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A Magna moment at the MFA

One of only four surviving copies of the original 1215 document is on loan to the MFA from the Lincoln Cathedral in the United Kingdom.Steven Senne/Associated Press

The thought is stunning enough that you just stand there and stare.

In one sense, all you’re examining is a faded parchment covered with a copyist’s small but precise Latin lettering.

Until it hits you, again, that you’re looking at the seminal document in the development of limited government, individual rights and liberties, and the rule of law.

I’m talking about the Magna Carta, one of the four earliest copies of which is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts until Sept. 1. This instrument has influenced human thinking about the limits of rulers and the rights of people for large parts of the last 800 years.

Its story starts in the discontent of the English barons, particularly those of the north, with the reign of King John (1199-1216), tagged “John Softsword” by wags for his military losses, though “John the Incompetent” might have been a more apt sobriquet. Desperate for money to pay for his wars and extravagances, the king had imposed heavy taxes on the barons, who in exchange for their land had financial and military obligations to the crown.

In June of 1215, with the rebellious barons almost literally up in arms, the king met them at Runnymede, a meadow along the Thames halfway between Windsor Castle and their encampment. There they demanded a written agreement addressing their many grievances, one that would impose limitations on the king and specify individual rights and protections. What emerged was the Magna Carta.


By acceding to the Great Charter, John won the renewed, though short-lived, allegiance of the barons. In return, the barons got an agreement that would buttress and nurture notions about the rule of law, individual rights, and constitutional government for centuries to come.

Much of the Magna Carta is concerned with obscure issues of the feudal era. It stipulates, for example, that “no town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.”


But the Magna Carta also put the king under the law, restraining the crown’s military, police, judicial, and financial powers. One of its most influential clauses declares: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”

In other words, there would be due process of law.

To be sure, those rights were not always respected. The charter, in full or in part, was renounced, repealed, revised, and reissued a number of times. Periods passed when it was honored mostly in the breach.

But it informed the famous English Bill of Rights of 1689, and as the American colonists grew disenchanted with British rule, the Magna Carta was much on their minds. In both symbolism and substance, it helped inspire the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, which, with the Bill of Rights, would be our own great charter limiting government, guaranteeing liberties, and protecting the individual.

So why has this foundational document made its way from England here to the cradle of American liberty? Particular credit goes to state Representative Cory Atkins, Democrat of Concord, and Boston lawyer and former American Bar Association treasurer Alice Richmond, who first learned from British associates that the Magna Carta might be available for a visit.


As a result of their efforts, the MFA and, in the fall, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, will join the Law Library of Congress as the only US stops on the Magna Carta’s tour.

The MFA’s exhibit, which includes a sampling of the Magna Carta’s clauses printed on the wall, is well-done and informative, and incorporates another sparkling historical treasure (sorry, no spoilers here; go see for yourself).

When I was there, viewers were captivated. You will be, too. This is one occasion when it’s perfectly acceptable to stand and gawk.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.