For one week only, a 1217 version of the Magna Carta is visiting New York City on a rare tour from England. Opening today, Magna Carta 800: Sharing the Legacy of Freedom at the New-York Historical Society is hosting the nearly 800-year-old document alongside manuscripts from the museum’s library related to the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, which were indirectly inspired by the 13th-century Magna Carta. This is the only American stop on the Magna Carta 800 international tour.
“The people who rebelled in 1776 had always thought of themselves as British subjects, and were only asking for the rights thought to be theirs as British citizens,” Michael Ryan, vice president and director of the New-York Historical Society’s library, told Hyperallergic. “The Magna Carta is at the beginning of a long tradition of British law and practice, culminating in 1688, with its own Bill of Rights.” That would eventually have an influence on the American Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights.
There’s a misconception that the Magna Carta is one document, but it was reissued several times over the course of the 13th century. Initially drafted in 1215 by King John, the “Great Charter” may seem like a highly specific peace treaty between a monarch and rebelling barons, but was an essential moment when everyone, including kings, were presented as subject to law, and every free man was awarded equal access to fair trials and justice. Only four of the first edition from 1215 survive; to mark their 800th anniversary they were united earlier this year at the British Library. The 1217 manuscript, on a tour supported by the British Government from its permanent home at England’s Hereford Cathedral, was issued after the death of King John in 1216 by a regent acting on behalf of his nine-year-old son Henry III to prevent the barons from rising up again.
The New-York Historical Society, as a small institution, was able to accommodate the exhibition on short notice and provide contextual documents to connect the Magna Carta to US history. These include first printings of the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and two diaries kept by delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. Additionally, another touring 13th-century document called the “King’s Writ,” first shared with local officials for distributing the charter, is on view.
“This is maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people to see, especially in this country, a document that really lies at the very beginning of the long, slow, painful evolution of thought and action that leads to the creation of America,” Ryan said. “It’s a very complicated, intricate story, but this is where it all begins.”