You can't exactly call it a reunion—the four surviving original Magna Cartas had never before been in the same place. So instead, the British Library called it a "unification event" today when the priceless documents were put on display together for the first time. The event marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which established the timeless principle that no individual, even a monarch, is above the law. The original Magna Carta manuscripts were written and sealed in late June and early July 1215, then sent individually throughout England, making today's unification unique. "It's a real moment in history," says Julian Harrison, the library's curator of medieval manuscripts. "Magna Carta has significance not just in England but worldwide. Many people regard it as the foundation of the rule of law. It established key principles [that] have resonated worldwide."
In 1215, 40 rebellious barons came together to declare their rights to King John, and he reluctantly consented to their demands to try to avoid civil war. The Magna Carta included acknowledgments that taxes can't be arbitrary and that free men can't be imprisoned without first being judged by peers or the law. Within weeks, the pope voided the agreement, and England was thrown into war (the document was later incorporated into English law). Officials said the unification will give the public, as well as scholars and medieval manuscript experts, a chance to scrutinize and compare the documents. Some 1,215 people—randomly selected from more than 43,000 applicants from more than 20 countries—will get to see the Magna Cartas tomorrow. Two of the documents were already housed at the library; the other two will return to their homes in the Lincoln and Salisbury cathedrals after the three-day event. (Read more Magna Carta stories.)