Visual Representations of Magna Carta


Anthony Musson is a professor of legal history at the University of Exeter and a barrister of the Middle Temple. Anthony has published extensively in the field of medieval legal history, legal culture, and legal iconography.

King John’s “Charter of Liber­ties,” known today as Magna Carta (or in English, the Great Charter), enjoys a reputation not confined to its country of origin, the United Kingdom, nor its histori­cal chronology, the early thirteenth century, but is recognized throughout the world as a document of immense legal and constitutional significance. Continually looked to symbolically for guarantees of executive conduct and fairness and due process in judicial matters, it is the contents of Magna Car­ta, the text and its particular clauses, that have been the primary fascination for generations of politicians, lawyers, and of course historians. Until the exhi­bitions coinciding with the 800th anni­versary, comparatively few, though, will have probably viewed the thirteenth century originals or examined other copies surviving in legal manuscripts, or even considered that the Great Char­ter can be studied as much for its visual cues as for its textual ones.

The Original Documents

The four surviving copies of the original version, the Great Charter of 1215, two of which are on display in the British Library, the other two of which reside in the Cathedrals of Lincoln and Salisbury, are testimony to its name and dimen­sions. Indeed, they show how impres­sive Magna Carta is in terms of its overall size and length. The text itself, running to 3,500 words and 62 separate claus­es, is contained on a single sheet, with the copies measuring 17 to 20 inches in length [43.2 to 50.8 cm] and between 13 and 17 inches in width [33 to 43.2 cm]. Looking in more detail at its appear­ance, it is written on an expensive, but durable form of material known as parchment (made from sheepskin) rath­er than paper, and is not in English, but Latin, the prime language of religion, government, and the law in the Middle Ages. The script, in a hand typical of an early thirteenth-century chancery clerk, is extremely legible even though on closer inspection some of the Latin words are abbreviated in order to save space. After a first line with slightly aug­mented capitals (for King John’s titles) the preamble and itemized clauses continue in a neatly ordered, if tightly spaced, format.

Magna Carta differs visually and (since it was intended to be read aloud) aurally from other charters not only because of its substantive content, but because there is no list of witnesses. The names of illustrious and highly respect­ed persons were typically appended as witnesses at the end of royal charters by way of endorsing the grant. Unusually, the Great Charter is prefaced with a list of “advisors” (11 prelates and 16 mag­nates) by whose counsel the liberties listed in it were granted. Arguably they may have provided the same legitimacy as a list of witnesses, but the position­ing emphasizes their role as advisors to the king and advertises the king’s intention to govern in future not with reference solely to a few close court­iers, but by the counsel of his greater subjects. However, in case the king reneged on his promises, under the terms of chapter 61, the undertakings made in the Great Charter were to be enforced by a committee of 25 barons. Their election was regarded as a future event, so they are not actually named in the Charter, but their identities were recorded by the St. Alban’s Abbey chronicler, Matthew Paris, and com­prised military leaders and powerful landowners who were particularly vociferous opponents of the royal regime. Their coats of arms, colorful heraldic devices originally differentiat­ing knights on the battlefield while also providing an elaborate code displaying their pedigree and lineage, are embla­zoned on the Magna Carta memorial. The Magna Carta “advisors,” though, have a continuing symbolic constitu­tional role into the twenty-first century. Life-like bronze-caste statutes of 16 of the barons and two of the prelates were placed around the reconstructed Lords’ Chamber in the Palace of Westminster in 1847, and these figures, which have witnessed trials of peers held in the House of Lords, also watch over the setting out of the government’s legisla­tive program contained in the Queen’s speech (delivered at the State Opening of Parliament) and supervise the pass­ing of legislation there. The conscious inclusion of representatives from 1215 in the statuary of the U.K. legislature has provided a tangible link with legal and constitutional tradition.

Magna Carta was formally attested by King John’s Great Seal, a tangible sign of royal will reserved for the king’s most solemn decrees and grants and which accorded them weight, both physically and symbolically. Unfortu­nately only one of the surviving cop­ies still has the seal attached and the wax impression has crumbled almost beyond recognition, but we know what it was like from other examples. Double-sided, it depicts on the reverse the king on horseback wielding a sword, while on the obverse it shows the monarch seated on a bench-like throne, again with sword in hand. The iconography encapsulates a maxim from Roman law, “clothed with arms: armed with laws,” reflecting the expectation also explicit in the king’s Coronation Oath that the rule of law would not be allowed to prevail over armed conflict and that the king himself would (through the use of force if necessary) strive to maintain peace and uphold justice. The affixed Great Seal, therefore, not only under­lines the importance of the Great Char­ter as a document and provides the nec­essary enacting power, but also reflects in visual terms the king’s personal responsibilities as a ruler.

It is not surprising then that the sealing of Magna Carta has been used subsequently as visual shorthand for the historical event, and its attendant symbolism, and as a cautionary image to those exercising political and legal authority. For example, a stained glass window (designed by Alexander Gibbs in 1868) depicting the scene stands in the Mansion House, the official resi­dence of the Lord Mayor of London, perhaps memorializing confirmation of the liberties of the city (as enshrined in the Great Charter) as well as acknowl­edging the importance of observation of the rule of law. Similarly, a frieze of it over the main entrance of the “art nouveau Gothic” Middlesex Guildhall (1913), previously a crown court, now home to the United Kingdom Supreme Court, which stands in Parliament Square overlooking the Houses of Par­liament, provides a warning and exam­ple to all politicians and judges of due process for citizens and litigants. The potency of this image is not confined to the U.K. King John sealing Magna Car­ta under the watchful eye of an armed knight is featured in one of the panels of the bronze doors of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington (installed in 1935), which contain scenes of significant his­torical figures or pertinent events in the evolution of the rule of law. Some of the nineteenth-century representations, including engravings by A. W. Warren (1830s), James Doyle (1864), and John Leech (1872) erroneously or anachro­nistically show King John signing the document with a quill pen. This notion of giving effect to a document by putting a signature to it was visually translated from the bygone era of affixing seals, but has influenced even modern-day understanding of the event (including in David Letterman’s questions on the signing of Magna Carta to British Prime Minister, David Cameron in 2012). It has also spawned the jocular question, “Where was Magna Carta signed?” to which the correct response is not the historically accurate “Runnymede,” but the wittier observation “At the bottom!”

Illuminated Legal Manuscripts

None of the surviving single-sheet (large) copies of Magna Carta are illumi­nated or even slightly decorated, unlike royal charters issued to individuals or corporations (civic or ecclesiastical) in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which normally have a large illuminat­ed initial letter containing an image of the king presenting the document to the beneficiary, often with elaborate iconography and marginal decoration. Illuminated versions of Magna Carta are nevertheless found bound with oth­er legal texts in manuscript books of statutes dating from the late thirteenth century through to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and provide an opportunity to examine perceptions of the Charter through a different lens. Each scene, a cocktail of the artist’s (and commissioning patron’s) imagina­tion, perceptions, historical sensitivity, factual knowledge, aspirations, and ide­als, offers an interpretation or contextu­alization of contemporary constitution­al discourse in visual format. Owners of these books ranged from lawyers and administrators, to ecclesiastical and lay landowners, civic corporations, and merchants. The majority of the Magna Carta miniatures are not very elabo­rate and simply portray the sole figure of a king enclosed within the initial letter. The king should be viewed here in conjunction with the written text to which he is normally looking or point­ing (either with a raised index finger or a sword). His gesture not only serves as a directional device for the reader, but can be regarded as underlining the text’s importance and endorsing its authority.

The Great Charter itself is depicted in some of the scenes, either as a parch­ment document affixed with a green seal or in the form of a book with a green cover. As was common in medieval art, representation of the sealed document provides visual shorthand for its rec­itation or proclamation (which usually accompanied presentation of charters and, as mentioned above, had its basis in historical reality, as by royal decree Magna Carta was regularly proclaimed in the shires not just in Latin, but in both French and English). In some scenes the Great Charter is demonstra­bly being presented to (or handed over by) the king or raised aloft by an arch­bishop in ceremonial fashion, with judg­es, lords, and other courtiers in atten­dance. Visual and aural elements thus combine with the written text to accord significance and legitimacy to it as well as bearing witness to the presentation event through a pseudo-historical reen­actment scenario. The images, there­fore, underline Magna Carta (and the statute book in which it is contained) both as a physical entity and as having a continuing psychological and legal impact.

The monarch’s constitutional posi­tion and his royal obligations are high­lighted in a number of these statute book miniatures. At least one particular book had the opportunity to influence future constitutional affairs. The book in question (now MS 12 in the Harvard Law Library) is believed to have been a present from Philippa of Hainault to Prince Edward (the future Edward III) on the occasion of their betrothal in 1326. The initial “E” of Edward I’s confirmation of Magna Carta in this volume comprises a double scene (one above the middle bar of the letter and one below it): the upper picture, a king seated on a throne, holding a book in his left hand, supported by archbishops and laymen, may represent the original issuing of Magna Carta under John; the lower picture is similar in composi­tion, but presumably depicts its reissue under Edward I, itself the outcome of another bout of constitutional debate. The image cannot have been formulated without regard to recent political events and was given greater clarity of mean­ing by Edward II’s deposition in 1327. It would, therefore, have held particular significance not just for contemporaries who had lived through the constitution­al upheaval, but for the new king him­self, whose very position as monarch lay in the hands of the archbishops, magnates, and judges portrayed along­side the king.

Analyzing Place: Runnymede

It is to the visual features of its place of birth and first attestation we must final­ly turn. Until its reissue in 1217 in tan­dem with the Forest Charter (whereup­on it became distinguished as the Great Charter), Magna Carta was referred to by its geographical location as the “Charter of Runnymede.” While this was familiar practice in royal government, analogous to the nomenclature for stat­utes or other royal promulgations, it gave prominence, albeit briefly, to this particular spot on the banks of the River Thames in Surrey. In the context of the events of 1215, Runnymede provided a meeting point, an open space between the king’s residence at Windsor and the barons’ camp at Staines that effec­tively formed neutral territory. Today, the historic Runnymede site is owned by the National Trust and with nearby Cooper’s Hill comprises 300 acres of protected land, the tranquillity of which is captured in a late nineteenth century painting by Robert Gallon. It is here that the American Bar Association placed a Magna Carta memorial in the form of a “classical” temple or rotunda (designed by Sir Edward Maufe), providing a focal point for reflection on the hard-fought constitutional battles of the past, the international human rights struggles of the present, and the timeless values of liberty and justice the Great Charter espouses.

It is not entirely certain precisely where “in the meadow that is called Runnymede” discussions between the two parties took place or where Magna Carta was actually drawn up and sealed, though one medieval chronicler refers to “a certain island,” which perhaps cor­responds to an area just across the riv­er (colloquially known as Magna Carta Island) where the ruins of Ankerwycke priory lie and a 2,000-year-old yew tree still stands. The scene Ankerwycke Pri­ory from Runnymede was captured in a sketch of 1811 by landscape artist, J. M. W. Turner. Turner clearly showed a special interest in the site, revisiting the view several times in his artwork and attesting to its significance in his own poetic verses: “Thus native bravery Lib­erty decreed/Received the stimulus act from Runny mead.” The twelfth-century Benedictine priory would have been a suitable place for oath-taking and sol­emnization of the Charter, while the iconic ancient tree, a witness to the original momentous event, also adds resonance as traditionally (like oak trees) yews were a place where open-air gatherings and judicial sessions were held.

The text of Magna Carta, at least its key provisions, has endured throughout the centuries and traveled in essence to all parts of the world. Yet as illuminated manuscript miniatures, paintings, sculp­tures, and other media testify, the legacy of the Great Charter has not solely been in the province of the written word: its symbolic value and underlying mes­sage have been underpinned both by its physical reality and its place within the less tangible visual realm. Study of Magna Carta itself, therefore, together with visual representations of its attes­tation, presentation, and proclamation, converge to offer an understanding of its cultural significance then and now. These images have also demonstrated the power to influence people’s per­ceptions of history and reveal differing attitudes towards royal/state power and the law.



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