Magna Carta: From the King's teeth to Horrible Histories at the British Library

By Culture24 Reporter | 11 March 2015

The British Library decodes the Magna Carta - with a little help from Bill Clinton and Horrible Histories

a photo of a hand polishing a likeness of King John
Dusting a replica of King Johns tomb which resides in Worcester Cathedral for the opening of Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library© Photo: Clare Kendall
If the public were in any doubt as to the meaning and significance of the Magna Carta, the British Library’s new exhibition, opening on March 13, will probably steer them in the right direction with the largest and most in-depth explanation of the venerable document to date.

As well as a peerless collection of objects and papers, ranging from King John’s teeth and tomb effigy to two original Magna Cartas, the library has recruited a stellar cast to help explain the ongoing significance of the document signed at Runnymede by King John in June 1215.

CBBC’s Horrible Histories Magna Carta Rap Battle sees Ben Miller as King John taking on a trio of disgruntled rapping Barons, dropping a variety of witty rhymes including “Kneel to the king, I’ll see you grovel in the grime, I’ll tax what I like, I’ll even tax this rhyme..."

Elsewhere, there are filmed interviews with Aung San Suu Kyi, Bill Clinton and William Hague who provide a slightly more sober commentary on what Magna Carta means today. 

Promising an exhibition which “challenges visitors to consider what Magna Carta has meant over time", co-curator Dr Claire Breay said Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy would explore how it acquired its iconic status and meaning, and why it is still "so resonant" 800 years after it was first granted.

a photo of a fragile manuscript with a seal at the bottom
1215 Magna Carta, damaged Canterbury copy with seal© Photography © British Library
New revelations from government papers reveal how Britain’s war cabinet considered gifting one of the original 1215 Magna Carta documents to the USA in 1941, in return for their support in World War Two.

The papers, on loan 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".

Apart from reminding us of the crisis Britain faced during the dark days of 1941, they offer an insight into the importance of the Magna Carta to Americans, who have lent two of their most iconic documents.

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, are in the UK and on display here for the first time.

And as well as two of the four surviving 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, there are artworks including a 13th century portrait of King John and other medieval kings by Matthew Parris; the great seal of King John from 1203 and King John’s teeth, thumb bone and fragments of this clothing recovered from his tomb in 1797. The latter have been lent by Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum and Worcester Cathedral, together with John’s original will.

Another recent document discovery is revealed in the earliest account of what happened when the King met the Barons at Runnymede and Magna Carta was agreed. The account was recently found at the British Library in the Melrose Chronicle, a medieval manuscript written by monks at Melrose Abbey in Scotland.

Co-curator Julian Harrison hopes that by seeing Magna Carta alongside other documents it has inspired — including the Declaration of Independence and US Bill of Rights — 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," he said.

For young visitors, the Library has produced a free children’s audio guide funded by the Magna Carta 800th committee. A wider cultural programme of events and digital projects is also planned at the Library.

A brand new Magna Carta website features more than 150 digitised collections items, newly-commissioned animations narrated by Terry Jones, a selection of films and teaching resources. The website also features in-depth articles by 20 leading experts including Shami Chakrabarti, legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg and historian and journalist Dan Jones.


a photo of a large document with Latin text
Magna Carta, London copy, 1215, on display in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy © Photography © British Library

a photo of an illuminated manuscript with four kings on it
Portrait of King John and other kings by Matthew Paris, C13© British Library on display in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

A photograph of a round seal with an image of a seated king
Great Seal of King John, 1203 © Eton College Archives on display in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

a photo of a person on a ladder dusting a statue.
Putting the finishing touches to statue a of a Baron usually in the chamber of the House of Lords (c) Palace of Westminster on display in Magna Carta Law Liberty Legacy at the British Library.© Photography © Clare Kendall.

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More from Culture24's coverage of Magna Carta 800:

Best-preserved Magna Carta goes on show at Salisbury Cathedral for Magna Carta 800

Society of Antiquaries of London announces historic exhibition for Magna Carta 800

British Library opens ballot to view four original Magna Cartas

Lincoln Castle's £22 million restoration set to open to public on Magna Carta anniversary
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