The Magna Carta (or Great Charter of English Liberties), one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy, is on display at the Legion of Honor May 7–June 5. The document is presented in Gallery 3 under a Spanish ceiling dating from approximately 1500. The Magna Carta coming to San Francisco belongs to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, and is one of four surviving manuscripts from the revised 1217 issue. The document is considered an original Magna Carta—not a copy, but an official engrossment or exemplification of the Latin text, sent out by the royal record office to Gloucestershire in 1217 and most likely housed at St. Peter’s Abbey (now Gloucester Cathedral). Seventeen vintage originals still survive from the 13th century, including the manuscript that will be shown at the Legion of Honor.
A landscape-format sheet of parchment roughly sixteen inches wide and twelve inches high, the Magna Carta contains fifty-six lines of hand-inscribed Latin text, and the green wax seal of William Marshal the elder, a guardian of the boy King Henry III, who was then in power. It remains to this day one of the world’s great symbols of freedom and the rule of law. Its declaration that no free man should be imprisoned without due process underlies the development of common law in England and the concepts of individual liberty and constitutional government that created the United States.
Richard Ovenden, associate director and keeper of special collections at the Bodleian Library recently appeared on KQED's Forum to talk about the significance of the Magna Carta. Listen through the audio player below.