King John of England (reigned 1199–1216). 1215 Exemplar of Magna Carta. Great Charter of Liberties. Manuscript on parchment, June 1215. Loaned by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral, England

This exhibition commemorates the 800th anniversary of the creation of Magna Carta, the charter of liberties that England’s King John granted to his barons in 1215 in order to halt their rebellion and restore their allegiance to his throne.  While in its time Magna Carta secured only the rights of a privileged class of the king’s subjects, this exhibition traces the story of how this medieval charter, through centuries of interpretation and controversy, became an enduring symbol of liberty and the rule of law.

At the heart of the exhibition is the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, one of only four existing manuscript copies of Magna Carta that date to 1215. The document, generously loaned to the Library of Congress by Lincoln Cathedral, is by any estimate a world treasure—an artifact whose creation became the foundation of the rule of law for England and for much of the modern world. Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor includes documents, books, letters, newspapers, judicial decisions, and images that provide an account of the initial granting of Magna Carta and its many confirmations by kings and parliament. The exhibition also explores Magna Carta’s re-emergence in seventeenth-century England, its role in American independence, and its enduring legacy in the constitutional law of the United States.

By examining the ways in which Magna Carta has been interpreted in English and American constitutional law and politics, this exhibition demonstrates how principles such as due process of law, the right to a jury trial, freedom from unlawful imprisonment, and the theory of representative government emerged from a tradition that began 800 years ago.