Churchill had planned to thank US with a copy of Magna Carta

As a gesture of gratitude for its active support for the British cause in World War II, the Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill, had planned to give the United States a copy of the famous ‘Magna Carta’.

Documents showing the government’s interest in this regard are on display in an exhibition at the British Library. The exhibition, called ‘Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy‘, is being held to mark the 800th anniversary of this historic manuscript. For the first time in Britain, the US Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights are also on display, alongside manuscripts of the Magna Carta.

Hailed as one of the first steps towards democracy and a parliamentary system of government, this historic document was authorised on 15th June 1215. It is stated in the Magna Carta that no individual is above the law, not even the King.

The exhibition also has on display documents from the Foreign Office, which show that Churchill and his cabinet were seriously considering giving one of the copies of the Magna Carta as a gift to the US, where it had been stranded. Churchill had even indicated his personal approval for the proposal. But this could not have turned into reality, as the manuscript was the property of Lincoln Cathedral and the British government had no right to give it away, the BBC News reports.

Before WWII, one of the original copies of the Magna Carta was in New York, to be displayed at a trade fair. When the war broke out, it became impossible to transport the historic document safely back to Britain. German U-boats were ambushing and destroying any ship destined for Britain from the United States or Canada. During the war, this copy of the Magna Carta was guarded at Fort Knox; it was returned to Britain in the year 1946.

At the exhibition there are more than 200 items of historic significance on display. Some of them are listed below:

  • Teeth and a thumb bone of King John.
  • Clothes and crozier of Archbishop Walter, who was Archbishop of Canterbury 800 years ago.
  • A portrait of the actor, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, playing Shakespeare’s King John, by Charles Buchel (1900).
  • The Statue of Geoffrey de Mandeville, who was one of 25 barons entrusted by Clause 61 of the Magna Carta to ensure Kings’ compliance with the terms of the manuscript.
  • A replica of the tomb of King John, which is usually kept in Worcester Cathedral.
  • The US Declaration of Independence, as a handwritten copy by Thomas Jefferson, and the US Bill of Rights are also on display for the first time in the UK. Both of these documents took inspiration from the Magna Carta.

The exhibition, ‘Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy’, opened on Friday 13th March, and will run until 1st September 2015 at the British Library. Click here for more information!

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE