Magna Bloody Carta
Turning Point in Democracy
Phyllis Irene Radford
I am a history geek. I freely admit it. Why else would I work so hard to major in history and walk out of a prestigious liberal arts college with a B.A? Collecting historical trivia is one of my vices. I even worked as assistant curator at a house museum in Oregon for four years. But I’m also a generalist. I know a little bit about a lot of things. All eras are fascinating, but there is something about medieval life that sucks me in and engages my imagination like no other.
So, when a copy of the Magna Carta—one of four originals extant—made a grand tour of the United States I made a point to visit it at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, Oregon.
As a member of the society I purchased advance tickets to a private viewing for members only the day before it opened to the public. I and a few thousand of my fellow enthusiasts stood in line for hours before the doors opened. I touched the ticket in my pocket like a magic talisman every ten minutes, making sure I hadn’t lost it (I’ve been known to do such things), or had my pocket picked by a desperate grad student.
Eventually a hush rippled through the crowd. The massive double doors opened. This was not a movie or sporting event where the crowd would anxiously surge forward to claim the best seats. These were respectful fans. We proceeded tentatively into the lobby of the new OHS building in downtown Portland. We were ushered, slowly, into orderly lines and allowed to enter the special exhibit hall one by one. More standing in line. Step by step we snaked toward our goal.
I noticed that the lights within the hall were dimmer, the moment I crossed the threshold. Small display cases lined the marked alleyway that had been set out in a maze. We saw garments and tools retrieved from archeological digs and carefully preserved. Grand but faded tapestries behind glass told stories of hunts and battles. Carefully edited texts told the story of the political and economic life in early 13th C. England. The events leading up to the signing of the Great Charter burst free of the shroud of distance and misconception.
With each turn through the maze the lights became dimmer, and our perceptions shrank to the level of a circle of candle light. Without the noise and bustle of modern life, I felt as if I had stepped back in time and I was watching history unfold.
A small sign explained that as we moved inward our eyes gradually adjusted to the lower light levels necessary to preserving the parchment and ink. A special case had been designed to seal the document in the perfect temperature and humidity to mitigate the effects of time.
And then I was there, standing in front of a slanted glass cover, my mouth gaped in awe at the thought of how close I stood to one of the most significant pieces of western European history, culture, and government. As US citizens we are direct inheritors of the innovative concepts laid out in those painfully constructed sentences of Latin.
I forgot to breathe.
Then security urged me to keep moving, give someone else a chance to bask in the wonder of history come to life. I know I wasn’t the only one who stood awestruck to gaze upon this simple document that changed so much during its own time and holds a lasting influence on modern government.
This was nearly thirty years ago, but the moment has stayed with me.
When the time came for me to write an historical fantasy about the events leading up to the signing of the Magna Carta I consulted my brother, Lt. Colonel (retired) James H. Radford, PhD., Professor of Political Science. His response? “Read the bloody thing and form your own opinion.” Yep, he’s a teacher.
As an amateur historian I had to add that the document should be read in the context of the era when it was written. I dragged out my neglected historian credentials and did just that.
And I included a copy in the back of Guardian of the Trust, Merlin’s Descendants #2, now available at Book View Café along with the other four books in the series: http://www.bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/book/guardian-of-the-trust/
Then several months ago, a rumor swept across the internet that some ultra-conservative politicians had shouted in public: “The U.S. Constitution isn’t good enough. We need to go back to the Magna Carta.” Our founding fathers were well aware of the Magna Carta and its significance. Many of the concepts of our U.S. Constitution derived from it. But is the Magna Carta better than the Constitution?
My first reaction was… um… Have you even read the Magna Carta? Not the version depicted in the movie rendition of Robin Hood portrayed by Russell Crowe. The real Magna Carta.
I have read it—in translation. My Latin is rudimentary at best.
So I embarked on a series of blogs in which I took the Magna Carta, clause by clause, and threw in a few of my own comments, but mostly made this amazing document fully accessible to readers in modern translation on a public forum. Now I have gathered those rambling blog posts into this book.
Hollywood and revisionist historians have turned the Magna Carta into a declaration of the rights of the common man.
It is in fact little more than an economic peace treaty between King John and his barons, with the Church making the third side of a triangle in the civil war. Please remember that separation of Church and State is a very modern concept, a heinous idea to the medieval mind.
Passages marked with * indicate the clause was removed from later editions, mostly when the Pope declared them invalid. A + indicates the paragraph was edited from the original in later editions. The numbering of the paragraphs is also a later addition.
The opening paragraph is mostly a list of names of those present at Runnemede that summer morning in 1215. It is interesting to note the number and variety of people represented. Those with titles listed all of their honors so there could be no mistake who they were and their authority to affix their names to such an important document.
John, by the grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justiciars, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and to all his bailiffs and liege subjects, greeting. Know that, having regard to God and for the salvation of our soul, and those of all our ancestors and heirs, and unto the honour of God and the advancement of holy church, and for the reform of our realm, by advice of our venerable fathers, Stephen Archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England and Cardinal of the holy Roman Church, Henry Archbishop of Dublin, William of London, Peter of Winchester, Jocelyn of Bath and Glastonbury, Hugh of Lincoln, Walter of Worcester, William of Coventry, Benedict of Rochester, bishops; of master Pandulf, Subdeacon and member of the household of our lord the Pope, of brother Aymeric [Master of the Knights of the Temple in England], and of the illustrious men William Marshall Earl of Pembroke, William Earl of Salisbury, William Warl of Warenne, William Earl of Arundel, Alan of Galloway [Constable of Scotland], Warren Fitz Gerald, Peter Fitz Herbert, Hubert de Burgh [Seneschal of Poitou], Hugh de Neville, Matthew Fitz Herbert, Thomas Basset, Alan Basset, Philip d’Aubigny, Robert of Roppesley, John Marshall, John Fitz Hugh, and others, our liegemen.
The original document does not have numbered clauses. The numbers were added later for easier editing and referencing. In many places similar issues are lumped together, but not always. This demonstrates the compilation-by-committee. Some historians feel that the first clause addressing Church rights was a last minute addition. But since parchment is not easy to cut and paste to rearrange data, it might have been added late to the draft, but not the final copy.
+1. In the first place we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs forever that the English church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed; which is apparent from this that the freedom of elections, which is reckoned most important and very essential to the English church, we, of our pure and unconstrained will, did grant, and did by our charter confirm and did obtain the ratification of the same from our lord, Pope Innocent III., before the quarrel arose between us and our barons: and this we will observe, and our will is that it be observed in good faith by our heirs forever. We have also granted to all freemen of our kingdom, for us and our heirs forever, all the underwritten liberties, to be had and held by them and their heirs, of us and our heirs forever.
This controversy began in 1204 with the death of Hubert, Archbishop of Canterbury. The monks of the cathedral had the right to elect their new archbishop, who was also the senior prelate in the kingdom. By ancient tradition, the kings of England had the right to make their choice for the new archbishop known, because the archbishop had to be a political as well as spiritual advisor to the monarchy. Most of the time, the king’s wishes were heeded.
King John advised the monks of Canterbury that he wished his secretary, John de Gray, Bishop of Norwich to be elevated to the role of primary prelate.
The monks had other ideas and elected one of their own, Prior Reginald.
The bishops of England contested this, thinking they should choose their archbishop.
Pope Innocent III selected a compromise candidate and consecrated Stephen Langdon, an Englishman educated in Rome who hadn’t set foot in England for decades.
John refused to allow Langdon to land in any English port or cross the border from Scotland. The monks of Canterbury stuck to their original decision and refused to accept him. The Bishops were delighted with him because he had the ear of the Pope.
Pope Innocent III excommunicated John for his impertinence in banning Langdon from English shores. John ignored him when he was expected to go down on his knees and beg forgiveness from God’s representative on earth. So the Pope brought out his most powerful weapon; he placed England under interdict. No masses could be sung. No marriages. No rituals, except baptism and funerals. Not burying a corpse was recognized as a health threat even then. And allowing a child to be born without the soul-saving ritual of holy water, sanctified oil, and priestly blessing was unthinkable.
According to the Pope and his advisors, the people of England should have risen in open rebellion against John at the danger to their immortal souls. They didn’t. Not at first anyway. Unless they lived within hearing distance of church bells to order the day, most rural residents wouldn’t notice the loss of their priest and rituals until he missed visiting their village on his annual circuit the second year in a row. When other issues reached the breaking point the barons and nobility of England used the loss of the Church as an excuse to rebel. But it took nearly ten years from the first spilt with the Church to come to the treaty.
With the first clause, John agrees that the Church should elect its own leaders. Today we say big deal. Before the separation of Church and State in the U.S. Constitution in 1789 the issue was not so simple. A king was not a king until his coronation in a cathedral with the archbishop presiding. Both were considered God’s representatives on earth. King and prelate worked together for the well-being of the land and the people. Inseparable.
The Church’s authority was actually more far reaching than the king’s in some cases. Ranking clerics could accuse, try, condemn, and execute a lay person for crimes against the Church. An ordained priest, a deacon, abbot, or monk was not subject to civil law, even for civil crimes.
Remember some of the legal problems of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. had a few years ago? How many centuries did it take for those cases to come to civil court?
John eventually acknowledged Langdon as archbishop and used his talents to write the Magna Carta. Thus the insertion of the first clause as the peace treaty between John and the Church. Then the nobles, barons and knights had to have their say.
As an interesting historical note: during the interdict all church construction ceased. The cathedral at Wells, England, in the far west near the Mendip Hills and the border with Wales, was under construction and had completed only the Lady Chapel, altar dais and first three bays of the nave. All building stopped in 1204 along with the orderly ringing of church bells. Construction at Wells resumed after Magna Carta and the architecture is very different for the remainder of this magnificent building. You can see the change in the style of arch between bays three and four in the nave.