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Document Deep Dive: What Does the Magna Carta Really Say?

A curator from the National Archives takes us through what the governing charter means

Last month, the 1297 Magna Carta, a prized artifact at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., returned to view after ten months of conservation work. With funds from the document’s owner David M. Rubenstein, conservators at the archives used ultra-violet photography to reveal text that was lost to the naked eye due to water damage. They also removed old repairs and adhesives that were causing the document to contract, humidified and flattened the parchment and placed it in a high-tech case filled with inert argon gas, all to ensure that it is preserved long into the future. “We have every reason to believe that 800 years from now it will be in fabulous shape,” said Kitty Nicholson, deputy director of the National Archives Conservation Lab.  

It was nearly 800 years ago, after all, on June 15, 1215, that a group of noblemen presented the first version of Magna Carta to King John at Runnymede, just over 20 miles west of London on the River Thames. In the charter, the barons of England’s feudal system listed demands that would protect their rights and prevent tyranny. King John, who had been abusing his power, at first agreed to the stipulations set forth in the document. But weeks later, when the agreement was annulled, civil war broke out, a war that ultimately claimed the king’s life.

During the reigns of King John, his son Henry III and grandson Edward I, the charter was revised several times. Today, 17 original versions of Magna Carta, penned from 1215 to 1297, survive. Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group, purchased one of four existing originals of the 1297 Magna Carta at auction in 2007 for $21.3 million.

“This is the one that is really the law of the land of England,” said Rubenstein at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. this February. Whereas the 1215 Magna Carta was abrogated, King Edward I accepted the 1297 version and made it law by adding it to the Statute Rolls of England. This particular document also has the distinction of being the only Magna Carta that is privately owned and that resides in the United States. Rubenstein has permanently loaned it to the National Archives. Texas billionaire Ross Perot, its previous owner, had bought the charter in 1984 from the Brudenells, an English family who possessed it for centuries.

The newly encased Magna Carta is presented in a way that makes the document more accessible to the public. For the first time, visitors to the National Archives can read the charter in English on touch-screen monitors installed on either side of it. (The original is in Latin.) They can navigate the document and read about what was going on at the time in England to prompt the noblemen’s petitions. The tool also highlights the ways in which Magna Carta influenced the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, displayed in an adjoining rotunda.

Here, Alice Kamps, a curator at the National Archives, annotates a translation of the 1297 Magna Carta, providing context for specific parts and drawing connections to America’s Charters of Freedom. Click on the yellow tabs to read her comments.        

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