By Richard Lofthouse
It is 800 years to the day since the Magna Carta was sealed by King John at Runnymede on 15 June 1215, following close and difficult negotiations with his barons.
A lot of people I have encountered have a very vague understanding of why this is important. They know that it connects somehow to their ‘freedom’. The Bodleian library addresses this with its ongoing Marks of Genius exhibition, now supplemented by a special display of Magna Carta ‘engrossments’ — amendments to the original document posted during the decades following its creation. Having seen both, I can only recommend that you take a look if visiting Oxford this summer.
Of the four original charters, each written on a single sheet of parchment, two reside in the British Library, and one each in the cathedrals of Lincoln and Salisbury. The Bodleian supplements this with a rich collection of engrossments, some of them now on display at Magna Carta 800, a special display at the Bodleian’s newly refurbished Weston Library on Broad Street.
The original charter established that the king was subject to the law and that there were significant limits to his power. Magna Carta was reissued on multiple occasions in the thirteenth century and the reissues of 1216, 1217, and 1225 possess significant revisions directly tailored to contemporary political realities and interests. As the centuries have passed, the charter has been increasingly seen as the basis of many collective and individual rights and freedoms.
First off, Simon de Montfort first summoned a parliament in 1264, citing Magna Carta, giving orders that the knights from the shires be elected, and subsequently also burgesses of towns. Here we can see the slender basis for what would eventually develop into a parliamentary democracy. Second, the 1689 Bill of Rights laid down certain fundamental rules, such as no royal interference with the law and no taxation by royal prerogative.
The American Bill of Rights of 1791, which refers to the first ten amendments of the American Constitution, grew out of the same soil whilst being distinct. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, can be read as an enlargement of the spirit of Magna Carta, to the extent that it proclaimed the rights of individuals in civil society.
Finally – and this is displayed on the sixth stamp issued by the Royal Mail as a Magna Carta First Day Cover on 6 June — the Charter of the Commonwealth, from 2013, further expressed these rights in respect of gender equality and women’s empowerment, as components of human development and basic human rights.
The Bodleian Library holds four of the 17 surviving Magna Carta engrossments from before 1300. Two charters from 1217 and 1225 are currently on display in the Magna Carta 800 display, which also features a variety of other documents from the Library’s collections that help explain the political background to Magna Carta. The display, curated by Dr Hugh Doherty, lecturer in medieval history at the University of East Anglia, is free to view and runs until 28 June.
The 1217 ‘Gloucester Charter’, considered to be one of the Bodleian’s finest engrossments, is also on display as part of Marks of Genius, the inaugural exhibition at the new Weston Library. This free exhibition features some of the greatest treasures from the Bodleian’s rich collections, some of which have not been on public display before, and it runs until 20 September.
Photographs of Weston Library interior by Richard Lofthouse. Exterior of library © Oxford University Images / Public Affairs Directorate. Confirmation of Magna Carta, made by Henry III, 6 November 1217: photograph © Oxford University Images / Bodleian Library.