By the year 1215, King John had ruled over England for 15 years. But they were troubled years. John lived in the shadow of his older brother, King Richard I. Known as Richard the Lionheart, he was killed in battle in France in 1199.
John and his nephew battled for the throne. John won and restarted the war with France. He demanded money and men from his nobles. But within five years, French forces had routed the English. To pay for this stinging defeat, King John had to raise taxes — as unpopular in his day as ours. When more military losses followed, the king raised the nobles’ taxes again.
At the same time, John was having a disagreement with the pope, head of the Catholic Church, headquartered in Rome. England was a Catholic country. Many in England were loyal to the pope and the church. Pope Innocent III decided to punish John and his subjects by barring them from important church ceremonies. This, too, angered some of the barons.
The powerful nobles rose up against the king. To stay in power, John was forced to sign a document called Magna Carta (Latin for “great charter”). This peace treaty limited the king’s power and set in writing the idea that no one, not even the king, was above the law. All free men have the right to justice and a fair trial, the document said.
Sound familiar? Magna Carta was the first charter to support the rights of the individual. And although it was signed in another time and place, it was embraced by the Founding Fathers of the United States more than 550 years later as they wrote the new nation’s Constitution and Bill of Rights.
If you live near Washington and can get to the Library of Congress by January 19, you can see one of only four surviving original copies of Magna Carta. Just think: In June, this bit of history will be 800 years old, and yet it still carries meaning for freedom-loving people around the world.
Magna Carta’s wording has changed many times since 1215. The rights set forth in the earliest versions applied only to England’s upper classes. But over time, the language was updated until certain rights and liberties were assured for all.
In our country, some of our most basic principles — including limited government, the right to a trial by jury and freedom from unlawful imprisonment — can be traced to Magna Carta.
The Library of Congress exhibit covers this far-reaching journey, from the grassy meadow at Runnymede, where King John signed the charter, to present-day cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The display includes more than 70 related artifacts. Among them: a 13th-century manuscript of English law; George Washington’s copy of a draft of the U.S. Constitution; and a first-edition printing of the Federalist Papers, a series of 85 pro-Constitution essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in the 1780s.
The exhibit centers on what is known as the 1215 Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta. This is the second time the English cathedral has sent its priceless treasure to the United States. During a 1939 tour at the outbreak of World War II, the British ambassador asked U.S. officials to safeguard the charter. When the United States entered the war two years later, Magna Carta was moved to a secure hideaway at Fort Knox, Kentucky. It returned to England after the war.
In 1800 Congress decided to build a library in the U.S. Capitol. When British soldiers torched the building 14 years later, former president Thomas Jefferson offered to sell the young government nearly 6,500 books from his own library.
Jefferson was curious about many things, including science and literature. His books covered these topics and more. They formed the foundation for a new national library. It was still called the Library of Congress, but it was open to everyone.
Today this library is the largest in the world, holding more than 158 million items. Among them are more than 36 million books and other printed materials in 460 languages.
Go see “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor” before it closes this month.
Where: South Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress, 10 First Street SE.
When: Through January 19. Open Monday-Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
How much: Free.
For more information: A parent can call 202-707-9779 or go to www.loc.gov.