For the first time in history, and for only three days, the four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta will be reunited in the British Library during the document's 800th birthday, which will be celebrated in 2015. The document was first introduced by British nobles in 1215—800 years ago—which also explains why only 1215 select members of the public will be able to see it.
As you were surely told in your junior high history class, the Magna Carta is essentially the precursor of documents like the U.S. Constitution, putting as it does checks and balances on people in power. It is also, somewhat less relevantly, in the title of a middling Jay-Z album.
In 1215, baron pushed this document onto King John in hopes of protecting their own rights and property from royal power. At the time, King John was gaming the feudal system through a series of loopholes and abusing the reach of the crown—15 chapters of the Magna Carta were focused on that, the BBC explains. The next ten chapters had to do with finances and people's rights under Common Law. "It is these latter that have been seen as crucial, as they subjected the king to the law of the land for the first time in Britain's history," the BBC adds.
As with that Jay-Z album, the critical reception of the Magna Carta was not a good one. King John had signed it as a bargaining chip to quell a growing rebellion against him and boost his image. He had every intention of trying to diminish the document's power. "It was only valid for less than 10 weeks," Clair Breay, the British Library's lead curator of medieval manuscripts, told reporters, explaining that King John had the Magna Carta annulled by Pope Innocent III.
And despite its rocky start—after it was annulled, it was re-issued multiple times post-John—the Magna Carta's basic tenets still have staying power today. The Associated Press cites the document's most significant quote:
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, nor will we proceed with force against him, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.
That's the 800-year-old basis of what we now know as a trial by jury. And, as the AP notes, its commentary on "extortionate taxes" certainly resound with the Tea Party movement today.
"Bringing the four surviving manuscripts together for the first time will create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for researchers and members of the public to see them in one place, and will be a fantastic start to a year of celebrations," said Breay, which will allow a group of researchers along with those lucky 1215 members of the public to research the pieces.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.