MAGNA CARTA, Law Liberty, Legacy…

Staged to commemorate the eight hundredth anniversary of the Magna Carta’s authorisation by King John at Runnymede in South West London, the British Library’s “Magna Carta Law, Liberty, Legacy” exhibition affords an intriguing insight into how literature may, despite misinterpretation, influence cultural advance.

Situated in a series of small display halls located beneath the library’s West wing, the “Magna carta, Law, Liberty, Legacy” exhibition runs a circuit that, in tracing the charter’s history from the thirteenth century through to the present, includes a number of valuable medievel documents and artefacts amongst its horde.

There are four copies of the original Magna Carta held in the vaults of the British Library at St. Pancras, a tract which, in being drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, was recorded to have been authorised by King John at the baronial strongholds of Windsor and Staines in 1215.

Also known as the “Magna Carta Libertatum” or Great Charter Of Liberties, the first drafts of the Magna Carta were devised as a treaty to preserve peace between King John and a contingent of rebel barons, a document which, in securing church rights, promised to provide recourse to swift justice, to limit feudal taxation and to protect men from illegal imprisonment, a term which, in playing subject to renegation, was supervised by a council of twenty five barons, indeed the first thing that one notices, as one enters the exhibition hall is a fine copper statue of Geoffrey De Mandeville, an effigy which, in being armed and clad with chainmail, represents the image of a medievel baron.

As a result of its incredible age many of the Magna Carta’s original clauses have, throughout history, fallen subject to misinterpretation, although it’s notions of justice and ecclesistical respect remain pleasingly transparent, there are also laws which, in prohibitting the construction of wiers and bridges, are obliged to dissaforest land, laws which, in holding the ministration of punishment accountable to local juries, prevent people from seeking other aid, laws which, in vowing to rid England of certain French interests, promise to return both land and hostages to named patrons in Scotland and Wales, laws which, in protecting the investitures of children and widows, force adult men to pay tax, a provision beneath which merchants were observed to be welcome in England and through which wealth need not immediately reimburse debt although adversely one in which poverty was also witnessed to have been dispossessed, an observation that perhaps gave rise to the exploits of Robin Hood or even, in later years, those of Jack Shepherd… People needed to be richer.

As one progresses around the exhibition hall one may observe the ingenuity that was employed by medievel men to produce goods throughout the thirteenth century, an example of the type of clothing worn by the medievel clergy being presented alongside a crude mounted screw press which, in having once been used by Canterbury’s Christ’s Church Cathedral Priory to mint silver, must, for a time. have served as the invoice of the King,

The series of events which encouraged King John’s decision to authorise the Magna Carta remain veiled beneath almost a thousand years of history however the British Library infers that John had incarcerated and murdered his nephew Prince Arthur during the siege of Rouen in 1202, an act which, in provoking a French invasion of the town, ultimately led to both England’s loss of Normandy and a climate of sustained resent between the French and the English.

Anulled by Pope Innocent the Third during the first Baron’s war, the Magna Carta was re-issued both in 1217 without a number of baronial provisions and, in 1225, as a right of voluntary taxation by John’s son, Henry the Third, the treaty being further implemented by Edward the First in 1297 as part of the Statute of Law, a process through which it proved integral to many of the ordinances and statute rolls of the fourteenth century, the document gradually evolving into a legal right that defended the interests of common men.

Many examples of these later statutes are presented for display beside the intricately carved wooden burial chamber of King John, a sarcophagus which in being crafted almost eight hundred years ago, must surely represent one of the oldest tombs in England.

In 1508 Richard Pynson printed the “Magna Carta Cum Allis Antiquis Statutis” a publication which, in containing thirty seven chapters devoted to Edward The First’s version of the document confirmed the tract’s status as a gaurdian of legal right, a legend strengthened with the publication of further examples of the treaty by both Robert Redman and George Ferrer.

However, despite representing an amicable term, such optimism was witnessed to have suffered to the hostilities of the English civil war, a period throughout which the Magna Carta was re-interpreted as little more than a trust won from a threat of Baronial revenge which supported its edict, a tenet that, in being present amongst the writings of Thomas More, William Shakespeare and Oliver Cromwell, was later exemplified in the work of the Victorian actor “Herbert Beerbohm Tree”, who observed that a faith in legal goodwill merely appeased mania, an opinion which seemed to have been adversely confirmed by the repeated usage of the document as a last resort during the incriminative pathos of the eighteenth century.

Employed throughout the seventeenth century in a series of arguments beneath which the issue of common liberty was pitted against “Habeas Corpus” or the King’s right to detain people at his own discretion, many aspects of the Magna Carta were, in 1628, observed to have been drafted into a Parliamentary “Petition Of Rights”, a treatise that, in being supported by the eminent Jacobean lawyer, “Sir Edward Coke”, proposed to limit both itself and the crown to a rule of abidance.

Sir Edward Coke was, in this instance, notable for having included references to the Magna Carta in his books “The Institutes”, and “the Lawes of Virginia”, texts which, during London’s colonisation of America throughout the seventeenth century, served alongside Nathaniel Ward’s “Massachusetts Declaration and Parallels and William Penn’s “Excellent Privelidge of Liberty and Property”, as forerunners of the modern United States constitution.

“The Liberties of Henry Care” printed in 1680 were, much like the writings of Sir Edward Coke, notable for defending trial by jury over states of civil unrest, although “The Reports And Arguments Of That Learned Judge Sir John Vaughan” published some years earlier earned notoriety for deferring such methodology in favour of judicial arbitration, a process through which it accurately predicted the Bloody Assizes of the late seventeenth century.

Parliament crowned William the Third directly after the Glorious Rebellion of 1688, a ceremony during which England’s “Bill of Rights” was presented, a declaration which, in criminalising many of the policies conducted during the reign of James the Second, bore many similarities to the Parliamentary Petition of Rights drafted sixty years earlier, a circumstance through which English law was eventually to become almost solitarily the province of Magistrate’s courts.

Many of the Magna Carta’s commercial clauses were, throughout the seventeenth century, recorded to have been sustained against English law by the Dutch East India Company, an organisation which in effecting trade between England and a number of Colonial outposts in South East Asia, felt that magisterial justice as it then appeared challenged the inaliable rights of man through which it’s colonies had been founded, an argument by which the company came to represent a symbol of Independence.
Perhaps through association with colonialism, the Magna Carta achieved an almost mystical status throughout the eighteenth century, a period during which the document was recorded to have inspired George Mason’s “Virginia Declaration of Rights”, Thomas Jefferson’s “American Declaration of Independence”, and James Madison’s “United States Bill of Rights”, the charter being described by the French, as “the foundation of the freedom of the English People” during the haitus of Rousseau’s influence in Paris.

The charter’s legend was further re-inforced throughout the eighteenth century by the writings of Sir William Blackstone and John Wilkes, scholars who, in observing the incredible antiquity of the treaty, perceived it to represent both the foundation and true origin of England’s cultural heritage, an assertion which proved dangerous in later years with the arrest of many men for sedition as a result of such study.

The Magna Carta again re-surfaced in 1832 with the the publication of “the Great Reform Act”, a bill which, in re-distributing electoral constituencies and extending franchises, led to the formation of the Chartist movement, a body which, in supporting change, sought to abolish many of the restrictions that had hitherto restrained constitutional reform, it being observed that Chartism had, by 1842, become an issue of truly universal significance, its term having been signed by almost three and a half million people.

Throughout the twentieth century the Magna Carta has achieved an almost token significance as an expression of liberty and right, a reputation through which many of its clauses have, in succumbing to misinterpretation, inspired extensive research.

The original document is written in medievel Latin, a strange language that would, but for subsequent translation, notably that of “Dering’s Magna Carta” in 1733, be difficult to comprehend, it is a truly mysterious yet peculiarly parochial encryption which, in suggesting an agrarian past, seems to embrace many aspects of modern life.

The final stretch of the British library’s exhibition is devoted to a presentation of the original charter as it was delivered in 1215, a defaced copy of the manuscript being presented next to a finer example which, historical misrepresentation aside, was incribed at approximately the same time, the display being exhibitted next to a bust of Sir Robert Cotton, an eminent seventeenth century antiqaurian without whome it is very possible that the Magna Carta and its legacy would have succumbed to neglect.

Although I as an individual was left with a rather frustrating sense of incomprehension after having audienced the exhibition, a sentiment which I can only accredit to my own ignorance, many of the artefacts on display were truly fascinating, the decoration of King John’s beard, the lining of Hubert Walter’s buskins, the wax seals which served to distinguished the charter from documents of lesser importance, a custom also observed to have been employed by the English nobility during Henry the Eighth’s request to divorce Catherine of Aragon, all being of unique and exquisite extraction.

In conclusion The “Magna Carta Law, Liberty, Legacy” exhibition represents both an intriguing foray into the litany of an almost uninterpretably ancient era and a cultural analysis of it’s significance within later history, it is almost impossible to estimate what the world would have been like without the charter of King John and, if nothing else, the research invested in the British Library’s scheme affords a fascinating insight to the evolutionary heritage of South west London.

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