Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy – An Exhibition Review

Membrane with genealogy of the kings of England.

Membrane with genealogy of the kings of England. Showing King John and his children.

2015 is a significant year of anniversaries in all sorts of fields, but perhaps the most important, at least in the Anglophone world, is the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta – the Great Charter and peace treaty agreed between King John and the rebel Barons in June 1215. Ironically, the Charter was almost immediately annulled by Pope Innocent III, sparking a renewal of the rebellion and the invasion of the French Prince Louis in May 1216. Unlike the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the American Bill of Rights, this treaty was in no way intended as a bench-mark legal document; it was in fact more a testament to the wild fluctuations of Political Realism than the idealism it is now associated with. It is important that the story of this historical accident is engagingly told, and in my opinion the British Library has done a pretty good job.

No exhibition, however, is perfect, and I do have some criticisms. The dark atmospheric entrance hall with its giant print facsimile of the Charter and loud audio/visual introduction seems like a good start, but unfortunately the increasingly infuriating voice and backing track are still audible on their interminable loop half-way through the exhibition. A simple temporary partition would have been very welcome. The overall narrative, necessarily simplified, is also perhaps a little too traditional in its characterisation of John as a Tyrant. Conversely, though a comparison between his use of Scutage and Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax would have been brilliantly piquant, the Library has sensibly but disappointingly chosen to limit its endorsement of political satire to some Blair-era attacks on anti-terrorism laws.

There is a great deal to see concerning the famous document and the period in which it was produced, though the emphasis is clearly on the influence it had on later periods, particularly the English Civil War, and the American Declaration of Independence. The illuminated manuscripts at the beginning are the real stars of the show for me. It is an absolute joy to see the intricate details and gilding on these priceless 800-year-old sheep hides, and fascinating to puzzle through the strange Norman-French descriptions of John and his predecessors on the early 14th century family tree known as Royal 14 B VI.

Further on, the weary visitor encounters some slightly surreal video footage of a 1930’s re-enactment of the fabled meeting at Runnymede, and a scene from an 1899 production of Shakespeare’s King John. There’s even a corner dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, in a strange and hard-to-explain way, was the highlight of this second section for myself and my companion. Eventually the two original manuscript copies of the 1215 document come into view, and in truth, it’s an anticlimax. This may be an intended effect, however, since the magnificence of Magna Carta is in the substance of its respect for the rights of the individual, rather than the style of its composition or artwork. This reviewer gives it 4 quills out of 5.

James Murray, 18/05/15

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