Magna Carta Goes on Display in Washington, D.C.
The Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, signed by King John in 2015.
Credit: Library of Congress

Scrawled in Medieval Latin on yellowing parchment, an original copy of the Magna Carta is now on view at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The historic charter turns 800 next year. To celebrate, the Library of Congress is hosting a 10-week exhibition, "Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor."

The centerpiece of the show is the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, on loan from its caretaker, the Lincoln Cathedral in England. [See photos of the Magna Carta texts on display]

The document is one of just four surviving copies from 1215. That year, English barons pressured King John (who was later villainized in the legend of Robin Hood) into signing the Magna Carta. The text had 63 clauses drawn up to limit John's power, but by far the most enduring article was this one:

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled … except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land."

The clause protected free men in England from being unlawfully imprisoned, and that article became the basis for the writ of habeas corpus in the 17th century, when interest in the Magna Carta as an affirmation of individual liberties was revived. Habeas corpus is still invoked today to bring a prisoner before a court to determine if that person's imprisonment is legal, and it's considered one of the most important privileges associated with English civil liberties.

The concept has spread to many other judicial systems. It was reflected in the laws established in the North American colonies, and the framers of the U.S. Constitution later derived the clauses about grand juries and due process in the Fifth Amendment from that part of the Magna Carta.

This exhibition is not the first U.S. tour for the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta. The text went on display at the British Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair. By the fall of that year, World War II started with the German invasion of Poland. The copy of the Magna Carta traveled to Washington, D.C., where the British Ambassador to the United States handed it over to the Library of Congress on Nov. 28, 1939. It was kept at Fort Knox in Kentucky for safekeeping during the war. 

The "Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor" exhibit at the Library of Congress is on display until Jan. 19, 2015.

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