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At 800 And Aging Well, The Magna Carta Is Still A Big Draw

Two original Magna Carta manuscripts from 1215 are on display at the British Library in London.

The British Library is now showing original manuscripts of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, the first time they've come to the United Kingdom.

But those documents are not the main event at this exhibition. It's the Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 — more than 500 years before the American documents, as library curator Julian Harrison notes.

This exhibit, "Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy," is all part of an effort to show how the English document shaped today's world. The publicity describes this as a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. And for once, that does not seem like exaggeration.

The British Library is displaying two original copies of the Magna Carta. Harrison can recite the key passage of the text by heart — translated into modern English from the original Latin:

"No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned save by the lawful judgment of their equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice."

In 1215, it was revolutionary for a king to say that not even he was above the law.

Of course, King John did not actually want to issue this document. He was at war with English barons; they gave him no choice. Then the king went behind their backs and secretly wrote a letter to Pope Innocent III, saying, "I have been forced to sign this awful thing!"

"What people often don't realize is that Magna Carta itself was only valid for 10 weeks," Harrison says.

The pope responded with a letter known as a "papal bull," which is also on display.

"The pope says, 'I declare the charter to be null and void of all validity forever," Harrison says.

And yet the document became the foundation of the modern judicial system.

"It's incredible, isn't it?" adds Harrison.

This exhibition includes videos where modern-day leaders describe the Magna Carta's relevance. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer talks about what it means for today's court rulings.

"The tradition of not imprisoning people without an ability to go to court and show that it's arbitrary is something that long predates our own Constitution, and that we were picking up a tradition that Magna Carta exemplifies, and the strength of that tradition lies in its history," Breyer says.

Finally, Harrison, the curator, leads me into the room where two of the original Magna Carta manuscripts are on display. One is illegible; it was nearly destroyed in a fire. The other is clearly written in Latin calligraphy on a sheepskin parchment. It's a single page, and the writing is tiny.

"The scribe, we estimate, would have taken at least eight hours to write it out. There's actually part of the manuscript, he actually missed one of the clauses, and he adds it at the bottom of the document," Harrison says.

People are coming from all over the world to see the most successful exhibition the British Library has ever mounted. It continues through the end of August.

Visitor Jill Murdoch, from central England, says there's something special about laying eyes on the original artifact.

"The idea that comes to mind is you can go online and look at a picture of an elephant or a giraffe, but there's nothing like going to Africa and actually seeing one wild," she says. "So to see the actual document that it was written on in 12-hundred and something is extraordinary. It's an extraordinary experience."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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