Royalty, Justices Help To Celebrate Magna Carta

(The following is an article written by Mark Hartsell for The Gazette, the Library of Congress staff newsletter.)

1_Magna_CartaThe Library of Congress will celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and the opening of its new exhibition about the historic charter with programs, both public and private, featuring three U.S. Supreme Court justices and a royal touch.

Beginning this week, Princess Anne, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer and Associate Justice Antonin G. Scalia will take part in discussions that explore the enduring influence of Magna Carta, the charter at the heart of English and American law.

“The events related to the Library’s celebration of Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary are designed to welcome visitors to the Library to learn more about the Great Charter’s impact on the rule of law,” Law Librarian David Mao said. “The Law Library developed programming that not only celebrates the document but also raises awareness and invites discourse about its history, impact and relevance to today’s legal issues.”

The 10-week exhibition, “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor,” opens tomorrow in the Jefferson Building’s South Gallery and closes Jan. 19. The show’s centerpiece is the Lincoln Magna Carta – one of only four remaining original documents to which King John affixed his seal at Runnymede in 1215.

That copy of Magna Carta – on loan from Lincoln Cathedral in Britain – will be accompanied by more than 75 items from Library collections that tell the story of the charter’s influence on centuries of political liberty.

Exhibition-related events begin this afternoon, when Roberts and the former chief justice of England and Wales, Lord Igor Judge, discuss the importance of Magna Carta in a conversation in the Jefferson Building’s Members Room. That event is closed to the public. However, a video of the discussion will be posted on the Library’s website.

The exhibition opens the next morning with an “entrusting ceremony” in the Great Hall, in which Magna Carta is formally placed on loan to the Library. Princess Anne, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth, will address the audience, as will Librarian of Congress James H. Billington; Mao; and Lord Lothian, cousin of the British ambassador to the United States who in 1939 delivered Magna Carta to the Library for safekeeping during World War II. Sir Peter Westmacott, the current British ambassador to the United States, also will take part in the ceremony.

Music will be provided by the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, the choir of the Temple Church in London and the Howard University choir. The event, which begins at 10:15 a.m., is open to the public. Space will be limited.

On Dec. 9, philanthropist David Rubenstein will interview Breyer in the Coolidge about the impact of Magna Carta on American law as part of a day long symposium, “Conversations on the Enduring Legacy of the Great Charter.”

The symposium’s morning sessions, in the Members Room, are closed to the public. The six afternoon sessions in the Coolidge – including the appearance by Breyer – are open to the public. Details about the afternoon sessions will be posted later in November.

The series also includes gallery talks in November and a Law Day event in the spring. On Nov. 12, exhibition curator Nathan Dorn of the Law Library will discuss highlights from the exhibition. On Nov. 19, Susan Reyburn of the Publishing Office will discuss “Magna Carta in America: From World’s Fair to World War,” including the charter’s first visit to the Library of Congress in 1939.

Finally, the Law Library on April 7 will stage a Law Day program featuring Nicholas Vincent, a professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia in Britain. Vincent will present “Magna Carta: New Discoveries.”

King John affixed his seal to Magna Carta in a grassy meadow at Runnymede in June 1215, when rebellious barons coerced him into granting certain rights and liberties. Scribes made parchment copies and sent them to bishops, sheriffs and other officials across England. Of the four surviving original copies, the Lincoln Magna Carta is considered the best-preserved and easiest to read. It also has the clearest provenance: On the back, scribes wrote “Lincolnia” – the Latin form of its intended destination.

The charter arrived at Lincoln Cathedral about June 30, 1215, and has been held by the cathedral ever since. Magna Carta today is considered a historic symbol of the rule of law: No one – even a king – is above the law.

Magna Carta established some principles – trial by jury and no taxation without representation, among them – that resonated around the world and down through the ages, including with the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

“The events of 800 years ago marked the commencement of a major undertak ing in human history,” Roberts said at the American Bar Association annual meeting in August. “We mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta because it laid the foundation for the ascent of liberty. We celebrate not so much what happened eight centuries ago as what has transpired since that time.”

The Library’s exhibition is made possible by The Federalist Society and 1st Financial Bank USA. Additional support comes from the Friends of the Law Library of Congress, BP America, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, White & Case LLP, The Burton Foundation for Legal Achievement, the Office of the General Counsel of the American University, and other donors as well as contributions received from Thomson Reuters, William S. Hein & Co. Inc., and Raytheon Company through the Friends of the Law Library. The Library also acknowledges the support and assistance provided by the British Council. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.


  1. Alden C. Sheremata
    November 5, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    With respect to the Court in their undertaking this required task, we just enforce the law. A task which similarly cannot take place without the Government and, like it or not, the purification of the Congress and the Executive Body through the Electoral Process. – A.C.S.

  2. Lynn
    November 5, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    I appreciate the info on your website. Appreciate it.

  3. Alden C. Sheremata
    November 29, 2014 at 4:49 am

    I think, after hearing Chief Justice Roberts speak of the influence the Magna Carta has on our Court, Constitution and Government, that I respectfully disagree with his position that Higher Law has no presence in our Constitution and Law. As the Cheif Justice pointed out for us our Constitution is based on the Declaration of Independence where the Law is determined by ourselves, the people. Literally ‘We the people’. In a fuller sense than that of equality before the law the people did so in their spirit, as the Chief Justice put it, for ourselves and for each other. But also in the spirit of life, liberty and the pusuit of happiness after wrestling these from the hands of their oppressor. Clearly Higher ideals, aims and laws than those written of in our Constitution on behalf of the very same people, demonstrating that if they only exist inasmuch as they do inherent in the Constitution and the law, that they need not be applied or contested simply by virtue of their very existence. I would conclude that the question with regard to Higher Law is not one of it’s existence within or inherent in the Constitution and the law but of our practical and pragmatic expression of the law, in it’s dispensation and the procession of Justice, in it’s formation and in it’s everyday implementation.

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