Interview: Associate Director of Oxford Library on Magna Carta, at Legion of Honor in San Francisco
Last week, Richard Ovenden, associate director and keeper of special collections at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, appeared on KQED Radio’s Forum to talk about the history of the Magna Carta, the first document to limit the absolute power of a monarch.
After the appearance, I interviewed Mr. Ovenden.
So what can people see at the Legion of Honor?
They can see a document that 800 yrs ago was written by a scribe in King Henry III’s administration. It has wax seals of the king’s guardians, the papal legate, Cardinal Guala Bicchieri, and William Marshall, the Earl of Pembroke, because Henry was a boy king.
The document, which dates to 1217, has roughly 2.5 thousand words and in 56 lines established some of the basic principles of democracy, the rule of law, and good government that persist through to our modern constitutions and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
What are some of those principles?
No individual, least of all a monarch, is superior to the rule of law, and can only govern through the consent of the people. Not the people in our modern sense of democracy — it applied to the barons of the country. But those principles remained powerful, and they were later enshrined in the charters of the New England colonies, the Declaration of Independence, the Fifth Amendment, and then in modern democracies of countries like Australia, India, and other former British colonies.
In Britain, there is no written constitution, but Magna Carta got rolled into the statutes of the realm. Six of the original 67 clauses of the charter are still law in the U.K.
And how is it a seminal document?
It was 100 years before Parliament was established, and the first time the King fixed his royal seal on something that says he’s subject to the rule of law, as opposed to divine right.
I was always taught that the charter dates to 1215, but this document was issued in 1217…
1215 was when King John made the agreement. It was reissued a number of times throughout 13th century when kings needed to reestablish that they were going to behave according to its principles. The original 1215 document doesn’t survive.
The document at the Legion of Honor is one of 17 from that period extant.
It’s not written in English, correct?
It’s written in medieval Latin. Anyone who knows Latin could struggle their way through a translation, even if they have only a smattering and a dictionary. And you can find translations online.
A few weeks ago, KQED News anchor/reporter Cy Musiker visited the exhibit and brought back these pictures.