The Magna Carta …. and all that

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 …….

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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!

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  The 1297 Bruton Magna Carta on display in Canberra, Australia

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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?”

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Middle Temple and Temple Church

ONE OF THE four Inns of Court in London is Middle Temple – or more formally known as the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple. The other three are Inner Temple, Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn, all in close proximity of each other, and they are where barristers work and, in some cases, live – in fact, in the early days it was were many of them did live communally, hence the name ‘Inn’. Middle and Inner Temple were once referred to as Middle Inn and Inner Inn of the Temple. I’m only going to talk about Middle Temple because it’s my Inn of Court, so there.

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Middle Temple Hall

 It’s called Middle Temple because the land it stands upon was once owned by the Knights Templars. In fact, the Temple Church which stand in the grounds today (see below) was built by them in 1185. The Knights Templar (they were mainly English and French) came into existence 895 years ago almost exactly. How many days more depends when you are reading this as it was Christmas Day 1119 that nine knights took monastic vows to protect pilgrims travelling from Western Europe to the Holy lands of the Levant. This was as a result of conflict between Christians and Muslims (nothing much has changed in nearly 1000 years). These knights were initially called the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon – Knights Templar for short. They came to an end in 1312 (Friday 13th October in fact – hence Friday 13th being supposedly bad luck) when King Philip IV of France, who was in with the Pope Clement V, persuaded the General Council of Rome to suppress the Order of the Templars. Philip was in great financial debt to the Templars – get rid of the Templars, get rid of the debt. Nice one Phil. It’s not what you know …… Anyway, in England the Templar properties were given to another military monastic order, the Hospitallers (or Knights of St John). For more on Templars click here.

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Cutting a long story short, the King’s courts moved from York to Westminster in 1339 and the judges needed to be nearby – and that is when the four Inns of Court were set up. At that time it was judges of the Inns that ‘Called’ advocates to the Bar to follow them in the King’s court (then the Common Pleas or Commons Bench). These advocates were called serjeants-at law (servientes ad legem) but they ‘went-out-of-use’ in the late 19th century and were replaced by senior barristers known as Queen’s Counsel (QC) and junior barristers (who are all ‘Called’ into their respective Inns).

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Middle Templar Lord Lindley was the last sergeant-at-law to be appointed – he became a QC in 1874

Middle Temple was rented to the lawyers by the Hospitallers until the Reformation of Henry VIII in the 16th century. The Crown then became its landlord until the reign of James I in 1608 when it obtained clear title to the land. Hooorah! Sir Walter Raleigh was a Middle Templar; Sir France Drake was not – but the cover hatch to his Golden Hind is still used today as the table to which Middle Temple barristers are Called to the Bar having qualified. Fine piece of useless trivia. And more – William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed in Middle Temple in 1602 (there are several ‘Inn’ jokes to be found in the play).

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 Hatch of the Golden Hind used a a table but actually called the ‘cupboard’ (don’t ask)

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Western interior of Middle Temple hall for dinning  … smart, eh?

Middle Temple Hall was built between 1562 and 1574 under the guidance of the Treasurer, Edmund Plowden. He employed the services of Sir John Thynne’s chief carpenter, John Lewis, to construct the hammer-beam roof (similar to the one he had created at Longleat). By the late 16th century the four Inns of Court were known as the third University (after Oxford and Cambridge, of course) and Middle Temple was the centre of education for potential lawyers of that Inn (and children of the nobility). Much of the learning was achieved by attending moots (mock trials) and dinners to discuss law – both traditions still continue today wherein student barristers have to attend 12 dinners in Hall before they can be Called to the Bar and mooting is a competitive activity.

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Edmund Plowden (1518-85)

During the Second World War, on 15th October 1940, a landmine on a parachute destroyed the eastern gable of Hall and the Elizabethan minstrel’s gallery. It was painstakingly restored and reopened in July 1949. In fact, Middle Temple as a whole suffered quite badly due to bombing during the war – it lost 122 of its 285 sets of chambers (sets of ‘offices’ where barrister work). But it’s all better now.

The eastern gable and minstrel’s gallery in Hall ………  1christodoulou-beresford-war-damage-to-hallbefore (in October 1940)   (painting by Frank Beresford now hanging in the minstrel’s gallery)       

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…. and after (that’s Plowden’s statue in the middle)

You can also hire the Hall and for more info on the place click here

Temple Church

As mentioned above, Temple Church was built in 1185 and is one of the oldest churches in London. Templar churches were always built to a circular design to remind the Templars of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, which has a round dome above the site of the sepulchre where Jesus was buried. The church is still used today as a place of worship by both Middle and Inner Temple members and guests on Sundays. It’s well worth a visit and it’s open most days to the public.

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Temple Church 

The film buffs among you will recognize it from its appearance in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Hanks & Co are looking in the church following the clue: “In London lies a knight a Pope interred. His labour’s fruit a Holy wrath incurred. You seek the orb that ought be on his tomb. It speaks of Rosy flesh and seeded womb.” I forget what they found – other than trouble, but ‘the knight a Pope interred’ would have been one of the effigies of the Knights Templars that are on the floor of the circular part of the church. They include William Marshall, first Earl of Pembroke, and his son, William Marshall, second Earl of Pembroke. The first earl was chief adviser to King John and regent to Henry III until he came of age; the second earl was a witness to King John signing the Magna Carta in 1215 (more on that next week).

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Effigies of Knights Templars in Temple Church (situated in the circular part) – the Marshalls are far right background

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The Earls of Pembroke (dad to the left)

Next week: it will be 2015 – 800 years since the Magna Carta …..


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 received a letter from my good friend Joshua Barts-Hofner, a bit of a wit and jolly good rugger player. The letter read as follows:

My dear Artemus,

It was our thirtieth wedding anniversary last week and my adorable lady-wife asked me to describe her after all these years. I looked at her for a while, then said, “You’re an alphabet wife ….. A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K.”

She asked … “What on earth does that mean?”

I said, “Adorable, Beautiful, Cute, Delightful, Elegant, Fabulous, Gorgeous, and Hot”.

She smiled happily and said … “Oh, that’s so lovely, but what about I, J, K?”

I said, “I’m Just Kidding!”

The swelling in my eye is going down and I’m darn glad I took out dental insurance.

Yours, etc

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