For more than two centuries, Americans and English-speaking people throughout the world have made Magna Carta a part of their cultural heritage through works of art and popular culture. Magna Carta has been a popular topic among writers of romance novels, historical novellas, theater pieces, and even Hollywood films. Recently, it inspired the title of a hip-hop album. Public commemorations of the signing (sealing) of Magna Carta have given rise to popular artifacts and ephemera of all kinds, from postage stamps to full-costumed pageants, from sculptures to coffee mugs. Magna Carta appears regularly in the iconography of liberty in America. But the document’s most lasting legacy is its role in the constitutional tradition of safeguarding individual liberties under the rule of law, a tradition that turned to Magna Carta again and again over the centuries for guidance and inspiration.
Magna Carta in America
In honor of 200 years of American independence, the British Parliament loaned the 1215 Wyems copy of the Magna Carta to the United States in 1976. It was displayed in the U.S. Capitol rotunda for a period of one year. The House of Representatives had initially voted down the proposal 219 to 167 because many members had not read the bill. When the bill was brought up the second time; it passed.
Herbert Block (Herblock) (1909–2001). “We turned it down by mistake—We Thought It Contained Classified Information,” published in the Washington Post, March 12, 1976. Graphite, porous point pen, India ink, and opaque white over blue pencil underdrawing. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. A 1976 Herblock cartoon © The Herb Block Foundation (055)
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Sousa’s “Magna Charta March”
John Philip Sousa was known as the “March King” for his military and patriotic marches such as “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Sousa’s “Magna Charta March” was written in 1927 at the behest of the International Magna Charta Day Association and was part of an effort to establish an annual observance of the signing of Magna Carta on June 15.
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Magna Carta Postage Stamps
These five-cent Magna Carta commemorative postage stamps, designed by New York artist Brook Temple, were created for the 750th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta. The stamp’s design illustrates the conflict between the barons and the crown. After the initial printing of 112,000,000 stamps became available on June 16, 1965. The stamps appear here on a series of illustrated envelopes created by the U.S. Postal Service that depict scenes and iconographic images related to Magna Carta.
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The National Geographic Society created this map of medieval England including illustrations, notes, and insets about the major events of English history during the Middle Ages. The location of King John’s castle in Windsor and the meadow of Runnymede, where King John granted Magna Carta, are clearly marked along the Thames above London. One inset shows the boundaries of the territories that King John’s father, King Henry II, ruled on the European continent—territories that King John subsequently lost. The map appeared as a supplement to a travel feature in National Geographic magazine about the persistence of rural culture in postwar England.
National Geographic Society. Medieval England. Washington, D.C.: The Society, 1989. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (002)
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The Peerage Then and Now
In this political satire, English writer William Hone ridiculed the public’s interest in the failing marriage of King George IV (reigned 1820–1830) and Queen Caroline, whose unhappy union had the unexpected effect of polarizing Parliament. When allegations of impropriety led the House of Lords’ to conduct an investigation into the Queen’s private life, Hone contrasted the frivolity of the Queen’s detractors with the heroic memory of the barons who confronted King John at Runnymede.
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Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact
In response to a 1938 directive from Pope Pius XI (reigned 1922–1939) to advance civics education among American Catholics, the Catholic University of America’s Commission on Catholic Citizenship supported a number of publications, including Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact. This comic book was distributed to students in parochial schools by subscription. Many issues contained illustrated features presenting politics from an anti-communist point of view. This issue relates the story of King John and the granting of Magna Carta.
“Magna Carta” in Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact. Dayton, Ohio: G. A. Pflaum. Volume. 12, no. 15.March 28, 1957. Comic Book Collection, Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (061)
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Rockin’ the Magna Carta
Formed in London in 1969, the progressive rock group Magna Carta has continued to tour and release new albums for more than forty years. During that time, the band has sold eight million albums and outlasted many more well-known rock groups. Its debut album, Magna Carta (alternatively titled Times of Change), was released in 1969.
Magna Carta. London: Repertoire Records, 1969; rereleased 2010. Compact disc. Private Collection (072)
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We Are All Related
In 2009, a twelve-year-old girl from Bakersfield, California, BridgeAnne D’Avignon, published a poster that she created with her grandfather that traces the lineage of all of the presidents of the United States, with one exception, to a common ancestor—King John of England. The poster presents the genealogical connections that D’Avignon uncovered linking the presidents through hundreds of years of ancestors to the medieval king. According to D’Avignon’s research, only Martin Van Buren, the eighth U.S. president, was not a descendant.
BridgeAnne d’Avignon. We Are All Related: U.S. Presidents’ Family Tree. WeAreAllRelated.com, ©2009. Offset lithograph. Private Collection (066)
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Jay Z at Salisbury Cathedral
Hip-hop artist and rapper Jay-Z (a.k.a. Shawn Carter) launched his fifteenth studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, on July 4, 2013, at Salisbury Cathedral, home to one of the four remaining copies of Magna Carta that date to 1215. Salisbury Cathedral displayed the cover art in a case next to the 1215 Magna Carta for a period of one month following the event. Magna Carta Holy Grail debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart and went double platinum in less than two months after its release. Jay Z adopted the name Magna Carta for this recording to signify new beginnings.
Jay Z (b. 1969). Magna Carta Holy Grail promotional photo at Salisbury Cathedral, 2013. Courtesy of Salisbury Cathedral, England (067)
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Magna Carta and Genealogy
At the end of the nineteenth century, many Americans took a strong interest in genealogy. Created in 1898, the Baronial Order of Runnemede (now called the Baronial Order of Magna Carta), was the first American genealogical society with a special focus on Magna Carta. Prospective members in the society are required to prove documented descent from one of the twenty-five Magna Carta surety barons, who were designated by Magna Carta to enforce the charter whenever the king failed to uphold its provisions. In addition to this organization, documented descendants are eligible to join the National Society Magna Charta Dames and Barons, an association with over 16,000 members.
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