In April, Peace Brigade International UK (PBI UK) and the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk held a reception and private viewing of the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy exhibition which is at the British Library until 1 September 2015. The event honoured the courage of lawyers who take risks on a daily basis to defend the rule of law. The event’s host was Sir Henry Brooke CMG, a patron of PBI UK and Honorary President of the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk. He was joined by the Rt Hon the Lord Scott of Foscote, a former Law Lord, also a PBI UK patron and member of the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk. Both speakers’ legal pedigrees evidence their passion for justice. Mandira Sharma, a former winner of the Watch Human Rights Defender Award, and founder of Advocacy Forum, joined the line-up to promote work to address injustice. They formed an impressive introduction to the exhibition, given the reputation of the Magna Carta as a symbol of freedom and rights.

The exhibition itself

Julian Harrison, the co-curator of the exhibition, did a terrific job of covering the history of Magna Carta, complete with quirky details not covered in most official texts. He had brought along his own childhood copy of the beautifully illustrated Ladybird series of King John and the Magna Carta by John Vennay, (first published in 1969, but re-published in an identical format this year to mark the 800 year anniversary of Magna Carta). He shared with us that of the four remaining copies of the Magna Carta, the best preserved is one that was recovered from a tailor’s shop: the likelihood being that the good quality of its paper meant it was saved as stiffening for gentlemen’s shirt collars. Such accidents of history are fascinating to me, as someone who had never failed to take a copy of Articles 39 and 40 into court whenever I made an Abuse of Process argument…

The aftermath of Magna Carta

The “Charter of Runnymede” as Magna Carta was first called was a practical solution to a political crisis. King John was a notorious tyrant who was known for administering justice in an arbitrary fashion and faced rebellion from barons and the threat of a French invasion – Magna Carta was meant as a peace treaty, regulating the administration of justice and codifying a principle of due legal process (even if it only applied to “free men”, who in 1215 were certainly in a minority, given the population of medieval England). I had not appreciated that Magna Carta may well not have survived and left us this legacy had King John not died shortly after it has been issued, for it had been produced under duress and within three months of its distribution, the Pope declared it to be “base and shameful, null and void”. Following this papal annulment, civil war broke out.

A revised version was issued following King John’s death (it is believed that although ill, he was poisoned) and one chronicler wrote: “Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of King John”. The revised version of 1216 was intended to gain the support of the barons for King Henry III but further amendments followed shortly thereafter. It was not until 1508 that Magna Carta was printed, consolidating its fledgling position as a foundation of English legal tradition, and it was in 1628, when the lawyer and politician Sir Edward Coke drew upon it for drafting the Petition of Right to limit the authority of King Charles I, that it was cited in court, against the king at his trial.

Magna Carta was an export to North America in the 17th century and influenced Thomas Jefferson in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the American Bill of Rights in 1791 (also exhibited). It was only in the 18th century that the different versions of Magna Carta were disentangled and it became a household name. Inspiring drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1953), it may in fact be legend more so than law; Lord Bingham famously wrote “the significance of Magna Carta lay not only in what it actually said, but in what later generation claimed and believed it had said”. Only three of the original articles have not been repealed today.

There was a further treat for guests of PBI UK: Dr Fredrick Mulder CBE, who is an art dealer with particular expertise in the works of Picasso, made a wonderful donation – an original linocut of Picasso from 1955, which was raffled to raise funds for PBI UK and the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk. The winner was Louise Winstanley, a PBI UK volunteer, demonstrating that sometimes good deeds are rewarded. The draw raised over £17,000. 

This was a thought provoking exhibition. Paintings, relics, an extract from Hancock’s Half Hour referencing Magna Carta, filming of Shakespeare’s Life & Death of King John, (showing the fiction of Magna Carta being signed – for it was sealed), maps, royal correspondence and even two of King John’s teeth and his thumb bone are all juxtaposed. This is likely to be one of the few times that original American and English official documentation of this magnitude are exhibited together; for those interested in history behind the scenes, the letter from the Foreign Office proposing a gift of one copy of Magna Carta to America as a way of showing warmth by “saying it with flowers” and dispelling the image of being a “cold-blooded and calculating people,” reveals perhaps more than was intended. Well worth a read…

Contributor Melissa Coutinho is on the Counsel Editorial Board