Houston suddenly seems to have become a magnet for world-historical documents. Earlier this year, the Museum of Fine Arts hosted the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2,600-year-old clay tablet (in the collection of the British Museum) known as the “world’s first declaration of human rights.” And today the Houston Museum of Natural Science announced that a version of the 800-year-old Magna Carta will go on exhibition from February to August of 2014. The Magna Carta (Latin for "Great Charter") is a written agreement between King John of England and his leading nobles enumerating the nobles’ privileges and limiting the crown’s power. It was signed on June 15, 1215 at Runnymede, near Windsor. According to HMNS curator of anthropology Dirk Van Tuerenhout, the charter resulted from a series of struggles between the king and his lords.
“This is the culmination of a long history where the king was trying to reconquer territory he had lost in France, and was relying on money and manpower from his aristocracy to fund this campaign,’ Van Tuerenhout said. “The aristocracy got fed up and forced the king to sign a charter limiting his powers.” With the help of the pope, King John nullified the Magna Carta within two months, but the document established several important principles, such as habeas corpus, that inspired the framers of the U.S. Constitution and continue to be cited by the Supreme Court. “The Magna Carta says that you can’t just have somebody whisked away and thrown in jail because the king says so,” Van Tuerenhout said. “You have to get a day in court.”
The copy of the Magna Carta that will be on display at the HMNS is a 1217 re-issue of the original document. The re-issue is almost as rare as the original, with only four copies extant; this will be the first time it has ever travelled outside of England. Joining the Magna Carta in the exhibition is the “King’s Writ,” a letter from the king to the county sheriffs announcing the imminent arrival of the Magna Carta. The loan of the documents came about through an arrangement between the HMNS and the Chapter of Hereford Cathedral (which owns the documents) and Hereford Cathedral Perpetual Trust.