Magna Carta makes historic visit to United States 

An original copy of England’s — and history’s — landmark document, the Magna Carta, is on view through Sunday in one of the Legion of Honor’s most beautiful galleries, which features the art of the Renaissance.

Pointing to the famed paper, displayed under the golden Mudéjar ceiling from Toledo among religious paintings from the 16th century, curator James Ganz says, “That’s about 300 years older than all the art here.”

Some eight centuries have passed since the creation of this first declaration of the rule of law.

The Great Charter was signed by King John on June 15, 1215, at Runnymede, near Windsor. It sealed the crown’s concessions, under duress, to nobility’s demands to give up arbitrary, one-man rule, establishing that not even the king is above the law.

On a sheepskin parchment measuring 21 inches by 17 inches, 56 lines of Latin text set out most of the basic principles of democracy, including protection of due process and the declaration of some of the most important concepts leading to constitutional governments.

Never before on public display in the United States, the copy at the Legion is one of several originals and is in remarkably good condition. To fit it all onto a single sheet, the text is written in tiny script, with most words abbreviated. The English translation, available in the gallery, runs 16 pages.

One of four surviving manuscripts from 1217, it is kept in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, and is not typically on view at its Oxford home.

The document signed at Runnymede did not survive, but four copies issued that year did. During succeeding reigns of John’s son, Henry III, and grandson, Edward I, 17 originals survive from the 13th century. The one at the Legion is among the best preserved.

In addition to its historic tenets, the Magna Carta also includes clauses of agreement between the king and his barons about matters of the time, from fishing rights on the Thames River to the protection of widows. One clause creates an exception to the then-standard denial of a woman’s right to accuse anyone of murder — in case the victim is her husband.


Magna Carta

Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, S.F.

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. today through Sunday

Tickets: $6 to $10

Contact: (415) 750-3600,

Note: In a related program at noon Sunday, Todd Gilens leads a hands-on workshop exploring the life and forms of letters.

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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