The 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta


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Published: May 4th 2022
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The Lincoln Magna Carta of 1215. One of four copes of the document known to exist. IMG_4595p1
The 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta by King John at Runnymeade will be celebrated in 2015. To reflect on the importance of this landmark legal document in the constitutional history of the United Kingdom and the United States, the Library of Congress held an exhibit from November 2011 to January 2015 entitled Magna Carta: Muse & Mentor. Susan and I went to see it on January 2.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is one of the original copies of the Magna Carta written in 1215 and on deposit at Lincoln Cathedral since then. It was extraordinary to see the actual 1215 manuscript document, of which only four copies are known to exist, and even more extraordinary to be permitted to photograph it. The Magna Carta was a statement of the rights of King John's nobles against his capricious rule. It was precedent-setting by stating that the king must act within the law.

The accompanying exhibit of British and American documents showed how Magna Carta became the foundation for British and American justice under the law. Principles stemming from it are that the Monarch or Executive is not above the law, that citizen are entitled to equal protection and due process, and by extension, representative government. In events leading up to the Revolutionary War, the American Colonies cited rights of Englishmen dating back to Magna Carta in enumerating their grievances against Parliament. The framers of the Constitution had Magna Carta in mind when enumerating the rights of the people in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Magna Carta is also shown in popular culture. The King John of Magna Carta was the same one who was harassed by Robin Hood. Examples of the 1965 US Magna Carta stamp commemorating its 750th anniversary were displayed. (I have a First Day Cover of the stamp in my collection.)

This is not the first time this copy of Magna Carta has traveled to America. It was on display at the New York World's Fair in 1939-1940 and then kept at the Library of Congress and Fort Knox during World War II. When it returns to England after its present display, the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta as it is known will be on permanent display at Lincoln Castle.


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