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June 20, 2016

Magna Carta & Australia – HE Alexander Downer

This Magna Carta Lecture was delivered by HE the Hon Alexander Downer, Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, at Lincoln Cathedral; Wednesday 1 June 2016.

• It is both an honour and a pleasure to be invited by Lord Cormack to give this year’s Magna Carta lecture.

• I follow in the footsteps of some very eminent and distinguished speakers, in what has become a fifteen-year tradition, including:

o Professor Lord Norton of Louth

o Lord Phillips, First President of the Supreme Court

o Professor Nicholas Vincent, and

o Lord Judge, former Lord Chief Justice.

• As we all take in our beautiful surroundings, I must start my lecture by acknowledging the historical significance of Lincoln Cathedral—our host for this evening.

• It has been said that ‘in a sense, Lincoln is where Magna Carta starts and ends.’

• Indeed, Lincolnshire’s Cardinal Archbishop Stephen Langton, who studied at the schools of Lincoln Cathedral, is credited with influencing the terms of Magna Carta.

Both Stephen Langton and the Bishop of Lincoln, Hugh of Wells, were present at Runnymede.

• Now, 800 years later, Lincoln Cathedral has one of only four surviving copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta, which I understand is now securely displayed at Lincoln Castle. Two are held at the British Library and the other, at Salsbury Cathedral.

• This leads me to reflect on how Australia came to own a 1297 version of Magna Carta—it is an extraordinary story.

• In 1936, after 639 years, our version was discovered by a schoolmaster in a desk at King’s School in Somerset.

• Fortunately for Australia, the governors of the school decided to sell it, to raise much-needed funds.

• The British Museum could not meet the asking price and only offered to pay 2000 pounds.

• The school’s preference was for it to be passed on to a British dominion —so Australia had a ‘head start’ over American interests.

• We understand that it was offered to our National Library’s London Office, via Sotheby’s.

• Our then Prime Minister, Robert Menzies supported the purchase, and even agreed to seek funds from prominent friends of the Library in London, such as Howard Florey and Lord Baillieu, via Sir Leslie Boyce, the Australian-born lord major of London.

Click here to read the entire speech.

May 15, 2015

Hand-stitched Magna Carta Wikipedia page explores the fabric of democracy

The Guardian. Thursday 14th May, 2015.
Click here to read the article as it appeared on the site.

Prisoners, writers, politicians, musicians, campaigners – and embroiderers – help craft a digital-to-analogue work of art examining freedom in the modern age.

Jarvis Cocker began stitching the words “common people” when he was on a train; the human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith got his needle and thread out for “law of the land” while in Guantánamo Bay; and Julian Assange had little choice but to embroider the word “freedom” from his room in the Ecuadorian embassy.

All three are contributors to a work of art by Cornelia Parker that goes on display at the British Library on Friday: a 13-metre-long embroidery celebrating the Magna Carta by copying its Wikipedia article.

More than 200 people – including barons, lawyers, politicians, prisoners, writers and celebrities – contributed by stitching words and phrases that were significant to them.

“I wanted to create a portrait of our age,” said Parker. “All these people have opinions about democracy and I thought carefully about the words they should stitch.”

Parker got the idea quite straightforwardly after going online to Google “Magna Carta”. “The first thing you get is the Wikipedia page and I just got thinking that it’s an embroidery of history, really. The page has been made by lots of different people and it is quite subjective … it is a people’s encyclopaedia. I thought perhaps we should embroider the page.”

Parker had the page’s text printed lightly on to fabric which was then cut up into more than 80 sections. They were then sent off to 36 prisoners in 13 jails who embroidered the bulk of the text. Nearly 200 gaps were left for other contributors to do their bit.

Parker said she sent or gave willing participants the fabric section, a needle and thread, and a choice of three stitches to use: back, cable and stem.

Among those rising to the challenge were Baroness Doreen Lawrence, who stitched the words “justice”, “denial” and “delay” in line seven of the tapestry; the Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (“user’s manual”); the former Guantánamo inmate Moazzam Begg (“held without charge”); and Paddy Hill, one of the men wrongly convicted of the Birmingham bombing (“Freeman”).

The detailed, and far trickier, pictures on the Wikipedia page, such as a mural of Pope Innocent III and 13th-century documents from the British Library collection, were tackled by members of the Embroiderers’ Guild, a national charity that promotes the craft.

Parker said she loves the idea of turning something digital into an analogue hand-crafted object.

“I wanted the embroidery to raise questions about where we are now with the principles laid down in the Magna Carta, and about the challenges to all kinds of freedoms that we face in the digital age.”

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) was commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford University in partnership with the British Library and is part of a wider programme of events marking the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

Parker said she was delighted with the end product and the contributions.

Some of the stitching is clearly better than others and some of the contributors admitted needing assistance – former home secretary Kenneth Clarke, for example, enlisted the help of his wife, Gillian.

There is even blood, supplied by the Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger. A metaphor for the lengths this organisation will go to in pursuit of truth and justice? “He pricked his finger,” said Parker.

Click here to read the article as it appeared on the site.

April 14, 2015

At 800 And Aging Well, The Magna Carta Is Still A Big Draw

Ari Shapiro, NPR, 13th April 2015.
Click here to read the full article.

The British Library is now showing original manuscripts of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, the first time they’ve come to the United Kingdom.

But those documents are not the main event at this exhibition. It’s the Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 — more than 500 years before the American documents, as library curator Julian Harrison notes.

This exhibit, “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy,” is all part of an effort to show how the English document shaped today’s world. The publicity describes this as a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. And for once, that does not seem like exaggeration.

The British Library is displaying two original copies of the Magna Carta. Harrison can recite the key passage of the text by heart — translated into modern English from the original Latin:

No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned save by the lawful judgment of their equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.”
In 1215, it was revolutionary for a king to say that not even he was above the law.

Of course, King John did not actually want to issue this document. He was at war with English barons; they gave him no choice. Then the king went behind their backs and secretly wrote a letter to Pope Innocent III, saying, “I have been forced to sign this awful thing!”

“What people often don’t realize is that Magna Carta itself was only valid for 10 weeks,” Harrison says.

The pope responded with a letter known as a “papal bull,” which is also on display.

“The pope says, ‘I declare the charter to be null and void of all validity forever,” Harrison says.

And yet the document became the foundation of the modern judicial system.

“It’s incredible, isn’t it?” adds Harrison.

This exhibition includes videos where modern-day leaders describe the Magna Carta’s relevance. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer talks about what it means for today’s court rulings.

“The tradition of not imprisoning people without an ability to go to court and show that it’s arbitrary is something that long predates our own Constitution, and that we were picking up a tradition that Magna Carta exemplifies, and the strength of that tradition lies in its history,” Breyer says.

Finally, Harrison, the curator, leads me into the room where two of the original Magna Carta manuscripts are on display. One is illegible; it was nearly destroyed in a fire. The other is clearly written in Latin calligraphy on a sheepskin parchment. It’s a single page, and the writing is tiny.

“The scribe, we estimate, would have taken at least eight hours to write it out. There’s actually part of the manuscript, he actually missed one of the clauses, and he adds it at the bottom of the document,” Harrison says.

People are coming from all over the world to see the most successful exhibition the British Library has ever mounted. It continues through the end of August.

Visitor Jill Murdoch, from central England, says there’s something special about laying eyes on the original artifact.

“The idea that comes to mind is you can go online and look at a picture of an elephant or a giraffe, but there’s nothing like going to Africa and actually seeing one wild,” she says. “So to see the actual document that it was written on in 12-hundred and something is extraordinary. It’s an extraordinary experience.”

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;’

March 11, 2015

Churchill plan to give Magna Carta copy to US revealed at new British Library exhibition

The BBC, 11 March 2015.

Churchill planned to give the US the Lincoln Cathedral copy of the Magna Carta – seen here with the four surviving original copies, which were brought together for the first time in February to launch the exhibition. Two are included in the new British Library exhibition

Government papers revealing Churchill’s part in the bid to boost US support are on display at the British Library.

Also on display for the first time in the UK are the US Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights, alongside two Magna Carta manuscripts.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy marks the manuscript’s 800th anniversary.

Magna Carta, authorised on 15 June 1215, is considered one of the first steps towards parliamentary democracy. It included the principle that no one was above the law, including the King.

As World War Two broke out, one of the original copies was stranded in America, following its display at a trade fair in New York.

Foreign Office papers now on display at the British Library show the Cabinet contemplated giving the manuscript to the United States as a gift, describing it as “the only really adequate gesture which it is in our power to make in return for the means to preserve our country.”

Winston Churchill had added handwritten comments in favour of the proposal but it fell through as the Magna Carta was not the government’s to give away.

It actually belonged to Lincoln Cathedral and for the rest of the war it was guarded at Fort Knox before being returned in 1946.

More than 200 items are on display in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

They include King John’s teeth and thumb bone and 800 year old clothes and crozier belonging to the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Archbishop Walter.

The exhibition also includes two molars and a thumb bone (above) belonging to medieval monarch King John, who granted the charter of the Magna Carta. They are on display alongside his original will and fragments of clothing taken from the King’s tomb in 1797, when it was opened to verify that the King was buried there.

Prominent politicians, historians and public figures including Aung San Suu Kyi, Bill Clinton and William Hague have given interviews on what Magna Carta means today, which will feature in the exhibition, alongside a recent Horrible Histories Magna Carta ‘rap battle’ between King John and the Barons.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy opens on Friday 13 March and runs until 1 September 2015 at the British Library. Click here for more information.

Click here to read the original article.



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