Britain’s Princess Anne, amid pomp and circumstance in Washington Nov. 6, opened an exhibit honoring the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the basis of America’s Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.
The ceremony, with fanfare, procession, herald trumpets, choirs, and speeches, was fit for a princess — not merely Princess Anne, but Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal.
The event occurred in the regal Library of Congress Great Hall, after she cut the ribbon for its exhibition “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor”.
The impressive, moving ceremony occurred 75 years after the very same Magna Carta — the first concept of governing by the rule of law — was entrusted to the Library of Congress for safekeeping as Britain entered World War Two. The Library displayed it until the U.S. joined the war, then sent the precious document to Fort Knox, and returned it to England in 1946.
“The integrity of the rule of law has been very difficult to maintain,” noted Princess Anne. “This remarkable exhibit is really very important and timely as we take for granted our freedom and liberty.”
She and all members of the British delegation wore red poppies, commemorating the more than ten million people who died in World War One. (As we know, the “war to end all wars” began 100 years ago, in 1914, in Europe and Britain; the U.S. finally entered the war in 1917.)
Lord Lothian, whose predecessor was British Ambassador to the U.S. and presented this Magna Carta to the Library on Nov. 28, 1939 when World War Two was beginning, told the audience, “with terrorism and fanaticism, it still has work to do to remind us of freedom, justice, peace, and liberty we hold dear.”
The current Lord Lothian, the Most Honourable The Marquess of Lothian, also reminded anyone who regards the Magna Carta as just a “medieval relic”, that the 1215 document contains the “nucleus of most of our liberties.”
The Magna Carta (Great Charter) is the basis of trial by jury, due process, no taxation without representation…
The current British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Peter Westmacott, noted that “Sir Winston Churchill, himself half American, described both Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence as ‘title deeds of liberty’.”
Only four original 1215 copies of the Magna Carta still exist. Two are in the British Library, and the third is in England’s Salisbury Cathedral.
This Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta bears the creases where folded to fit into the pocket of the messenger who carried it from Runnymede — where King John reluctantly affixed his seal to it after a group of noblemen insisted on various rights — to Lincoln Cathedral.
The June 1215 document is only 54 lines in Latin, written by a scribe on vellum parchment.
“Astounding that it has lasted this long,” commented Library of Congress exhibition director Cheryl Regan.
She dismissed the widely believed myth that King John did not sign it because he could not read or write. “He signed it with his seal. All documents were signed by seals at that time.” The seal is missing from this copy, and only one of the four originals still has the seal.
The Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta will remain on display until Jan. 19, 2015, the actual 800th year, when it will be returned to England. It will be displayed alongside the three others — the first time all four originals have ever been united — and displayed in the British Library from Feb. 2-4. After the anniversary display, the newly renovated Lincoln Cathedral will welcome back its most treasured document and place it in a new custom-made vault.
For a list of anniversary events throughout England, click here, or http://magnacarta800th.com/events.
Alas, the 1215 Magna Carta was only the beginning of a magnum opus. King John got the Pope to nullify it, and England plunged into civil war. The Magna Carta was revised by several later Kings.
“Later confirmation of the Magna Carta are equally important because they reconfirmed the principles,” commented exhibition director Regan.
America has one of these later originals, a 1297 Magna Carta, with the seal of King Edward I. It’s displayed at the National Archives as the centerpiece of the David M. Rubenstein Gallery’s permanent exhibition “Records of Rights”. Billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein loaned his 1297 Magna Carta indefinitely to the National Archives.
(Rubenstein will interview U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer about the impact of Magna Carta on American law, as part of a day-long Dec. 9 symposium, “Conversations on the Enduring Legacy of the Great Charter.”)
The philanthropist’s 1297 Magna Carta is displayed near its descendants, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, in the National Archives’ Rotunda.
The Library of Congress exhibit is situated strategically as well, near Thomas Jefferson’s personal library (the first library of Congress), and the exhibit “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom”.
“Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor”, as Princess Anne — a descendant of King John — noted, is “an opportunity to learn a great deal more and to celebrate the real values of the freedoms and independence that rule of law can give us all.”
With that, “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal” was sung by the Howard University Singers, and then, the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets played the “Jubilant Fanfare” for the recessional.
May the rule of law reign eternally in the U.S., the U.K., and in many, many more nations across the world.
For more info: “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor”, free, through Jan. 19, 2015, Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, South Gallery, second floor, 10 First Street. S.E., Washington, D.C. Its companion book, “Magna Carta: Muse & Mentor” (Library of Congress in association with Thomson Reuters) with 200 images, a foreword by Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and essays by leading U.S. and U.K. Magna Carta scholars, is available at the Library’s shop, www.loc.gov/shop/, or by ordering through 888-682-3557. For a list of anniversary events throughout England, http://magnacarta800th.com/events.