In search of the Magna Carta
Why the Magna Carta
I hope that anyone reading this article has at least heard of the magna carta. I do not intend to reference books and websites only to regurgitate them here in another hash at this well worn topic. Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Brittanica do a much better job. The value I bring is the prersonal story. What I saw, what I discovered and whether anyone finds that interesting. I seemed to have achieved a modicum of success with my articles on King Richard III and beg the readers forbearance as I attempt the same with King John. I seem to have chosen some of the less popular kings to glorify, I put that down to good fortune since they play a bigger role on the stage of history than some of the other more benign in their number.
So without further ado, lets get started...
King Johns Tomb
Who was King John
King John also known as John Lackland was the fifth son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. To a great extent he was overshadowed by his father and older brothers especially Richard the Lionheart. What a thorn in his side must that great king have been with his crusades and battle glory. His other three brothers died young so that on Richard's death, John ascended the throne in 1199. Much of his reign was occupied trying to regain his lost empire in France but he was hopelessly defeated by the more able Philip II on more than one occasion. It was the financing of these wars, John's personal expensive tastes and the many laws passed of a spiteful nature that brought things to a head in 1215. As is well known the baron's grievances were summed up in the article, signed by the king and then afterwards completely reneged upon. Nevertheless this small document written on sheeps skin became the foundation of democratic law around the world in the intervening 800 years and remains relevant and cited today.
The Display at Worcester Cathedral
I decided that the best place to start was at the tomb of the man himself. After his death at Newark Castle, John had left instructions to be buried at Worcester and that is where he lies to this day. Worcester Cathedral does not have the Magna Carta but it has a wonderful display of everything you could wish to know about the famous article. And they have the man himself who, while he remains the worst king of England, is seen in a slightly softer light today.
I arrived at Lincoln excited to see one of our most beautiful cathedrals and was reminded just how huge she is. The central tower rises magnicently and the west window is buried in a cacophony of styles and statues. Inside I wound my way up the north aisle and through the fantastic chapter house.
I stopped at the magna carta facsimile on display in a protective case as if it were the original. It was explained that the original is currently kept in the castle. This is also the magna carta that travels the world on display.
I continued round and ended up back at the west front before passing through the gate into Lincoln itself where I had supper at a tavern called the Magna Carta.
My final stop on my journey was Salisbury. The cathedral to me is one of the finest with its grand spire and the way it is set apart from the town allowing for some great uncluttered photos. There was a service taking place as I arrived and the nave was alive with people. I made a bee line for the chapterhouse where the Magna Carta was on display in a tent that shielded it from the bright light. I had to to line up to get inside but it was really worth it. This was the real thing, the real macoy and I was not going to pass up this chance.
So here I was before the great document itself. First observations were how small it was and how dark the ink. Written on sheep hide this one of twelve produced ( four survive, two in the British Library and one at Lincoln) this little document had survived 800 years almost unchanged. So the question came out. The answer it seems was part care and part chance. Unlike the Lincoln copy, the Salisbury Magna Carta has rarely left the cathedral and when it has left, it has remained within the city. But the luck was also in the scribe who wrote it. All the scribes were responsible for their own ink supplies and evidence suggests that as they worked down the sheet and their ink ran low, they diluted it with water and carried on in a gradually paler and paler colour. Not so the Salisbury scribe, he made more ink and the last word is as dark as the first.
King John's Legacy
So what are we to make of this King John, history shows that he was an able administrator but mislead by his own views of kingship and what he could do. He certainly tipped the balance when he overtaxed the barons. He certainly upset the church when he was excommunicated over a disagreement about who should be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. The former produced the Magna Carta, the latter contributed to the Tudor reformation. As Churchill said:
"When the long tally is added, it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns."
The Magna Carta Effect
I do not consider myself a history scholar and do not think there is value saying here what others have already said. Rightly or wrongly I always like to make this section my personal view. The magna carta, for years has been a document that for me was deep in the past, signed by a devious king but which established the route that our fledgling democracy would take. Few of its laws apply today but it was the first document to put the king under the rule of law. For that alone we must be thankful.
I am also now beginning to see what a profound effect modern social media and technology is having in redefining all such anniversaries. The internet as we know it is still only 20 to 25 years old and its use as a social media tool perhaps only fifteen years, indeed after the brakes of Y2K came off development, web technology has blossomed exponentially somewhat akin to the growth of the railways in the 1840's.
So what we are seeing here is a major event in history being reworked for the social media age. I remember the Shakespeare festival in 1964 celebrating 450 year of the death of the bard. Some famous stamps, a tv programme or two, in the daily papers. Not so today. As we saw with Richard III's reinterment, the 800th anniversary of the magna carta has become a media event. I prticular through twitter, facebook and the online media. Everything is dicussed and events arranged through thi modern media. It only remains to be seen over the next 100 years as the various anniversaries pass, how this technological monster will treat each one.
As for the magna carta, it is now probably in more minds than it ever was before. More people know what it stands for, what it represents and why it is so important. If knowledge is enlightenment then modern media has served us well. I the magna carta started the path to curbing absolute power the we should treasure it as if our very lives depended on it. I will never forget looking down on a frail little parchment in the beautiful chapterhouse of Salisbury. We owe a huge debt of thanks to that diligent scribe with his little inkpots.