Magna Carta turns 800
In 1952, the Australian Government made a great addition to the nation’s library collection when it acquired an issue of Magna Carta that dated back to 1297. At the time, the National Library did not exist separately from Australia’s Parliamentary Library; this would happen eight years later when the National Library was formally established by an Act of Parliament. It would be another eight years before the opening of the Library’s magnificent building on the banks of Lake Burley Griffin. Magna Carta was displayed in the main Foyer of the Library from August 1968 until its return to King’s Hall, Parliament House, in February 1969, where it had been on display occasionally since 1952 and permanently since 1961.
The first Magna Carta, or Great Charter, was sealed by King John 800 years ago, in June 1215, as a way of ending a rebellion by his barons. It changed the world by setting in motion profound and fundamental changes to government and liberty. The 1215 Magna Carta did not last long—it was annulled by Pope Innocent III just ten weeks after it was sealed—but it was reissued, in amended form, during the reign of Henry III in 1216, 1217 and 1225 and then added to the Statutes of the Realm in 1297 by Edward I. Thus, the Magna Carta of 1297, known as the Inspeximus, is the enduring, definitive, version. ‘Inspeximus’ means that, after inspection, it confirms a charter made by a former king.
There are 16 surviving copies of the Great Charter in its various thirteenth-century issues and only four of these are the 1297 issue. The other three copies of the Inspeximus are held at The National Archives in the United Kingdom, the Guildhall of the City of London and the National Archives in Washington DC, where it is on public display. The latter was purchased in 1984 by billionaire Texan Ross Perot for US$1.5 million and then at auction, in 2007, by David Rubenstein for US$21.3 million. In 1952, Australia paid £12,500 ($25,000) for Magna Carta; this was considered a high price at the time. It was then the only one to be held outside the United Kingdom.
There are four copies of the first Magna Carta, of 1215, in existence: two at the British Library, one at Lincoln Cathedral and one at Salisbury Cathedral. All four were brought together, for the first time, by the British Library in February this year to mark the octocentenary.
The charter’s 63 provisions are mostly concerned with feudal grievances, but three remain on the statute book of the United Kingdom today. Two relate to the freedom of the English Church and City of London, but the most important is drawn from clauses 39 and 40, which sowed the seeds for due process:
No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised (dispossessed) or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land
and ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice’.
The story behind Australia’s acquisition of the 1297 issue is remarkable. After 639 years, in 1936, it was discovered by a schoolmaster in a desk at King’s School in Somerset. It was displayed for the school’s 400th anniversary in 1950 and, the following year, the governors of the school decided to sell it to raise funds. They wanted it to go to a British dominion, which gave Australia an advantage over American interests. According to Harold White, our first National Librarian and a strong supporter of the purchase, it was offered to the Library’s London office via Sotheby’s. It was certainly a coup, as the British Museum also showed initial interest but could not meet the asking price.
Prime minister Robert Menzies supported the proposed purchase and, at one point, agreed to seek funds from influential friends of the Library in London, such as Howard Florey and Lord Baillieu, via Sir Leslie Boyce, the Australian-born lord mayor of London. There was another problem, though: the Library had to exercise its option to purchase quickly. Time pressure resulted in Menzies deciding to provide government funding. On 19 August, Menzies told parliament that it was ‘the most important [purchase] yet made by an Australian library’. Opposition Leader H.V. Evatt congratulated the National Library Committee on the acquisition, describing Magna Carta as a priceless possession ‘which means, and must always mean in our democracies, first the rule of liberty’.
The 1297 Magna Carta was shipped to Australia on the Orcades, under the personal care of the ship’s master, then transported to Canberra by train under guard of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch and placed in a vault at the provisional Parliament House. It was first displayed in the building’s Parliamentary Library on 1 December 1952 in a white cardboard mount against a red velvet background in a large glass case. Mrs Menzies—later Dame Pattie—was among the first to inspect it.
It was soon moved to King’s Hall, where it attracted thousands of visitors. Concerns about conservation led to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) developing a new container for it in 1961, using argon gas rather than helium for preservation. A special metalised plated glass had been made in the United States for the outer case. Press reports described it as ‘a triumph for Australian scientists and technicians’.
The historic document was eventually moved to the new Parliament House, which opened in 1988. It has been seen by several million people since 1952. In 2001, a Magna Carta monument was unveiled near Old Parliament House. The site, Magna Carta Place, was dedicated in 1997 to mark the 700th anniversary of the Inspeximus issue. After 35 years’ absence from the National Library, in 2004 Magna Carta was formally transferred by the National Library Council to the Australian Parliament.
Misconceptions abound as to what Magna Carta stood for. These range from the belief that it was a Bill of Rights to the equally erroneous notion that it sought parliamentary democracy or a republic. Essentially, Magna Carta changed the relationship between the ruler and the ruled by overturning arbitrary governance and obliging the monarch to be subject to the law. The barons were frustrated at being taxed at the king’s whim, particularly if it was to support failed wars abroad. They demanded a greater say. In this sense, it was a revolutionary break with the past: the first time a king had been compelled, by armed rebellion, to compromise his authority to such an extent.
In the early seventeenth century, Sir Edward Coke, the great English jurist and parliamentarian, declared that ‘Magna Carta is such a fine fellow that he has no sovereign’. This was a very serious affront to the king, and Coke was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The spirit of Magna Carta, mythologised by Coke as representing ‘ancient liberties’, inspired the English revolutionaries of the mid-seventeenth century. They asserted that monarchs were not ‘divine’ and proved the point by beheading Charles I. They achieved the sovereignty of parliament, albeit with some bumps along the way (a revolution, after all, is not a dinner party).
The great revolutions in America and France in the late eighteenth century were also influenced by the charter. Thomas Jefferson justified the American uprising on the grounds that George III had violated Magna Carta. A century and a half later, Eleanor Roosevelt, speaking before the General Assembly of the United Nations in support of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which she had helped draft, said:
We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere.
More recently, in 2008, British Member of Parliament Tony Benn remarked during debates in the British Parliament on aspects of anti-terror laws that ‘I never thought I would be in the House of Commons on the day Magna Carta was repealed’. In Australia, Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, linked Magna Carta to the rights of asylum seekers following a High Court ruling in 2014.
The National Library holds many books and booklets about Magna Carta. There are gems in the Rare Books Collection, such as Magna Charta cum statutis (1576), A Vindication of Magna Charta, as the Summary of English Rights and Liberties (1704), William Blackstone’s The Great Charter (1759) and Clifford’s Phantascopic Entertainment: Magna Carta, published in Melbourne in the 1880s. The Manuscripts Collection has a beautiful facsimile of the document. It is also possible to peruse online copies of many more original items, including all issues of Magna Carta and works that kept it alive, such as Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Laws of England, published between 1628 and 1644, which is regarded as a foundation document of the common law.
The rebellious barons, who had seized London to force the king’s hand, had no idea that they were unleashing a document and a principle and, ultimately, a myth and a symbol, that would remain relevant and inspirational, and the measure of all laws, eight centuries later.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of the National Library of Australia magazine.