Monday, August 11, 2014

Magna Carta [Great Charter] Great in history, not so great in actual dimensions

The Magna Carta
from the British Library, photo from Wikimedia Commons

When I heard the Magna Carta was coming to Boston I was thrilled.  How exciting to see the actual document sealed by King John, made famous in all the history books and as the villain in countless Robin Hood movies.  He is also my 23rd great grandfather, as corroborated by Gary Boyd Roberts and William Addams Reitwiesner’s website.  There were also more than 25 Magna Carta sureties, Barons who were on record as enforcing the document.  The document ensured that they could meet at any time and overrule the king.  If you Google a noble ancestor from this time period, you might find a link online that lists him as a “Magna Carta Surety” or as one of the Magna Carta Barons.    I descend from three of these Barons- Saire de Quincy, William Malet, and Robert FitzWalter (my 23rd, 24th, and 25th great grandfathers). 

Next year will be the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which happened at Runnymede, on the banks of the River Thames, near London, England on 15 June 1215.   This document will be traveling across the United States in commemoration of this important event.   After Boston’s MFA exhibit it will travel to Williamstown, Massachusetts to be on display at the Clark Institute, and then to the Law Library of Congress in Washington, DC until early 2015.

I was surprised to find out that this was not the Magna Carta.  There was not just one copy of this document made at the time, but many.  There are four surviving copies of this 1215 document.  The one at the MFA in Boston is held by the British Library, and on loan for the exhibit Magna Carta: Cornerstone of Liberty.   That was OK, I didn’t mind that there were several exemplifications of the Magna Carta.  It was still exciting to see a document from that moment in history.

Paul Revere's Liberty Bowl at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass.
Look carefully to see the words "Magna Charta"
from the MFA website 

At the MFA exhibit the United States Constitution was also on display, as well as the Declaration of Independence.  The 5th Amendment owes its roots to the Magna Carta.  The phrase “no person shall …. Be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” is derived directly from “No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land”. 
Paul Revere’s Liberty Bowl was also on display, in front of the Magna Carta.  One of the phrases he inscribed on this bowl was Magna Charta.  There were also portraits of important signers such as Samuel Adams by Copely, and marble busts, and other historical documents related to the founding fathers.  It was a great exhibit, and included with admission to the MFA (no special timed entrances or additional tickets needed).

When I finally gazed at the Magna Carta I realized, it was sealed under oath, not signed, by King John.  His signature did not appear anywhere on the document.  I was extremely sad about this.  It would be so terrific to see the signature of a 23rd great grandfather!  You can see the seal of the king on this 1297 version of the Magna Carta.  I’m sure you’ve seen similar on photos of papal bulls and other historic documents.  But this copy was just a piece of vellum with text.  No signatures.  Not even those of the Barons.  Darn.

1297 copy of the Magna Carta
from the NARA website

I was disappointed to not see a signature, but also by the size of the document.  It’s not much bigger than a regular legal sized paper, covered with miniscule handwriting.   I suppose I was imagining a large parchment, like the Declaration of Independence with John Hancock’s large, impressive signature.  After all, isn’t that how you imagined a King would sign a document?  A little research showed me that in the time period of 1215, most documents were sealed, not signed.  Kings were probably illiterate anyways, although I doubt King John was illiterate if he was the son of Eleanor of Aquitaine.   It pays to do a little research on the time period, as well as the document, before an exhibit such as this.

According to the British Library   each copy of the Magna Carta differs slightly in size, shape and text. There are two copies at the British Library (which is probably why they are willing to loan one for traveling on exhibit this year), and one each at the cathedral archives of Lincoln and Salisbury in England.

You don't need to have royal or noble ancestors to enjoy this exhibit.  Perhaps your ancestors were involved with the American Revolution?  Or were there lawyers in your family tree?  Were your family members involved with struggles for human rights in other countries of the world?  Just think how this historic event at Runnymede 800 years ago influenced democracy across the globe, and might have changed the lives of all our ancestors.


For the truly curious:

Magna Carta: Cornerstone of Liberty
July 1, 2014 – September 1, 2014 at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston
See this link for more information:

Clark Institute, Williamsburg (Magna Carta will be on display September – October 2014)
“Magna Carta to go on display at Clark Art in 2014” from The Berkshire Eagle

Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor  
November 6, 2014 – January 19, 2015 at the Law Library of Congress, Washington, DC

For Royal and Noble lineages see:

“WARGS”  William Addams Reitwiesner’s website

The Royal Descents of 600 Immigrants to the American Colonies or the United States, by Gary Boyd Roberts, 2004  (available from NEHGS and Genealogical Publishing Company)

Notable Kin, Volumes One and Volume Two, by Gary Boyd Roberts, 1998 and 1999, (available from NEHGS)


See this link for “Profiles of Magna Carta Sureties and Other Supporters”.  Is your ancestor on this list?

The home page of “The Baronial Order of Magna Charta”

More about the Magna Carta from the US National Archives (a 1297 copy is on display here in the Rubenstein Gallery at the National Archives)

Translation of the 1297 Magna Carta (issued in Latin)

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Copyright (c) 2014, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

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