The Magna Carta - Failure, Fame and Freedom
- Credit: Archant
On 15 June 1215, a King, an Archbishop and a group of angry men met in a field. It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but the agreement sealed that day influences the lives of every single one of us and, once again, the people of Kent were involved right from the very beginning
To say that King John and Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1215, didn’t get on would be an understatement.
They had been embroiled in a fierce political battle since June 1207 when King John’s personal choice of new archbishop had been overruled by Pope Innocent III and Stephen Langton was elected instead.
In fact, the situation became so dire that King John expelled all of Canterbury’s monks from the Cathedral and declared that all supporters of the new Archbishop would be recognised as a public enemy.
Stephen Langton became a French exile together with his following of monks, none of which went down too well with the Pope. The row continued until King John finally yielded his kingdom to the Pope’s overlordship in 1213 and the Archbishop returned to absolve the king.
Not being one to do as he was told, King John immediately reneged on the new agreement and the two men became locked in a bitter feud. By June 1215, King John was facing rebellion from all sides.
Rebel barons, fed up with how they were being treated, taxed and stripped of their assets, had taken London under siege and the King finally had no option but to meet with them and the Archbishop to try to come to an agreement.
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Meeting at Runnymede, just outside Windsor, the barons presented their demands to King John through a document known as the Articles of the Barons. Then, following what must have been a somewhat volatile meeting, King John finally agreed that everyone, including himself, was subject to the law and made concessions which were officially granted through the Charter of Liberties. The Royal Chancery then produced a formal royal grant, based on that charter which has become known as the Magna Carta. Copies were created for distribution and four copies of the original charter are known to have survived.
Having sealed the agreement it appeared that all would be well in the medieval world, but neither side kept to the bargain and within weeks the Magna Carta was described by Pope Innocent III as “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people.”
He issued a document known as the ‘papal bull’ declaring the great charter “null and void of all validity for ever.” The original Magna Carta was dead and for the remaining year of his life, King John continued his war with both the Church and the barons.
Four key clauses
There were originally 63 clauses in the great charter, the majority of which pertained to individual disputes but four have, through the actions of King John’s son and successor, King Henry III, gained vital significance.
One defends the rights of the church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and certain other named towns, and the third, and perhaps the most famous of all, gives all ‘free men’ the right to justice and a fair trial.
In medieval times ‘free men’ only covered a small proportion of the population but that clause has enabled our intrinsic human rights to evolve ever since.
The charter was also the first time women, well, noble women, were seen as anything other than property and one clause stated that “No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband.’
At a time when women, and their possessions, were frequently used as a bargaining tool it’s easy to imagine that one causing relief and irritation across the land!
During King Henry III’s reign several updated versions of the Magna Carta were issued and it’s his 1225 version, co-incidentally focused on the subject of taxation, that became enrolled in the Statue Book.
Since then the Magna Carta has been used as a defence against tyrannical rulers and a guarantor of individual liberties throughout the world, but just how did its influence spread?
Faversham and the Magna Carta
That task was left to King Henry III’s son, King Edward I, who understood that in order for the terms of the charter to take effect it needed to be enforced by as many people as possible; this meant that judges, sheriffs and town officials all needed a copy.
The various barons (prestigious men who gave financial and military support to the King in return for the opportunity to lease land), also needed to be kept updated and in 1300 the ‘Barons of the Port of Faversham’ were issued with their own copy.
There are only five other surviving copies of this issue and it gives a unique insight into the importance of the Kent town during that period. As a re-issue, the Faversham Magna Carta was a legally binding text and one of the last to be given King’s Edwards’ official seal.
The red wax disc clearly shows the King mounted on horseback on its reverse but the front image is a little harder to decipher due to wear and tear - understandable considering it’s more than 700 years old!
Sally Wookey, Faversham town’s Tourism Officer, says a number of reasons have been offered as to why Faversham has its own version of the charter. These are revealed during the Magna Carta Rediscovered touring exhibition which began in Faversham’s Alexander Centre on 23 May.
Sally adds: “As a Cinque Port, Faversham was a very important medieval town and it’s mentioned in the Doomsday Book.”
The Cinque Ports were given special status due to their role in protecting the country’s coast from invasion and, as such, the Faversham barons were very important people to have onside. They’ve been specifically referred to in the Magna Carta since 1216 so it seems perfectly natural that the town is leading the way in the new ‘Magna Carta Rediscovered’ exhibition, especially as around 12 years ago, their own version was ‘rediscovered’ among the town’s collection of municipal charters.
Since then, Faversham’s Magna Carta been officially recognised as the rare treasure it is and it takes a leading role in the touring exhibition. Sally, the exhibition design team and its curator Laura Samuels are all keen to make the exhibition as interactive and engaging as possible and every effort is being made to tell stories that will take visitors ‘on a journey’.
Local schools are being encouraged to take part and a King John play has even been written by a local group along the lines of Horrible Histories. Children from Year 6 at Hernhill C of E Primary School have been filmed performing the play, which will be shown to school groups.
And the artist Graham Clarke, whose fabulous etching adorns our cover, has written a humorous verse play ‘Starta Magna Carta Thearta’, which is being performed between now and October at venues around Kent (see www.grahamclarke.co.uk for dates and venues).
Visitors will also get a chance to ‘sit down with King John’ and scribe their own name before emailing it to themselves at home for printing. Months of hard work have gone into the creation of this exhibition but it’s just one part of the town’s celebrations.
Lectures, concerts, walks, re-enactments, arts, and a medieval family weekend have been planned before the Magna Carta comes home for permanent display.
Faversham isn’t the only town excited by the Magna Carta’s anniversary and Amanda Cottrell, Chairman of Visit Kent, calls it “the perfect example of living history.”
She goes on to add that the touring exhibition is “a key way to engage all of us, not just parents and grandparents but also children in this extraordinary story and its links to so many interesting parts of the county’s history, like for instance, the 1216 siege of Rochester Castle by King John at the beginning of the Barons War.”
Visit Kent is co-ordinating the Magna Carta Rediscovered exhibition, which has gained financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Swale Borough Council and the Magna Carta 800 Committee.
Amanda and Sir Robert Worcester, the National Chairman of the Magna Carta 2015 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee, have also worked to bring the anniversary celebrations to the attention of the USA. Amanda explains: “Due to three little boats, Discovery, the Susan Constant and Godspeed, the rule of law as enshrined in the Magna Carta was taken from London, via Gravesend, to Jamestown in the United States where it was used as a foundation for the constitution.”
This journey also inspired a series of six Magna Carta trails that take visitors to sites across Britain that were involved in events leading up to the creation of the original Magna Carta. The exhibition and Kent trail link Rochester, Canterbury, Faversham, Dover and hopefully now Sandwich in with this extraordinary event of 800 years ago.
Rhoda Nevins, a member of the Royal School of Needlework, is another lady familiar with the spread of law and order during the past 800 years as she was commissioned to produce a series of embroidered panels by the Magna Carta Trust in Runnymede. Embroidery is Rhoda’s passion and, although you may not be aware of her name, if you’ve seen Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, then you’ll certainly have seen her work.
Rhoda explains that it’s taken three-and-a half years to create 12 panels depicting the Magna Carta’s influence across the Commonwealth and that’s with 11 people working on them.
Each panel tells its own story and the elements are linked through stumpwork, goldwork, surface embroidery, machine embroidery and creative embellishments.
The work has also been physically demanding and, due to the size of the frame used to hold the panels secure, no one’s arms were long enough to reach the middle sections.
An ingenious solution saw Rhoda working on the topside of the embroideries while one of her colleagues lay on the floor underneath it in order to take the needle and push it back up to her.
The first A1-sized panel shows the 25 shields of the barons present at the time of the sealing, with the second depicting the actual meeting at Runnymede.
From then on the story spreads to the Magna Carta Trust Towns of Bury St Edmonds, St Albans, the City of London, Hereford and Canterbury.
As the influence of the Magna Carta spread throughout the British Empire further panels have been created for America, India, Australia, South Africa and Canada.
For Canterbury’s panel, Rhoda came to visit the Cathedral where she says she was struck by the story of Thomas Becket: “To me Canterbury is Thomas Becket, I mean he tried very hard and then he gets killed.”
Needless to say the Saint appears on the panel together with his pilgrims, Pope Innocent III and Steven Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, with King John.
Rather than just being flat pieces of embroidery Rhoda says the panels are “tactile and very 3D” and during June and July they will be touring Surry before going to Bath, Hull and Wales. It’s also hoped that they will be coming to Kent.
Magna Carta Ale
Shepherd Neame Brewery has launched a limited edition ale to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. It is named 1215 after the year in which the historic document was sealed, which established the rule of law and also defined the traditional pint of ale: “There shall be but one Measure throughout the Realm”.
A traditional strong English ale, 1215 (8% abv) is infused with medieval ale ingredients such as Mugwort, Yarrow, Woodruff and Fennel, which were used before hops became proliferant.
It is presented in a traditional amber 750ml bottle, embossed with the Shepherd Neame crook. Only 1,215 bottle-conditioned beers have been released, each encased within a presentation box bearing the signature approval of brewery president Robert Neame.
Head brewer Richard Frost said: “We created 1215 in our pilot brewery, which allowed us to experiment, and are really pleased with the brew. It is very rich, with a hint of herbs to replicate what ale would have tasted like during the medieval period.”
The brewery has been making beer at its historic site in Faversham for more than 400 years. Faversham has a special connection to the Magna Carta as its town council recently discovered that a copy in its archives was an original.
To commemorate the anniversary, the copy will be put on display in a special exhibition during June. The town is also holding a weekend of celebrations on June 13 and 14, when Shepherd Neame will be offering visitors the chance to sample 1215 at two special guided brewery tours including tutored tastings.
The tours are taking place at 11am and 2pm on Sunday 14 June. Tickets are £12.75 for adults, £8.90 for children aged 12 to 17.
For more information or to book, call Shepherd Neame Visitor Centre on 01795 542016 or email email@example.com.
The beer is on sale, priced £17.50, from Shepherd Neame’s brewery shop at www.shepherdneame.co.uk.
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