Magna Carta unification preparation (courtesy of the British Library)

Magna Carta unification preparation (all images courtesy of the British Library)

This year marks the 800th birthday of the Magna Carta, one of the most important manuscripts in Western history. The 1215 charter was the first legal document to lay out a handful of essential rights, instituting habeas corpus and establishing that the king was also subject to the laws of his land. Composed by a group of barons who wanted to restrict the powers of the despotic King John, the Magna Carta was one of the earliest injunctions against absolutism. It served as the basis and inspiration for later key documents like the British Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 and, a bit closer to home, the American Constitution.

Salisbury Cathedral’s Magna Carta manuscript, 1215, part of the British Library’s unification event.

Salisbury Cathedral’s Magna Carta manuscript, 1215, is part of the British Library’s unification event.

To celebrate the Magna Carta’s big year and day (technically June 19), put on your party hat and check out the four surviving copies of the original manuscript. Two of these are located at the British Library, where they will feature in a greater exhibition about the history and legacy of the Magna Carta. The show, titled Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, will also include an early draft of the document and other related manuscripts, The Independent reports. The exhibition runs from March 13 through September 1, leaving us Yankees ample time to make it across the pond for a viewing.

The third manuscript is housed in Lincoln Castle, in the East Midlands, and the final copy — by all accounts the most beautiful — is in Salisbury Cathedral, in southwest England. The Salisbury Cathedral, a monument worth seeing in its own right, will also host a series of special events and exhibitions throughout the year to commemorate the document’s significance.

And, if you happen to be in London at the moment, the British Library is displaying all four of the manuscripts together for the first time in history for three days only. One thousand two hundred and fifteen lucky lottery winners got a chance to see the documents in person todayAfter moving to the House of Lords on Thursday, the various Magna Cartas will then return to their homes, in time for further birthday revels.

Happy 800th, Magna Carta!

The Magna Carta unification event continues at the British Library (96 Euston Road, London) through February 4.

Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...