clinton extolling Magna Carta or a recent Horrible Histories sketch in which the barons and King John face off in a competitive rap. Yet nothing can match the thrill of looking at the first copy of Magna Carta, and wondering what John and the barons would think if they could know that their patched-together treaty had become the bedrock of the nation’s constitution – and an inspiration to those fighting tyranny all over the world.
Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is at the British Library from March 13 to September 1 (Tickets: 01937 546546; bl.uk)’