Magna Carta. If those two words conjure visions of a long-ago history class, then it might be time to revisit this historic document. And Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, in partnership with London-based cultural and arts firm Hawkwood International, is opening a dynamic exhibition to help you do just that, titled, Magna Carta: Tyranny. Justice. Liberty. In fact, the star artifact is one of only four surviving copies of the 1217 Magna Carta. In addition, the recently rediscovered Sandwich copy of the 1300 Magna Carta will visit the United States for the first time. But while seeing two original manuscripts of the Magna Carta is a unique experience, it is not the only thing that makes Museum of the Bible’s exhibit unique. Instead, the exhibit asks guests to consider what role the church and the Bible’s passages about just rule played in the creation of the famous charter and how people have used those passages over the centuries as they have debated the ideas presented in the Magna Carta? To find out the answers to those questions, you’ll have to come experience Magna Carta: Tyranny. Justice. Liberty.
The exhibition begins in the early thirteenth century in England. An unpopular and unjust King John sits on the throne as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, tries to negotiate peace between the monarch and a group of rebellious barons. For over three decades, John had worked to undermine the barons’ authority. From where they stood, this ambitious monarch sought to unstitch the laws and customs that had bound English society together for centuries. Conflict was inevitable. Though the events of 1215 stemmed from social, political, and economic issues arising over 50 years, they were more immediately prompted by King John’s lust for power and his capricious behavior toward his subjects.
And who better to portray this villainous king than an actor who is used to playing the villain, award-winning actor Andy Serkis. Serkis, who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films and Supreme Leader Snoke in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, appears in a pair of short films created just for the exhibition. The main film sets the scene for the events that led to the signing of the first Magna Carta in 1215. Serkis’s powerful performance brings King John’s petulance and cruelty to life, showing why there was such fierce opposition to him, while period music by Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century abbess, performed by Cerys Jones, and original music by Harry Gregson-William and Paul Oakenfold help guests immerse themselves in the world of Magna Carta.
After guests meet the people involved with the charter — medieval saints, archbishops, knights, and barons — they may see the 1215 King’s Writ, which refers to the events at Runnymede where the first charter was signed, the 1217 Magna Carta, and the 1300 Carta Foresta (Charter of the Forest), a later companion charter allowing free men access to the king’s forest. The voice of King John reads aloud in English the key clauses of the Magna Carta, while a replica of the royal wardrobe and the king’s sword fill out the room, immersing visitors in the Middle Ages.
This area also explores the role the Bible and the English church played in the struggle to bring King John’s injustice to account, to recognize the rights of individuals, and to limit the power of those who rule. For some, these ideas were closely connected to specific verses in the Bible as well as medieval Canon Law. Accordingly, God ordained rulers and would punish those who ruled unjustly. “Woe unto those who make unjust laws,” says the Prophet Isaiah. Other verses echo this sentiment and have been the subject of discussion and debate throughout the centuries by both rulers and the ruled.
Those who supported the Magna Carta believed it would help protect them against unjust and arbitrary rule. By the 1700s, however, it had come to represent much more, a symbol of liberty against arbitrary government. Even today, some people appeal to the document while championing individual rights and liberties. While this speaks much more directly to the real heart of the Magna Carta, the document itself came to stand for liberty more generally, especially the liberty of individuals against despotic rule. Over time, from its original medieval reality to the Enlightenment legend it became and the modern symbol it remains, the Magna Carta has been used to champion individual rights and liberties again and again.
Following this section, the exhibition moves to the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where the Magna Carta took on new meaning against British rule. In another short film, Andy Serkis and his son, actor Sonny Ashbourne Serkis, portray Thomas Paine contemplating the force of the Magna Carta’s clauses, as each clause is read aloud in English and Latin. Paine, like others in the British colonies, believed they were confronting some of the same struggles that the rebel barons faced in 1215. America’s founders drew from the charter as they drafted several of the new nation’s most important documents, including the Bill of Rights.
And its appeal has not diminished. “While the Magna Carta remains an imperfect document created by imperfect people, its influence on human rights, justice, and law is unparalleled,” said Jeff Kloha, chief curatorial officer at Museum of the Bible. “After more than 800 years, it continues to shape thinking on contemporary issues.” The final section of the exhibition concludes with an examination of the charter in the modern age, from the UN Declaration of Human Rights to its place in pop culture. It ends by asking guests to consider the Magna Carta’s emphasis on individual liberty and the rule of law and the sources, both secular and sacred, that undergird and define those inalienable rights.
The exhibition at Museum of the Bible is offered in partnership with Hawkwood International and the Hereford Cathedral. According to Lord Fink, chairman of Hawkwood International, the exhibition is “the first truly immersive Magna Carta museum experience.” From films and period music to elaborate displays and thoughtful interactives, Magna Carta: Tyranny. Justice. Liberty. vividly depicts the forces and personalities that shaped the original Magna Carta — the monarchy, the aristocracy, the church, and the Bible — and shows why it has been appealed to throughout the centuries, from medieval England to modern America.