THE MAGNA CARTA was signed 800 years ago (well almost) on 15th June 1215. It means, of course, Great Charter. In fact it was so great that it was redundant by the middle of September of the same year, after having been annulled by Pope by letters dated the 24th August. But it did live on …….
King John (reign 1199-1216)
Basically King John was a bit of a tyrant king, wanting supreme power over the Church and his barons. Being very silly, by 1204, he had lost most of his ancestral lands in France to Philip II and so he raised taxes on his barons to ‘save-up’ for a conquest of France to retrieve these lands. Result: very miffed barons. It didn’t help that John was a bit naughty with some of these barons’ wives and daughters but we won’t go there. The barons in the north and east of England ganged together taking an oath to ‘stand fast for the liberty of the church and the realm’ and raised their ‘We Hate John’ banners. Civil war was looming.
Philip II of France (reign 1180-1223)
John took an oath to become a crusader trusting that such an action would put him in favour with the Church (remember the Knight Templar crusader monks last week) – or, at least give him some protection under church (papal) law. I bet he had his fingers crossed behind his back when he took that oath.
King John’s seal used to sign the Magna Carta and other documents making other promises he wouldn’t keep
Anyway, to avoid civil war, John and his barons met at Runnymede to sign the Magna Carta which had been drawn up by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was an agreement of 63 clauses including the protection of church rights, prevention of unlawful imprisonment of barons, swift access to justice and limitations on taxes and other feudal payments to the Crown. Any impeachment of terms by the King would be enforced by 25 barons (the ‘security clause’). It’s known as a liberty agreement but it only affected the higher ranking members of society – about 10-20% of the populace – so a democratic document it was not. In effect, the Magna Carta was a peace treaty between John and his rebel barons.
King John (reluctantly) signing the Magna Carta
Needless to say, it almost immediately encountered problems. Firstly, the barons refused to surrender London which they controlled; secondly, the agreement forbid an appeal to any higher authority but John complained to the Pope, Innocent III (ironically, because I don’t suppose John accepted the Pope as a higher authority), as Langton (above) refused to enforce an earlier excommunication against the rebel barons (why would he if they had come to a peaceful agreement?!). Thirdly, Langton refused to give up Rochester Castle which was strategically vital as it guarded the access to the coast and a defensive position for any possible invasion by the French at Dover (so John wanted control over it). Then, when the Pope read the Magna Carta he was not impressed, particularly with the ‘security clause’ which implied use of violence which made the agreement unlawful in canon (church) law. That was it and, in August, the Pope sent his papal bull letters denouncing the agreement presumably as a ‘load of old bull’ (sorry).
Pope Innocent III (1161-1216)
Civil war was inevitable as the barons were convinced (probably even prior to the signing of the charter) that John was going to be impossible to deal with. They allied with King Philip of France who sent them his son, the future Louis VII, to claim the English throne. Well, why not. The conflict achieved very little and John died in October 1216 leaving the crown to his nine year old son, Henry III (and if you remember last week, William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke was his regent). The charter was then resurrected – three times, in fact, during Henry’s reign – in 1216, 1217 and 1225 with Pembroke and the papal legate Guala sealing it whilst Henry was ‘under-age’. On each occasion certain modifications were made to it including the removal of the ‘security clause’. In 1253 it was first proclaimed to the public at large and, as well as its re-issue, Henry promised around a dozen or so times to uphold it. In 1297, Henry’s successor, his son Edward I, reissued the 1225 charter and guaranteed to comply with it on various occasions thereafter, as have the monarchs over the centuries ever since (okay, Charles I was a little difficult with it but there was no need to lose his head over it). It is this 1297 re-issue that sort of remains in force today.
Henry III (reign 1216-1272)
I say ‘sort of remains in force today’ because most of the clauses were repealed in Queen Victoria’s reign and a few more during the 20th century leaving, now, only four in force, 1, 13, 39 and 40. Clause 1 confirms that the English Church shall be free to elect its own dignitaries without royal interference; clause 13 grants ancient liberties and free customs (trade) by land and water and to all other cities and towns; clause 39 protects against unlawful imprisonment; clause 40 prevents a denial of justice. So there you have it – a great charter minus 59 of its original 63 clauses, although it had a great effect on future monarchs and their relationship with what was to become parliament. It stands for liberty, or, as the esteemed judge Lord Denning described it in 1964, ‘the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot’. Well, in principle anyway.
1216 Magna Carta in the British London
Many copies of the charter have been made over the centuries but there are very few of the ‘original copies’ around today. The ‘very original’ Magna Carta signed by John no longer exists but several copies were made for distribution around the realm. Only four of these 1215 copies still exist, two are in the British Library in London, one of which has suffered fire damage and is illegible but the only one to retain its seal (the other one, pictured above, was saved by the antiquarian, Sir Robert Cotton, from being cut up by his tailor for use as suit patterns). Another one is in Salisbury Cathedral, and the other in Lincoln Cathedral (both of these have been with these Cathedrals since 1215. One 1216 original remains and is at Durham Cathedral. Four 1217 editions still exist, three in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (one with William Marshall’s seal) and one at Hereford Cathedral. A 1225 edition (the ‘Lacock Magna Carta’) had been hidden under the floorboards of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire by its owner Miss Talbot in 1939 until 1945 and is now in the British Library. This one was to be loaned to the USA (the English setting up in the New World in the 17th century relied on the liberties of the Magna Carta) and a certain Lt-Cdr Douglas Fairbanks Jr USN set aside a public holiday as a result (such authority for a movie star!), but the loan required an Act of Parliament and Parliament couldn’t agree – nothing new there. However, fear not America, there is a 1297 one in the US which was sold by the Brudenell family (the earls of Cardigan), to the Perot Foundation in the US in 1985, who sold to a US businessman, David Rubenstein, for $21.3 million dollars, who then gave it on permanent loan to the National Archives in Washington. Well done that man.
The 1297 Rubenstein Magna Carta in Washington US
However, the 1297 Bruton Magna Carta was a bargain compared with the Rubenstein MC as it was sold at auction by the King’s School, Bruton, UK, to the Australian Government for only £12,500, although that was in 1952, and it is now on display in Parliament House in Canberra, Australia. It was not clear how the school came by this document – one suggestion was that it was simply found in a school desk in the 1936! The British Museum wanted to keep it but couldn’t afford it (they were thinking of offering around £2,500). Then there’s the ‘twist’ to the story. Later investigations revealed that the Bruton Magna Carta would have been part of a collection of documents, including a companion to the Magna Carta, the Forest Charter also of 1297 bearing the same sealing, owned by the nunnery at Eastbourne Priory in Sussex. On the dissolution of the monasteries the priory and its documents were transferred into private hands and the documents found their way into the possession of a solicitor, one John Louche of Drayton. In 1905, John Douche’s son granted all these documents to the British Museum. The documents included the 1297 Forest Charter but not the Magna Carta. It should have been among the documents being a companion to the same-year and same-sealed Forest Charter. It would appear that John Douche may have muddled up the priory documents at some point and the Magna Carta had been accidentally ‘filed’ away with papers that eventually found their way to King’s School Bruton. So, in reality, it was highly likely that the British Museum should have had the Magna Carta free of charge. Hmmm …… solicitors!
The 1297 Bruton Magna Carta on display in Canberra, Australia
Next week: Odd bods: the druid who created cremation ……
Artemus Smith’s Notebooks
I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:
I was acquainted (not by friendship I must add) with a solicitor of rather undesirable habits, one of which was his continual boasting of his powers of negotiation.
He met his match the other day with a good friend of mine, a barrister, Soames Maltravers.
Now Maltravers had a great legal mind and would charge £100 for each question he answered. The solicitor was determined to negotiate a better deal. He asked Maltravers, “Can I ask you two questions for £150?”
Maltravers responded, “Indeed you may. What’s the second question?”