LONDON (AFP) - The four surviving original Magna Carta copies went on display together Monday for the first time as Britain marks the 800th anniversary of a manuscript which has defined rights and liberties around the world.
Considered the cornerstone of freedom, modern democracy, justice and the rule of law, the English document forms the basis for legal systems across the globe, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the US constitution.
In June 1215, the wayward king John agreed to the demands of rebellious barons to curb his powers and sealed the charter at Runnymede, a meadow by the River Thames west of London.
At the British Library in London, the two priceless copies held by the institution were joined by those from Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals for a unification event this week that few will get to witness.
A total of 1,215 people - drawn from a ballot of more than 40,000 people from 20-plus countries - have won the chance to see the four originals together on Tuesday. World-leading Magna Carta experts get the chance to study them side by side on Wednesday.
"Today is a really exciting day: the first time ever we have brought together the four surviving original copies of Magna Carta," Claire Breay, the library's head of medieval manuscripts, told AFP.
"It established that the king was subject to the law and it's been used in the centuries since it was granted as a defence against arbitrary and unjust rulers.
"And, of course, it has enormous symbolic importance as a symbol of rights and justice and freedom around the world."
PRINCIPLES FUELLED ARAB SPRING
With each copy framed in individual glass cases, the four manuscripts were installed together behind thick glass on Sunday in the British Library's Treasures gallery.
The four parchments will be moved to parliament for a private display Thursday, before returning to their respective homes for a year of celebrations honouring a document that still has resonance eight centuries on.
Nearly a third of the text was dropped or substantially rewritten within 10 years and almost all the 63 clauses have been repealed, with three remaining in English law.
However, the principles that justice should be available to all, the law applies equally to all and leaders can only exercise power in accordance with the law continue to be fought for in many parts of the world.
"No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseized or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go and send against him except by the lawful judgement of his peers by the law of the land," it states in Latin.
"To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice." The Magna Carta Trust, which looks after the memorial site in Runnymede, believes the charter's importance is growing.
"800 years on, Magna Carta's best days lie ahead," it said.
"As an idea of freedom, democracy and the rule of law, it is lapping against the shores of despotism.
"The principles set out in Magna Carta have driven the Arab Spring and the continuing protests against despotism around the world."
CHARTER LINKED TO PROSPERITY
They extend well beyond the world's common law jurisdictions such as the United States, India and Australia which inherited England's legal system.
Lawyer David Wootton, a former lord mayor of London - a role representing the city's business heartland - said English law was the "common currency" of global business deals precisely due to the safeguards derived from Magna Carta.
"Investors regard their money as safe here (in London) because of the protections in the legal system," he said.
"There is a close relationship between economic development, societal development and the quality of a country's legal system."
Events are being held across England throughout 2015 to mark the anniversary, including a major international commemoration event at Runnymede on June 15.
Exhibitions, debates, conferences, church services, lectures, charity dinners, theatre performances, tourist trails, village fetes, and even a national peal of bells are planned.