by Suzanne Labry
The Magna Carta Quilt
On June 15th, 1215, King John of England reluctantly put his seal to an agreement between the crown and 25 feudal barons that would bring an end to the absolute power of English sovereigns.
By holding the monarchy accountable to the law and protecting due process, this document, known as the Magna Carta (Latin for “the Great Charter”), has guided the fundamental principles of common law in constitutions throughout the world for the past 800 years.
As might be expected with such an important piece of history, the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary was celebrated with much fanfare last year. And also not surprisingly, quilters added to the observance in the way that quilters do: by making quilts.
Not just any quilters and not just any quilts, though, mind you. The Magna Carta Quilters all share an association with Runnymede, England, the place where the Magna Carta was sealed eight centuries ago. The special quilts the group created not only illustrate the history behind the document, they also underscore its legacy as a global foundation for human rights.
The eight 60” x 80” Magna Carta quilts are displayed together as panels in a 30l’ x 5w’ x 7h’-screen. Four “Medieval” quilts tell the story of the Magna Carta in the style of a graphic novel based on 13th-century illuminated manuscripts, starting with the death of Richard the Lionheart and ending with the ascension of King Henry III.
Four “Legacy” quilts show four oak trees appliquéd onto a background of hexagons. The hexagons represent not only traditional English patchwork but also pay homage to Runnymede meadow’s history as a beekeeping area.
The leaves of the trees feature images and quotes from 80 key figures in the human rights movement around the world. The quilts are displayed with the Medieval and Legacy quilts alternating at 90-degree angles to one another. The quilt backs form a continuous mosaic outline of the stretch of the River Thames where the meadow of Runnymede is located.
Since the unveiling of the Magna Carta quilts at the Great Charter Festival art exhibition held at Royal Holloway University of London from June 14th to June 16th, 2015, they have been on tour in locations throughout England and the United States. The compelling concept, rendered in beautiful workmanship and bold colors, is truly a unique and fitting tribute to one of the most significant historical documents in the English-speaking world.
The Magna Carta quilts were featured at the 2015 International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas, and then went on display at the Texas Quilt Museum and the recent International Quilt Festival in Chicago.
One visitor who saw the quilts at the Museum had a special link to the Magna Carta. James Oberg, a noted former NASA space engineer who specialized in space shuttle operations for orbital rendezvous, and who traces his family’s interest genealogy back to his maternal grandmother, was delighted to recognize some family history.
“In the magnificent Magna Carta Quilt Exhibition, the coats of arms of some signers and some of the characters stitched into history are my distant ancestors: William Malet and William Marshall. I am very proud of the connection – undoubtedly a connection I share with probably hundreds or thousands of other people,” Oberg says.
“Nonetheless, the connection – though distant — is illustrious, and something to be fascinated with. Three of the men involved with the Magna Carta in 1215, unrelated to each other at that time, wound up to have offspring who married and led to many families—probably thousands—but one line in particular had a paper trail—my own.”