What’s the British Library’s Magna Carta show like?

Why do two medieval Latin words still have such resonance? And how can a whole exhibition relate to one document? The answer is to go and see it this summer, says historian Richard Emms

Magna Carta being prepared for display at the British Library (photo: Clare Kendall)
Magna Carta being prepared for display at the British Library (photo: Clare Kendall)
The many exhibits at the British Library’s big 2015 event show us how the rule of law has established individual rights over the last 800 years.

The exhibition starts with Anglo-Saxon manuscripts depicting kings issuing their laws. The working out of these depended on the ability and energy of the various monarchs.

King John's thumb bone. Photo: British Library
King John’s thumb bone. Photo: British Library
King John, who ruled from 1199 to 1216, has gone down in history as a ‘bad’ king. He did indeed face great problems with the loss of Normandy to the Kingdom of France, and an argument with the pope that led to churches in England being closed down for five years. His alienation of most of his barons and the City of London led to the famous meeting at Runnymede between London and Windsor and his subsequent agreement to keep the laws of the land.

Even though the Pope repudiated the charter which appeared at first to have failed in the years that followed, the point was established that the king himself was subject to existing law. He was not above the law and could not act in arbitrary fashion.


This was an important development as rulers had earlier done anything they could get away with. It meant, too, that the leading men of the country had duties and obligations to their people. So the barons council in the course of the 13th century developed into Parliament with burgesses from towns as well as knights of the shire in attendance. This was not yet democracy – but a notable step in that direction.

Close-up of Magna Carta (photo: Joseph Turp),
Close-up of Magna Carta (photo: Joseph Turp)
And as we learn, this is far from the end of the story. When in the seventeenth century the Stuart Kings ran into severe disagreements with their Parliaments, statesmen looked back to Magna Carta to support their view that the sovereign did not have absolute unlimited power. This led to the English Civil War and execution of King Charles 1. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, kings accepted the importance of Parliament and its members’ rights.

In the eighteenth century American colonists fighting for independence used Magna Carta and its later developments to support their case, as this later part of the exhibition shows us. Conflicts and disagreements continue into the present century. In many countries there are rulers and governments that allow no disagreements or criticism. The democratic governments which allow opinions to be expressed owe something (and perhaps a great deal) to the Magna Carta.

It may now be 800 years old, but its importance will never lessen.

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Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is at the British Library until 1 September. Tickets here

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