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Magna Carta And Its 'Grandchildren' Take Over The Clark

Jim Levulis

One of four remaining copies of the original Magna Carta is on display at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, surrounded by influential documents in American history.Reverend Philip Buckler is Dean of England’s Lincoln Cathedral, the permanent home for the version of the Magna Carta currently on view at The Clark. Buckler explains the document was forced upon England’s King John by the country’s barons who were fed up with his demands and increasing taxes to fund warfare abroad.

Although the 1215 version was annulled some of its terms were enacted in The Great Charter of 1297. Buckler says those ideas printed on the original piece of parchment still resonate.

“The rule of law, imprisonment without trial, is anybody above the law, is any nation above the law?” Buckler said. “All of these questions are very real today.”

The 799-year old parchment is the focal point of The Clark’s Radical Words: From Magna Carta to the Constitution which will be on display until November 2. Five other key documents in American history on loan from neighboring Williams College, which Buckler calls the Magna Carta’s grandchildren, fill the intimate, softly-lit exhibition room at the museum. Buckler even poked fun at one of 26 known surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence and its link to the Magna Carta.

“We see it also behind those who set the Declaration of Independence…when you rebelled,” Buckler joked.

The other displays include a draft of the U.S. Constitution, a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, an original edition of the Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States, and a copy of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Massachusetts Representative Cory Atkins, chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Culture, helped bring the Magna Carta to the commonwealth. It comes to The Clark after a stop at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

“We the people are still trying to hold on to the power that those barons hardly envisioned,” Atkins said. “This was 400 years before this continent was discovered in a universal way.”

After leaving Williamstown, it will travel to the Library of Congress, where it visited 75 years ago. This particular copy has a rather interesting history. It’s the only one of the four original copies to have an address on the back and has remained in the Lincoln Cathedral’s control since 1215. Buckler says it wasn’t until an inventory check in the early 19th century until the cathedral realized what it had. The document also spent most of World War II inside Ft. Knox in Kentucky after it came to the U.S. in 1939 and remained here for safekeeping.

Chris Woods is a director with the National Conservation Service.

“I’m currently the only person who handles it physically,” Woods said. “It gets handled whenever I need to do a full condition inspection. I do those once a year as a part of a national monitoring process. That involves me looking at it with a microscope, taking a lot of photographs and comparing those with previous years to see if anything has changed.”

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC
The charter was handwritten in Latin in 1215.

Woods travels with the Magna Carta, installing it around the world in a humidity- and temperature-controlled case that he can monitor from his laptop or smartphone. He says light poses the biggest threat to the sheepskin and ink, so he also inspects it before and after each installation. He adds security approaches have changed; it used to be transported via military and police personnel in the 1970s and 1980s, but nowadays, officials don’t publicize the charter’s itinerary.

“So it does have a valuation,” Woods said. “It’s based on a market valuation which is very high, in tens of millions of pounds. It’s a meaningless evaluation in many respects because it’s an icon of democracy. It’s irreplaceable. If it were completely destroyed yes there would be a monetary payment, but more importantly there would be massive embarrassment, concern and expression of anguish at the loss of something so important.”

The copy will return to England next year for its 800th anniversary. It will be reunited with the three other original copies for the first time since they were sealed in 1215.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org