The Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta is one of four existing exemplifications of Magna Carta dating from 1215. (Courtesy of Lincoln Cathedral)

It may look like any other crinkly piece of paper under glass, but Magna Carta is to constitutional law what Louis Armstrong was to the trumpet. More than 570 years before the U.S. Constitution rolled off the presses, the Original MC put the king on notice and established the right of due process.

Magna Carta — and never put “the” before it — also had some wacky references to two of England’s less-favored groups, Jews and women. We’ll get to that later.

When we heard that the Library of Congress would be displaying one of only four remaining original copies of the 1215 edition of the famed document, we had two thoughts: Cool, but doesn’t the National Archives already have Magna Carta?

Yes and no. The Archives does have a copy, but it dates to 1297.

That, says Library of Congress public relations specialist Donna Urschel, is no small detail. “It’s like saying do you want to see the original Declaration of Independence or one that somebody wrote 80 years later?” she says.

Magna Carta, 1297. (David M. Rubenstein)

Fair enough, though Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein did pay $21.3 million for the version now on display at the National Archives.

“The 1297 Magna Carta is the ultimate version,” counters Laura Diachenko, a National Archives public affairs specialist. “It is the first Magna Carta placed on the official legal registry in England and is still the law of England.”


In reality, both documents are worthy. The 1215, the first, led to war when King John resisted — okay, actually had the pope void MC. John’s death in 1216 cleared the way for a revised Magna Carta, the versions that would go on to symbolize the rule of law. The 1297 is considerably different from 1215, making it not just a copy but a prized revision and reissue.

With 1215 going on display Thursday, here’s a breakdown of the two documents so you can decide which to see. Of course, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to clear out enough time for both. They’re separated by 82 years, but for 10 weeks, they’ll be housed only a little more than a mile apart.

“What does it mean that we have both?” says Daniel Magraw, a D.C.-based professor and one of the authors of “Magna Carta and the Rule of Law.” “It’s better as an educational tool because people will say, ‘Oh, the first one has to be more important.’ But here, it’s obvious that every one was important.”


1215: One of only four remaining in the world, this copy belongs to Lincoln Cathedral in England. It has never been up for auction, having been given to the cathedral in the 13th century. Next year, it returns to England for a British Library exhibition with the other remaining 1215 issues.

1297: Ross Perot bought it for $1.5 million in 1983 from the Brudenell family, which owned it for five centuries. Rubenstein purchased it at auction for $21.3 million in 2007, putting Magna Carta back on display at the National Archives in 2008.

Road Show:

1215: The document has already spent time in the United States. In 1939, the 1215 was at the World’s Fair in New York. As conflict erupted overseas, England asked that the document be sent to the Library of Congress. After Pearl Harbor, Magna Carta was sent to Fort Knox, Ky., where it remained until the end of World War II. The 1215 also was displayed at the World’s Fair in Brisbane in 1988. More recently, Magna 1215 has toured, drawing more than 80,000 to see it over two months at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

1297: For years, it sat on an easel at the Brudenell family estate in England. After Perot’s purchase, Magna 1297 was shown at the University of Texas and sent on a national tour before the long-term loan to the National Archives. It was briefly off display to be shown at Sotheby’s Auction house in 2007, until Rubenstein stepped in.

At the Time:

1215: Genghis Khan captures what is now Beijing, the Macy Jug is crafted in Iran and the barons of England at Runnymede push King John to approve Magna Carta. He resists, leading to the First Barons’ War.

1297: Scottish armies defeat the British at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, and the first reference is made to a Portuguese water dog. King Edward I issued a new version of Magna Carta (one copy of which now rests in the National Archives).

Most Regrettable Section:

1215: “If one who has borrowed from the Jews any sum, great or small, dies before that debt be repaid, the debt shall not bear interest while the heir is under age, of whomsoever he may hold.” That section would disappear from the later version. “But I wouldn’t treat that as any great movement toward religious toleration,” says Thomas McSweeney, an assistant professor at William and Mary Law School. “Those clauses would have been dead letter in 1297 anyway because Edward I expelled the Jews in 1290.”

1297: “No one shall be taken or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman concerning the death of anyone save for the death of that woman’s husband.” In other words, a woman could testify only if her husband had been killed. “If the victim was any other man — her brother or son, say, or anyone unrelated to her — her word had no legal weight,” says Julian Harrison, the curator of medieval manuscripts at the British Library and one of the curators of the 2015 exhibition.

Surrounding Cast:

1215: The Library of Congress exhibit boasts a series of documents directly related to Magna Carta, including a draft of the U.S. Constitution marked up by George Washington and a 1939 letter from Franklin D. Roosevelt to the librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, detailing plans to bring Magna Carta to the Library of Congress. “The depth of treatment you can get in our exhibition is something you can’t get from someplace else,” says Nathan Dorn, the library’s rare books curator.

1297: Rubenstein’s Magna serves as an entry point for the “Records of Rights,” a permanent exhibition focused on human rights struggles. Documents include the discharge papers of slaves, original petitions granting women the right to vote and the case files of Wong Kim Ark, an American denied reentry into the country after a trip to China in the 19th century.

Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor

Artifacts and memorabilia

Thursday-Jan. 19

Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building

10 First St. SE, Washington, D.C.

of Rights

A permanent exhibition of the National Archives,
Constitution Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets NW.