2015 has been a big year for anniversaries; 800 years since Magna Carta, 600 years since the Battle of Agincourt, 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo, and in a few weeks time Queen Elizabeth II shall become the longest reigning monarch of England.
Museums and historical sites all over the country have all been eager to promote their connection to these events and to increase awareness of the anniversaries. This year the British Library have created the most impressive celebration of the Magna Carta – Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. Earlier in the year I was swept up in the hype surrounding the exhibition opening and the early reviews did not disappoint. Yet unfortunately a trip to the BL found itself upon the list of ‘things to do’ and days off came and went yet I never made it to the exhibition. When I saw on twitter that the exhibition was to end on the 1st September I was shocked into sorting myself out and organising a visit.
It just so happened that I managed to easily fit the exhibition into current plans. My train home from my family in Norfolk arrives into Kings Cross and with the BL being just the other side of St. Pancras, it seemed like a fantastic way to break up the journey.
The visitor is firstly welcomed with an introduction of Magna Carta and some brief information as to why it was introduced. The exhibition really begins with some more detailed context about the MC to explain any preceding legislation with similar themes and to paint a better picture of the political landscape in the early thirteenth century. This initial section was by far my favourite as it featured several primary sources that I had used in translation or via secondary sources in my dissertation. I was obviously very excited to see these manuscripts in the flesh. I am obviously very biased but I would think that the manuscripts would be interesting even if you had no previous knowledge of them, especially those that were beautifully illuminated.
The route then moves towards the implementation of MC under John and the later editions under his son Henry III. A bizarre artefact in this section was a couple of teeth taken from King John’s grave!
The rest of the exhibition focuses upon the lasting legacy of MC. It begins by looking at how its rhetoric was used during the Civil War, then during the American War of Independence, and more recently in the demise of the Empire. Included in this part is Jefferson’s own handwritten copy of the Declaration. It was also very thought-provoking how Magna Carta was used in the colonisers ‘civilising missions’ across the world, sending democracy to these uncivilised ‘tribes’, yet in reality true democracy was the one thing colonial governments could not bare to yield.
The exhibition ends at the end of the month so if you want to go you’ll have to hurry up. It is only £5 for students which in my opinion is an absolute bargain for such a varied and engaging exhibition. And the broad chronology that it covers means that there is almost something for everyone to be interested in!
Click here to read more about the exhibition, or to buy advance tickets, via the BL website.
PS. Apologies for the lack of pictures but like many exhibitions you can’t take any snaps.