Magna Carta, or ‘Great Charter’, is a document of fundamental importance and is considered central in the development of our democracy. By forcing King John to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, the rebellious barons brought about the most direct challenge to a monarch's authority to date. The three main points of Magna Carta concerned the right of the church to make appointments without external interference; the right of feudal tenants to approve extraordinary taxes and (perhaps most famously) it enshrined the principle that no freeman could be deprived of liberty or property except by due process of law and the judgement of his peers.
Today’s visitors to Parliament can see gilt metal statues of the barons and prelates who helped to secure the sealing of Magna Carta at high level inside the House of Lords Chamber. The 18 Magna Carta statues by nine different sculptors formed part of the decoration of Charles Barry’s New Palace of Westminster, built after the fire of 1834.
The Magna Carta statues were originally intended to be cast in bronze but the high cost meant that a cheaper alternative had to be found. The solution was casting each figure in sections in zinc, which were then electroplated with copper and patinated to resemble gilded bronze. They were cast by Moore Fressange & Co and Elkington, Mason & Co, and the gilt work was undertaken by Frederick Draycott. The statues were installed in the House of Lords in the late 1850s.
One of the barons who forced King John to accept Magna Carta was Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex and Gloucester (d.1144). He had married the King’s cast-off wife, Isabella, possibly unwillingly, and had been forced to pay for the privilege. The ruinous fine of 20,000 marks imposed on the Earl of Gloucester contributed to his sense of grievance against the King.
The statue of the Earl of Gloucester was sculpted by James Sherwood Westmacott (1823-1900), who also sculpted the Earl of Winchester. The statue is currently on display as part of the British Library’s ‘Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy’ exhibition which runs until 1 September. The exhibition marks the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta and explores the history, myth and legacy of this world-famous document which underpins many other constitutions around the world. Parliament’s statue of the Earl of Gloucester plays a central role in examining the role of Magna Carta during the Victorian period.
As part of a year-long series of events celebrating ‘Parliament in the Making’, the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta is one of 18 subjects interpreted by contemporary artists for a large-scale banner exhibition currently on display in Westminster Hall.
Image: 'Baron Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex and Gloucester' (detail), 1848-53, copper, with gilding, by James Sherwood Westmacott (WOA S40)