Magna Carta at 800

Posted on: February 9, 2015 by

At the Institute of Art and Law, we often speak of ‘law as artefact’. This is a twist on the usual law of artefacts, which has been the centrepiece of the Institute’s courses and publications for over twenty years. Professor Norman Palmer, in his Institute lectures, often makes reference to the Cyrus Cylinder at the British Museum or the copy of a notorious German law taken by General Patton at the end of the Second World War as examples of decrees themselves which are of value, whether for purposes of collecting, analysis or display.

With this in mind, it is important to mention the anniversary celebrated this year: 2015 marks 800 years since the famous Magna Carta was accepted by King John on the marshy fields of Runnymede. This document is considered the cornerstone of constitutionalism in the English speaking world, celebrated, entrenched and referenced well beyond the British Isles.

And what of the original document itself – the law as artefact? Four copies of the original 2015 edition remain. Two are held at the British Library, one at Salisbury Cathedral and another at Lincoln Cathedral. But a slightly-less-old edition, dating from 1300, has been unearthed in the council archives of Maidstone in Kent. The version apparently belongs to the town of Sandwich. While the council has made clear that it won’t be sold, it looks to benefit from the tourist footfall that will no doubt be sparked by the discovery.

And so, law will go on display at Sandwich. It will also, beginning 13 March 2015, go on display at the British Library in London, where the anniversary of Magna Carta will be celebrated in style with a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ exhibition.