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.
A portion of a poem from C.R.L. Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling’s A School History of England (1911). The White Man’s Burden? Meaning and memory more than history. Sealed in 1215 and torn-up within a matter of weeks, it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that Magna Carta was interpreted as a radical text by lawyer and parliamentarian Sir Edward Coke on the limits of arbitrary power. To renown royalist Oliver Cromwell the text was merely “Magna Farta”.
Don’t doubt the magic of this “virtuous national myth”. Justin Champion, professor of the Early Modern History of Ideas at Royal Holloway University of London points out that readings of Magna Carta have been used to legitimize the American Revolution of 1776 and the defence of Black Civil Rights in the US. In 1994, a Federal district judge invoked this charter in Paula Jones’s sexual harassment case against Bill Clinton.
What does Magna Carta mean? Something for everyone? Given the concentration of police in this slice of Surrey, 15 June 2015 must have been a great day to commit crime in the county. A day to celebrate our freedoms.
As a resident of Runnymede, there is something sinister at the sight of David Cameron appropriating Magna Carta in an attempt to abolish the Human Rights Act under the guise of a Bill of Rights while at the same time proposing to grant the state increased powers to spy on its subjects (“security, it’s not a dirty word you know”). The same David Cameron who back in 2012 couldn’t translate the phrase “Magna Carta” on the David Letterman show. Magna Carta. So symbolic. Monument in Runnymede erected in 1957, by the American Bar Association.
Thomas Macaulay once wrote “We know of no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” Stick in pageantry and insert hypocrisy and welcome to modern Britain.
“Try saying that in fuckin’ Russia”, so they still say in saloon bar society. Come on. I’m British. Increasingly English. I take the piss. Tory aide-de-camp David Starkey acidly astute, as ever:
It seems to me a little absurd to commemorate the second greatest humiliation in the history of the monarchy by making the Queen attend. I wonder how we’re going to commemorate 2019, the anniversary of the execution of Charles I? Will we create an executioner’s block in Whitehall and drag the poor Queen there to cut the ribbon? “I declare this block open.”
Perhaps Mr Cameron needs to swot-up on his history homework? Study a classic of English history? Kings, queens and acts of parliament. Mr Gove will be familiar. Our Septic Isle. To 1066. A work of late Oxonians. Halcyon days. Before the War. Ticks all the boxes.
Walter Carruthers Sellar and Robert Julian Yeatman’s 1066 and All That was even serialized in Punch prior to publication in 1930. Such a hit 1066 spawned a successful West End musical. Look up the bits on King John. Englishness encapsulated:
There also happened in this reign the memorable Charta, known as Magna Charter on account of the Latin Magna (great) and Charter (a Charter): this was the first of the famous Chartas and Gartas of the Realm and was invented by the Barons on a desert island in the Thames called Ganymede. By congregating there, armed to the teeth, the Barons compelled John to sign the Magna Charter, which said:
- That no one was to be put to death, save for some reason (except the Common People).
- That everyone should be free (except the Common People).
- That everything should be of the same weight and measure throughout the Realm (except the Common People).
- That the Courts should be stationary, instead of following a very tiresome medieval official known as the King’s Person all over the country.
- That no person should be fined to his utter ruin (except the King’s Person).
- That the Barons should not be tried except by a special jury of other Barons who would understand.
Magna Charter was therefore the chief cause of Democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone (except the Common People).
The Best Police in the World? https://londonlowlife.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/132/
Car Smoking Ban https://londonlowlife.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/car-smoking-ban/
Elephant in the Room https://londonlowlife.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/elephant-in-the-room/
Want to know more?
- Lincoln Allison, “All the History You’ll Ever Need to Know: W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman’s 1066 and All That“, Social Affaris Unit, 2 July 2007 http://www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk/blog/archives/001540.php
- Eugene Byrne, “The Past Laugh: 1066 and All That”, History Extra, 30 September 2011 http://www.historyextra.com/blog/1066-and-all
- Justin Champion, “Magna Carta”, Englefield Green Village Fair Programme 2015
- Editorial, “The Guardian view on Magna Carta: the magic of myth”, Guardian, 12 June 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/12/guardian-view-on-magna-carta-magic-of-myth
- Uri Friedman, ‘What’s Actually in the Magna Carta?’ Atlantic, June 2015 http://origin.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/06/magna-carta-800-anniversary/395753/?utm_source=SFTwitter
- Josh Glancy, “No, No, No. The Real Magna Carta was in 1216”, Sunday Times News Review, 14 June 2015.
- Rudyard Kipling, “The Reeds of Runnymede” (1911) http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_runnymede.htm
- A.W. Purdue, ‘Speaking Volumes: W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman’s 1066 and All That’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 29 August 1997 https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/speaking-volumes-wc-sellars-and-rj-yeatmans-1066-and-all-that/159911.article
- W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, Comprising All the Parts You Can Remember, Including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates (London: Methuen & Co, 1930)
- Dominic Selwood, “The Cult of Magna Carta is Historical Nonsense, No Wonder Oliver Cromwell called it ‘Magna Farta'”, Daily Telegraph, 17 June 2014 http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/dominicselwood/100276672/the-cult-of-magna-carta-is-historical-nonsense-no-wonder-oliver-cromwell-called-it-magna-farta/
- Ralph V. Turner, “The Meaning of Magna Carta since 1215”, History Today, 53, 9, September 2003 http://www.historytoday.com/ralph-v-turner/meaning-magna-carta-1215
- Michael White, “PM has a Cheek Invoking a British Bill of Rights on Magna Carta Anniversary”, Guardian, 15 June 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/blog/2015/jun/15/pm-has-a-cheek-invoking-a-british-bill-of-rights-on-magna-carta-anniversary