When Magna Carta Came to Portland

By Adair Law

With Magna Carta turning 800 on June 15, 2015, it is worth remembering that an original Magna Carta just missed celebrating its 771st birthday in Portland, Oregon.  In July 1986, the Lincoln Cathedral’s copy of a 1215 Magna Carta (one of four remaining copies–one at Salisbury Cathedral and two at the British Library), came to Portland for the start of an extended visit in the United States. Aside from a trip to the New York World’s Fair in 1939, it was the only other time the document had left the Lincoln Cathedral (which was established in 1072 by William the Conqueror).

And how did Magna Carta fetch up in Portland? Lincoln-born but Portland-based Paul Parker was home visiting his parents. His father was a former canon at Lincoln Cathedral, and Paul bumped into his father’s colleague, the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Rev. Oliver Twistleton-Wyckham-Fiennes. Parker chatted away and this line of conservation came up: “Wouldn’t it be nice if Magna Carta could come to visit Portland?”

A few years later, with the assistance of Melvin Mark, Thomas Vaughan of the Oregon Historical Society, contributions from the state, numerous foundations, and corporations, Reverend Fiennes escorted the document to Portland in a water-, fire-, bullet-, bomb-proof container.  It was on display at the Oregon Historical Society, July 14 (yes, Bastille Day) through November 4, the start of a national tour called “Magna Carta: Liberty Under the Law” which extended into the bicentennial celebration of the Constitution.  Lifetime USDCHS member Caroline Stoel and Ann B. Clark co-authored an accompanying book by the same title.

In the build up to the exhibition, sponsor Fred Meyer, Inc. had a Magna Carta float in the Rose Festival Parade. At a July 4 Medieval Faire at Sauvie Island, the newest member of the Oregon Supreme Court, Justice Michael Gillette, played the role of a drinking, coughing King John placing his seal on Magna Carta before a crowd of several hundred. The price of admission to see the exhibition was three dollars, free if you were an OHS member. Light levels around the document were low, with an alarm sounding if the light was stronger than 10 foot candles.  Magna Carta continued its journey through Oregon with brief stops in Eugene and Jacksonville.