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British Library displays the Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights in the UK for the first time
The Delaware copy of the US Bill of Rights on loan from the US National Archives in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. Photography © Clare Kendall.

LONDON.- Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, on loan from The New York Public Library, and the Delaware copy of the US Bill of Rights, on loan from The US National Archives, two of the most iconic documents in American history, are in the UK for the first time and on display at the British Library from last Friday in the world’s largest exhibition about Magna Carta.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy unites over 200 exhibits, including iconic documents, such as two of the four surviving 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, artworks, medieval manuscripts, Royal remains, weaponry and 800 year old garments, through to modern interpretations and satires of the document, to tell a revealing story of how Magna Carta has become a global symbol of freedom.

On display also are little known government papers from the British Cabinet in 1941 proposing to give one of the original 1215 Magna Carta documents to the USA in return for their support in World War Two. The papers, on loan to the Library from The National Archives and on display for the first time, are annotated by Winston Churchill and describe the suggested gift of Magna Carta as ‘the only really adequate gesture which it is in our power to make in return for the means to preserve our country’ – an example of the charter’s enormous influence.

Iconic documents on display which build on the legacy of Magna Carta include the Petition of Right (1628), the English Bill of Rights (1689) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), while lesser known documents include treaties between a king and his subjects which are similar to, but in fact predate, Magna Carta, such as the Coronation Charter of Henry I (1100), the Statute of Pamiers (1212), the ‘Unknown Charter’ (1215) and the ‘draft’ of Magna Carta from the field of Runnymede itself, known as the Articles of the Barons (1215).

The exhibition invites us to consider why Magna Carta is so important today and why it is often hailed as the foundation of democracy, even though the idea of democracy would doubtless have horrified the barons, let alone King John.

Co-curator of the exhibition, Dr Claire Breay, says: “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is the biggest exhibition there has ever been on Magna Carta, one of the most famous documents in the world. It brings together manuscripts and objects from a thousand years of history to tell the story of the granting of Magna Carta, how it has been re-used around the world over the centuries since, and how it has evolved into an international symbol for freedom and the rule of law. Magna Carta was not conceived as a democratic document, but as a practical solution to a political crisis 800 years ago. The exhibition challenges visitors to consider what Magna Carta has meant over time, how it acquired its iconic status and meaning, and why it is still so resonant 800 years after it was first granted.”

Telling the story of Magna Carta and King John are intriguing 13th century artefacts including King John’s teeth and thumb bone, on loan to the Library from Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum and Worcester Cathedral, removed from his tomb in 1797 when it was opened to verify that the king was buried there. Alongside these artefacts, Worcester Cathedral has lent John’s original will.

On display is also the earliest account of what happened when the King met the Barons at Runnymede and Magna Carta was agreed. This account was recently re-discovered at the British Library in the Melrose Chronicle, a medieval manuscript written by monks at Melrose Abbey in Scotland.

As well as Magna Carta’s foundation in medieval history, the exhibition tells a story through the Library’s fascinating collections of how the document has been used over the last 800 years in the fight for rights and freedoms. From the English Civil Wars to the reform of Parliament, from Chartism to women’s suffrage and continuing to modern satirical cartoons, it has been cited and invoked time and again.

Julian Harrison, co-curator of the exhibition, comments: “We hope that, by seeing Magna Carta alongside other documents it has inspired — including the Declaration of Independence and US Bill of Rights — our visitors will be encouraged to reflect on the charter’s influence over the past 800 years and what it means to them today. Magna Carta established for the first time that everybody was subject to the law and that nobody, not even the king, was above the law, principles that we often take for granted.”

Significant occasions when public figures have used or quoted Magna Carta include Winston Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain Speech (1946); ‘A Farewell Letter’ (1914) of Mohandas Gandhi, later known as Mahatma Gandhi, in reference to The Indian Relief Act; and Nelson Mandela’s Rivonia Trial statement (1964), a recording of which was restored by the Library in 2000 and now plays in the exhibition.

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