San Francisco, April 2011—The Magna Carta (or Great Charter of English Liberties), one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy, is on display at the Legion of Honor May 7–June 5 as part of BritWeek 2011, an annual celebration of cultural crosscurrents between Great Britain and California. The manuscript is presented with an English translation in Gallery 3 under the Legion’s prized Spanish ceiling dating from approximately 1500. This is an extremely rare public appearance for this particular Magna Carta, one of the earliest surviving manuscripts, in the United States. Its declaration that no free man should be imprisoned without due process underlies the development of common law in England as well as the concepts of individual liberty and constitutional government that created the United States.

The Magna Carta on loan to the Legion of Honor belongs to the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, England, and is one of four surviving manuscripts from the revised 1217 issue. The document displayed here is an original Magna Carta, not a copy. It is an official engrossment, or exemplification, of the Latin text sent out by the royal record office to Gloucestershire in 1217, and most likely housed at St. Peter’s Abbey (now Gloucester Cathedral). Seventeen originals survive from the thirteenth century, including the manuscript that will be shown in San Francisco.

Dr. James Ganz, Curator of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, is coordinating the installation of the Magna Carta at the Legion of Honor. “This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Ganz said. “This historic document is not normally on view even where it resides at the Bodleian Library. It has traveled to the United States only twice before, both times for private events. This is its first public display on this continent in its nearly 800-year history.”

The Gloucestershire Magna Carta Issue of November 1217
The Great Charter agreed on June 15, 1215, between King John of England and his barons at Runnymede, near Windsor, remains to this day one of the world’s great symbols of freedom and the rule of law.

A sheet of parchment roughly twenty-one inches high and seventeen inches wide contains fifty-six lines of hand-inscribed Latin text. While the handwriting is parallel to the more formal Gothic style found in early thirteenth-century books, it is specifically a “chancery script,” written relatively quickly and cursively but with a tendency toward extension and flourish. The ink is dark brown in color, so it is probably an iron-gall pigment rather than the blacker carbon-based variety. The text is written on the flesh side of a single parchment made from sheep or goatskin.

This Bodleian original was sent out by the royal chancery in November 1217 to the county of Gloucestershire in the southwest of England. No master-prototype has survived from King John’s ceremony at Runnymede. But the chancery distributed engrossments to county courts across England in 1215 and another five times before 1300, during the succeeding reigns of John’s son, Henry III, and grandson, Edward I. Seventeen such originals survive from the thirteenth century: four from the first issue of 1215, one from 1216, four from 1217, four from 1225 and four from 1297.

The Gloucestershire Magna Carta is among the best preserved. It was received in 1755 by the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, in the bequest of Richard Furney (1694–1753), archdeacon of Surrey and a native of Gloucester.

The Text of the Magna Carta
The Bodleian charter on view at the Legion of Honor is one of the library’s three originals of the solemn reissue of November 1217. The opening line of the charter names the boy king Henry III, then just ten years old, who had succeeded John in October 1216. Power was held by his guardians, the papal legate Cardinal Guala Bicchieri and the Earl of Pembroke, William Marshal the elder. Although King Henry addresses his subjects at the start, the document carries his guardians’ seals at its foot, (Henry was still too young to have a device of his own). The cardinal’s mark survives only as a defaced oval lump of white wax at left, but Marshal’s small round seal in green wax, showing the earl on horseback, survives at right to authenticate the document. The decision to issue a new version of the Magna Carta with his guardians’ seals was vital to securing the young king’s own position as well as the rights of his subjects.

Many clauses of the Magna Carta pertain to mundane matters specific to their place and time: fishing rights on the rivers Thames and Medway, knights’ duties on castle guard and gifts of lands to abbeys. The first clause addresses the rights of the church; subsequent language protects widows, though women are denied the right to accuse murderers except at the deaths of their own husbands. Over nearly eight hundred years, almost all of the Magna Carta’s clauses have been abandoned or superseded, yet it has continued to serve as a model and an inspiration, embodying the highest ideals in the governance of a state: the rule of law is higher than a king; rights and liberties belong to all and forever.

The Magna Carta is on loan from the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, and made possible thanks to the generosity of Qualcomm, Irwin and Joan Jacobs, and John Wiley and Sons.

Viewing the Magna Carta is included in the general admission ticket for the Legion of Honor. There is a $5 surcharge for Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave, on view in the lower level galleries of the Legion of Honor through June 5.