The British comedian Tony Hancock, when exasperated at any suggested attack on his citizen rights, would cry out, "And what of Magna Carta? Did she die in vain?"
Hancock wasn't the only British champion of just cause to misconceive the identity of this foundational constitutional document. Prime Minister David Cameron, just a few months ago, knew the meaning of "Magna Carta" when quizzed by David Letterman on The Late Show, but he stumbled somewhat in translating those two words. At least the PM, unlike Hancock, didn't confuse the Magna Carta with some rallying Boadicea or Virgin Queen.
These anecdotes help make a point. The British are none too animated by the significance of the Great Charter in their own historical development and legacy of liberty, and it will be interesting to see just how excited they are by the 2015 octocentenary of this document, which placed the first limit on an English monarch's powers. Certainly the even-more-resonant 750th anniversary passed somewhat unnoticed in a 1965 United Kingdom.
However, this British ignorance, or disinterest, is accentuated by the relative fascination with the Magna Carta here in the United States. Of the four extant original Magna Carta documents held in the UK -- in the towns of Hereford, Lincoln and Salisbury and at the British Library in London -- two have headed to the U.S. for exhibition this year. A splendid exhibition of early medieval life surrounded the presentation of the Magna Carta held by Hereford Cathedral at the Houston Museum of Natural Science earlier in 2014. And this week the appropriately titled "Lincoln" Magna Carta is sending out its constitutional vibes from the Library of Congress in an exhibition just opened by one of bad King John's very good descendants, HRH Princess Anne, the princess royal.
Why the heightened interest here in the U.S. when even Britain's greatest explorer of history -- Shakespeare, of course -- failed to even mention the Magna Carta in his 1596 play King John?
Britain, famously, has no written constitution but has assembled its protocols of governance in a somewhat ad hoc, common-law, experiential manner over many centuries of constitutional change. Certainly there is no documentary shrine at the British Library or Archives or at Westminster to compare with the hallowed public draws in Philadelphia and D.C.
In contrast, the U.S. is a country whose meaning and resilience is articulated through the powerful rhetoric of its foundational documents, which iconically provide the uniting language that makes its states cohere as the United States. The Magna Carta, as an earlier document that was determinedly echoed in those 18th-century founding U.S. papers, enables a still relatively young country to reach back another five and a half centuries for its legitimizing legacy. Long before the frontier across the Atlantic was found, the principles of those self-evident truths were already germinating, in a historical tussle between the barons and a distant ancestor of George III.
And perhaps it's that regal-aristocratic tussle that also appeals to the modern American sensibility. There is much cultural hermeneutic to be evinced from U.S. audiences' current passion for Downton Abbey and all that it suggests about U.S. atavistic enthusiasm for the ravages and ravishings of a class system. The goings on at Runnymede in 1215 were the first stirrings of the Lord Granthams positioning themselves anew in the feudal power structure, and, though the tectonic plates of class warfare have shifted totally in subsequent centuries, it was the Magna Carta that started the game.
So we Brits pay humble acknowledgement to American interest in an iconic document we share as legacy and, as the Magna Carta is newly exhibited in the greatest library of state in the world, we rejoice again that, indeed, she did not die in vain.