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Magna Carta and Salisbury Cathedral: Human Rights and Vintage Postcards

Updated on October 1, 2012
One of the original copies of the Charter
One of the original copies of the Charter

What say the reeds at Runnymede?

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Your rights were won at Runnymede!
No freeman shall be fined or bound,
Or dispossessed of freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgement found
And passed upon him by his peers.
Forget not, after all these years,
The Charter signed at Runnymede.'

- from the poem “What say the reeds at Runnymede” by Rudyard Kipling.

One original copy of “The Charter signed at Runnymede” on which much of the concept of human rights, at least in the western world, is based, is kept in the chapter house of Salisbury Cathedral in the county of Wiltshire, in the ecclesiastical province of Canterbury, England, some distance from Runnymede which is on the banks of the Thames River near London in the county of Surrey.

The Magna Carta copy came to be in Salisbury because among those present at the signing of the charter between the Barons and King John I of England in 1215 was one Elias of Dereham, who later became a member of the Chapter of Salisbury Cathedral and supervised much of its construction. At the time of the signing of the Charter Elias was given the task of taking on of the four copies made and publicising it around England.

So this Hub is about two stories – one is the source document on human rights in the western world, and the other is the medieval Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of unique design and great beauty, a place of prayer and pilgrimage for almost eight Centuries.

Map of the counties of England
Map of the counties of England

Magna Carta Libertatum

The Magna Carta (properly called Magna Carta Libertatum ) ended the so-called “divine right” by which the monarch could rule in England up to that time, and put an early form of the rule of law in place to limit the actions of the King by giving the Barons and nobles certain rights.

One of the most important principles written into the Charter was that of habeas corpus or to give it its full title: habeas corpus ad subjiciendu. This right, which derives (for those who want to look them up!) from Clauses 36, 38, 39 and 40, was in fact first invoked in a court case in 1305.

Habeas corpus is a key principle of the rule of law as it places limits on arbitrary or capricious actions by legal authorities or rulers. Indeed one of the first actions of governments wanting to limit the rights of their citizens is to suspend (where it exists) the right of habeas corpus . This was the case in South Africa when the apartheid regime began its programme of curtailing all citizens rights “legally.”

So Salisbury Cathedral should be held in high regard by all who love and honour liberty!

King Henry II
King Henry II
The sanctuary of the Cathedral in a J. Arthur Dixon postcard
The sanctuary of the Cathedral in a J. Arthur Dixon postcard

The Cathedral

But the Cathedral has other claims on one's regard – its position in the architectural history of England and its beauty.

The Cathedral also holds a special place in ecclesiastical history because of its links to “Old Sarum” one of the oldest settlements in all of England, dating back some 5000 years. During the Roman occupation of Britain it was used by them as a military station, called on their maps Sorviodunum.

In 1086 all the notables of England were summoned to Old Sarum to pay homage to William the Conqueror, and the town, by this time quite large for its time, was listed in the famous Domesday Book as “Sarisburia.”

Old Sarum was not always peaceful however, and Eleanor of Aquitaine was held prisoner there for 15 years by her husband, King Henry II, the first Plantagenet monarch of England and great-grandson of the Conqueror. Unfortunately the Magna carta had not yet been signed so poor Eleanore could not benefit from habeas corpus !

But more to the point of our story, conflict arose between the church authorities and the military at Old Sarum, leading the Bishop, Richard Poore, to request permission to relocate the Cathedral to a new site on the banks of the Avon River, inevitably called “New Sarum” at first, but later called Salisbury.

There is a legend that the good Bishop, in order to decide where to build his new seat, shot an arrow in the general direction in which he wanted to move. This arrow apparently hit a deer which finally died and where it died the Bishop built his Cathedral. No animals' rights movements in those days, apparently!

The Cathedral itself is unique among English Cathedrals because it took only about 38 years to complete, from 1220 to 1258, as against the more usual couple of hundred. As a result, the architectural style is more coherent than that of any of the other Gothic Cathedrals in England.

The famous painting by Constable. The Bishop and his wife can be seen in the bottom left hand corner
The famous painting by Constable. The Bishop and his wife can be seen in the bottom left hand corner
Old Sarum painted by Constable
Old Sarum painted by Constable
The Bishop's portrait painted by Constable
The Bishop's portrait painted by Constable
The Salisbury Meadows
The Salisbury Meadows

Constable and the Cathedral

The Gothic style of architecture lasted from the middle of the 12th Century up to the beginning of the Renaissance in the 15th Century, and was characterised chiefly by the introduction of the pointed arch, a design feature which derived from the architecture of the Middle East. For example the great mosques of Samarra in Iraq and Ibn Tulun in Cairo made early use of this feature.

As a style Gothic was not monolithic and went through several phases, generally called Early English (1180 to 1275); Decorated (1275 to 1380) and Perpendicular (1380 – 1520), although these periods are more stylistic than strictly chronological.

Salisbury Cathedral is almost completely in the Early English style, characterised by the use of lancet, or slender, pointed arch, windows.

The chapter house in which the Magna carta copy is kept, is an octagonal building with a slender central pillar and a decorative frieze on the interior, depicting biblical scenes.

The Cathedral also had a clock without a face (it only chimed the hours), a clock which is now in the Science Museum in London. The clock itself dates from about 1386 and is in full working order, making it the oldest working clock in the world.

The Cathedral has long attracted artists, among them the famous landscape painter John Constable, by its physical beauty. Constable, possibly best-loved for his painting The Hay Wain of 1821, was commissioned by his friend the Bishop of Salisbury, John Fisher, to paint the Cathedral, which he did, as well as a portrait of the good Bishop.

Constable also painted a view of Old Sarum.

At the Bishop's death Constable was asked to do another painting of the Cathedral, which he did, the painting being called “Salisbury meadows. “ In it Constable painted a rainbow with it end over the late Bishop's house in the Cathedral Close.

The envelope
The envelope
The divided back of the postcards
The divided back of the postcards

The Postcards

What prompted my research into all of these things was the discovery among my late father's things of a set of six photogravure divided back postcards of the Cathedral. Photogravure is an intaglio printing process in which a mechanised process of etching plates for the printing is used.

The postcards are in almost mint condition with no writing on them and neither were they postally used. They were printed and published by Photo-Precision Ltd., of St Albans. They are still in their original envelope with the price marked in pencil: 1 shilling.

The backs of the cards have a very pretty rose blossom and leaves design at the top with the words “English Series” incorporated into the design.

The Postcards

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    • Finbarr Bergeuse profile image

      Finbarr Bergeuse 

      9 years ago from South East England

      I live ten minutes from Runnymede. Nowadays everyone associates with the JFK memorial as much as Magna Carta. Good old Britain/England, we had to rely on the American Bar Association to pay for the memorial to Magna Carta!

      I will say one thing...Allegri's Misere Mei Dominus is a beautiful piece from the Davidic psalms... it is worth while comparing the different versions available. Always best with boy soprano rather than female though!

    • electricians st profile image

      electricians st 

      9 years ago from uk

      lovely hub, nice to see someone taking so much trouble to something so nice about the magna carta, king henry and englands heritage

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for all the comments. I enjoyed looking up all the stuff about the magna carta and the Cathedral.

      Love and peace


    • LondonGirl profile image


      9 years ago from London

      what a fantastic combination of stuff! I love the old cards, especially.

    • Jennifer Bhala profile image

      Jennifer Bhala 

      9 years ago from Upstate New York

      Very interesting and informative and well written. Thanks for the info. I enjoyed reading it.

      They sure did create magnificent buildings back then. Extraordinary excellence and beauty and look how long they last.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      "Great hub an excellent read!"

      "Two thumbs up"

      CEO E.S.A.H.S. Association

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 

      9 years ago from Central New Jersey

      This wonderful hub brings back some personal memories. Years ago, before they put a fence around Stonehenge, my husband and I went first to Stonhenge and then into Salisbury to visit the cathedral. It was quite a wonderful and memorable day. I remember particularly how Stonehenge seemed to rise up out of nowhere suddenly and was visible from a long way away. The catherdrel too was absolutely beautiful. I don't remember seeing the magna carta, but I do remember the tombs, side chapels and stained glass--quite wonderful. Of course we had seen Constable's paintings and that was part of why we wanted to go to Salisbury in the first place.

      Thanks for the trip down memory land. The postcards are wonderful too BTW.

    • Teresa McGurk profile image


      9 years ago from The Other Bangor

      There is a lot of interesting material here -- from the Magna Carta itself to the cathedral. I just finished reading T.H. White's The Once and Future King series, in which he fictionalizes the replacement of "fort mayne" with a rule of law, much as the Magna Carta itself achieved. While the novels are of course pure fiction, their depiction of some of the vagaries of medieval thinking being replaced with Renaissance procedure is valid. The cathedral is awesome. I had no idea there were working clocks so early -- amazing. Thanks for this wonderful hub.

    • Russ Baleson profile image

      Russ Baleson 

      9 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom

      Hi Tony, once again two of my favourite places. Runnymede is about twenty minutes from where I live and I love the vast, lush fields alongside the river especially in Summer. The cathedral, about an hour away, is magnificent! There has been some some major restoration work over the past few years and it is in excellent condition. Hearing the choir and organ in the setting (imagine the postcards in sparkling glorious colour) is an unforgettable experience. Thanks. Russ


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