Archives Experience Newsletter - June 22, 2021

  • A Long Legacy of 40 Barons

June 15th of this year marked the 806th anniversary of the day when 40 barons forced King John of England to affix his seal to the Magna Carta, the landmark document that enshrined certain rights and protections for all free Englishmen. The barons were fed up with John’s inept military endeavors and his attempts to tax them to bankroll those efforts. They insisted that their rights be codified and endorsed by the monarch. The document underwent a series of modifications before the barons and the king issued the final version on June 19, 1215.

Since that time, the Magna Carta has influenced ideas about human rights in many cultures, not the least in the United States, where its principles underpinned the ideals asserted in the Charters of Freedom—the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The

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Record of Rights, a permanent exhibition at the National Archives, has on view one of four originals of the 1297 Magna Carta, which is the version that was entered in the official Statue Rolls of England. The document is on loan to the National Archives from David M. Rubenstein, and is displayed in the gallery that bears his name.

Patrick Madden
Executive Director
National Archives Foundation

A Revolution on Paper

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The Magna Carta was written more than 500 years before the
Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United
States, but the rights set out in the English document profoundly

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the ideas that gave
birth to the American Revolution.

Many of the Founding Fathers had studied law, specifically the
work of Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634), whose four-volume Institutes of
the Laws of England was often the backbone of legal education in the
British colonies in North America. Coke, who served as attorney
general for Queen Elizabeth I and Chief Justice under James I, was
largely responsible for championing the importance of the Magna
Carta in English law. His ideas about rights and protections
profoundly influenced the framers of the Declaration and the

Reading Your Rights

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After King John and his barons finally agreed upon the wording of
the Magna Carta, the document was written in Latin on parchment as a
permanent record. At the time, Latin was the dominant language
throughout the Western world because it was the language of the
church, but it has long since fallen into disuse. Consequently, you
may not have had occasion to read the Magna Carta for yourself.

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of the Magna Carta may surprise you—the document includes not only
the concepts of trial by jury and no taxation without representation
(sound familiar?). The document itself is based on four key
principles that have stood the test of time:

  1. Nobody, not even the monarch, is above the law
  2. No one can be detained without cause or evidence
  3. Everyone has the right to trial by jury
  4. Widows cannot be forced to remarry and giup their property (this was a major
    first step for women’s rights!)

The Magna Carta: The First Influencer

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It is commonly stated that the rights delineated in the Magna Carta
informed the language in the Bill of Rights. But how closely do they
really align?

DocsTeach, an online teaching resource developed by
the Education Division of the National Archives, is designed to help
teachers educate students about how to read and analyze historic
documents. One extensive activity is

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of the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, and the U.S. Bill of
Rights. Take a look at some of the activities to gain greater
insights into the differences and similarities between these three
seminal documents.

History Snacks

Test Your Knowledge!

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The history of the National Archives Building itself is as
interesting as the record it holds. Are you a budding researcher,
archives historian, or expert archivist? Find out by taking our

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Forever Young 🎶

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Because they were often written on fragile materials, like paper or
parchment, important documents must be displayed under precisely
regulated conditions, including temperature and humidity controls
and limited exposure to light. Sometimes, painstaking repairs are
required as well.

The 1297 Magna Carta on display in the National
Archives is written on parchment. In 2011, it underwent significant
conservation treatments that included removing old repairs and
examining an area on which the writing had been washed away by some
kind of spill. To get a feel for this important work, check out this video of the conservation process.