At 800 And Aging Well, The Magna Carta Is Still A Big Draw Issued by an embattled King John in 1215, the document sometimes called England's greatest export is now on display at the British Library, where it's pulling in large crowds.

At 800 And Aging Well, The Magna Carta Is Still A Big Draw

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The Magna Carta is one of the most important documents ever written. It laid the foundations for modern Western law. This year, it turns 800. Events marking the occasion are happening all over the world, including in Britain, where King John issued the Magna Carta in the year 1215. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on one exhibition in London.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The British Library is now showing original manuscripts of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. It's the first time they've come to the UK. But those documents are not even the main event at this exhibition. Since we're in a library, curator Julian Harrison speaks in the hushed tones of a librarian.

JULIAN HARRISON: This is Thomas Jefferson's own handwritten copy of the United States Declaration of Independence.

SHAPIRO: This is some 500 years after Magna Carta.

HARRISON: Absolutely. It's very new, by medieval standards anyhow.

SHAPIRO: This is all part of an effort to show how Magna Carta shaped today's world. The publicity describes this as a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. And for once, that does not seem like an exaggeration. The library is displaying two original copies of Magna Carta. Harrison can recite the key passage of the text by heart, translated into modern English from the original Latin.

HARRISON: No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned, save by the lawful judgment of their equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay rights or justice.

SHAPIRO: In the year 1215, it was revolutionary for a king to say that not even he was above the law. King John did not want to issue this document. He was at war with English barons, and they gave him no choice. Then the king went behind their backs and secretly wrote a letter to the pope, saying I have been forced to sign this awful thing.

HARRISON: What people often don't realize is that Magna Carta itself was only valid for 10 weeks.

SHAPIRO: The pope responded with a letter known as a papal bull. It's on display here, too.

HARRISON: The pope says, I declare the charter to be null and void of all validity forever.

SHAPIRO: And yet (laughter), this thing that he declared to be null and void of all validity forever became a founding document of the modern judicial system.

HARRISON: It's incredible, isn't it?

SHAPIRO: This exhibition includes videos where modern-day leaders describe Magna Carta's relevance. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer talks about how the document comes up in court rulings today.


STEPHEN BREYER: The tradition of not imprisoning people without an ability to go to court and show that it's arbitrary is something that long predates our own Constitution and that we were picking up a tradition that the Magna Carta exemplifies. And the strength of that tradition lies in part in its history.

SHAPIRO: Finally, curator Julian Harrison leads us into the room where two of the original Magna Carta manuscripts are on display. One is illegible. It was nearly destroyed in a fire. The other is clearly written in Latin calligraphy on a sheepskin parchment. It's a single page, and the writing is tiny.

HARRISON: The scribe, we estimate, would've taken at least eight hours to write this out. He actually missed one of the clauses, and he adds it at the bottom of the document.

SHAPIRO: There's a little, like, asterisk almost.

HARRISON: Precisely, and that's actually quite unusual we're told.

SHAPIRO: People are coming from all over the world to see this. It's the most successful exhibition the British Library has ever mounted. Visitor Jill Murdoch from central England says there's something about laying eyes on the original artifact.

JILL MURDOCH: The idea that comes to mind is you can go online and look at a picture of an elephant or a giraffe, but there's nothing like going to Africa and actually seeing one wild. And so to see the actual document that was written on in 1200 and something is extraordinary. It's an extraordinary experience.

SHAPIRO: The exhibition is called Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. It continues through the end of August. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.

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