In the year 1215, King John of England found himself in a serious jam. His feudal barons, who were in open rebellion against his rule, had just occupied London and were threatening to depose him in favor of Prince Louis, the French heir. Backed into a corner, the king reluctantly agreed to endorse an agreement with the barons that limited his royal power and enumerated specific rights for English noblemen (English serfs weren’t even considered.)
Although the king convinced the Pope to nullify the agreement less than three months after putting his seal to it, the document—known today as Magna Carta, or Great Charter in Latin—became one of the cornerstones of modern constitutional democracy, enshrining such principles as the right to stand trial before a judge (habeas corpus). At the time, however, no one, and certainly not the beleaguered king, could have anticipated how important the document would become.
“King John signed Magna Carta to get out of a particular situation, not to establish a foundation for constitutional law,” says University of Houston historian Catherine Patterson. “It is, in its origins, not terribly auspicious, although it later became hugely important both in England and worldwide.”
The version of Magna Carta that goes on display this month at the Houston Museum of Natural Science isn’t one of the original copies from 1215 but a revised 1217 reissue of the document by King John’s son and successor, King Henry III, itself now almost as rare as the original, with only four copies extant. This is thought to be the first time that the document has ever been displayed outside of England.
“Because we’re in a bit of an out-of-the-way place [the border of England and Wales], we can’t show Magna Carta to as many people as we like,” says Chancellor Chris Pullin of Hereford Cathedral, where the copy now on tour is normally housed. “But here in Houston, there’s a chance for a million people to see the document.”
Along with an educational exhibit devoted to the origins and significance of Magna Carta, HMNS will also be displaying the “King’s Writ,” a letter from King John to his county sheriffs announcing the imminent arrival of the document. “There are all kinds of background stories that I want to share with people,” says HMNS curator of anthropology Dirk Van Tuerenhout. “What was life like in 13th-century England? What were the cities like? What was the role of the Church and the Pope?”
Since Magna Carta was composed in Medieval Latin and is written in a tiny, nearly indecipherable script, most Houstonians will have to rely on the HMNS’s supplementary materials to gauge its historical significance. Still, the mere presence of such a rare document should spark the city’s curiosity, Patterson says.
“It’s one thing to read about it in a book, but to actually be able to go to the museum and see the 800-year-old document written by a king and his barons on the other side of the world should be very interesting.”