One of four known original 1215 versions of the Magna Carta is coming to the U.S. for stops in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., starting in July -- a preamble to the 800th anniversary of its June 15, 1215, signing at Runnymede on the banks of the river Thames.
The document's first stop will be the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, from July 2 to Sept. 1, moving on to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., from Sept. 6 to Nov. 2, followed by a Nov. 6 to Jan. 19, 2015 exhibition at the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, D.C.
The same piece of parchment, owned these 799 years by Lincoln Cathedral in England, came to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley for a six-month stay in 2009, when it was seen by a reported 169,000 viewers.
The Magna Carta, or “great charter” in Latin, the language in which it’s written, is an ordinary-looking page of writing that lacks the vibrant adornments of illuminated medieval manuscripts. But it’s revered as a landmark in the history of human rights – forced on King John by English barons who’d become fed up with his exercise of royal power. While it didn't do much for the English 99% of the time, it set limits on kingly authority, codifying the principle that no one is above the rule of law.
The 1215 charter did not, in fact, settle hostilities between the nobles and King John, who ignored the Magna Carta's provisions until his death in 1216. Revised versions were issued in 1217 by the regent for the newly-installed boy king, Henry III.
In Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts will augment the Magna Carta with significant documents from the American Revolution provided by the Massachusetts Historical Society, including manuscripts of the Declaration of Independence that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson copied out themselves.
A Magna Carta from 1217 came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2010. The Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta first came to the United States in 1939 for the New York World’s Fair. In all, 17 copies from the 13th century are known to exist; David Rubinstein, an investment executive, paid $21.3 million in 2007 for a 1297 draft.
The Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary also may present a now-or-never moment for William Shakespeare’s “King John,” one of the Bard’s earliest and least-performed plays. It focuses on the king’s religious wrangling with the pope and his wars with the French, rather than on events leading to the signing of the Magna Carta. John, the younger brother of Richard the Lionheart, also figures as a villain of the Robin Hood saga.
The most recent staging of Shakespeare's "King John" prominent enough to draw the attention of a Los Angeles Times critic appears to have been in 1968 at the Old Globe in San Diego, where reviewer Cecil Smith concluded that “it is difficult to take the play as much more than an oddity.” The Times' most recent mention of an area production was a 1982 staging in L.A. presented by the Shakespeare Society of America.
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