‘Here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it’. Winston Churchill, 1956.
There are two great years to celebrate in constitutional history. One of them was a thousand years ago (1014) and perhaps the most popular, or at least best remembered – 800 years ago (1215).
We do not understand history until we are old enough to have our own history – an age when we have sufficient pieces of jigsaw to nearly complete the puzzle of our lives. We have corners to our pictures – great sweeps of cloud-smudged sky, the spiky wastes of just-harvested wheat fields, the shadowy edges of woodlands, the beech trees with their castanet leaves clattering in urgent summer breezes, or where lanes swerve to brush against riverbanks.
For me, buildings give shape and time; buildings are my starting points, the larger blocks of my jigsaw puzzle, the huge stretches of steel and stone upon which I can anchor my past. The earliest memory goes back to the 60s, in a Ford Anglia, almost hidden in cloud as I was carried across the Humber on daredevil, arrogant engineering, south towards longer vowels, softer winters, giant chalk men and horses on hillsides, and beaches with sand that could, once in a blue moon, actually burn your feet.
In the 70s, when homework was done by candlelight, sandwiches came only in cheese or ham and buses could be jumped from before they stopped, I had a more solid and ancient anchor. I saw it every day as it towered above five rivers, stabbing the sky, balanced on marshland, wolf grey with heavy bones and echoes screeching within expansive polished lungs.
Salisbury Cathedral had a sheen to her shanks as I sat on my bench near a cedar tree in thin morning rain, reading E.M.Forster’s Two Cheers For Democracy. Often, as I smoked my pre-class morning treat ˗ a Henri Wintermans slim panatela, the school Chaplain, Rev. Whiteley would march by with long strides and sermons squashed between Harris Tweed arm and chest. ‘Doomed, boy, you are doomed’, he would call out then smile, understanding that every boy must have his own way of breaking rules – his own fight for freedom. Was I breaking rules? I was chipping away at them, perhaps, but nothing major – nothing to bring the world falling around our ears.
I would look back to my anchor, my omphalos, and think of William Golding, Thomas Hardy and John Constable. I would think of supine lords and ladies at prayer, and battle-scarred, moth-eaten regimental standards hanging near the ancient clanking iron clock. A treasure house – a mausoleum of errant knights, Godly and ungodly saints, belligerent and benevolent bishops, and most precious of all – Magna Carta.
There is no ‘the’ Magna Carta. It is simply ‘Magna Carta’. And within Salisbury Cathedral is one of four remaining exemplifications – the best preserved. Another is in Lincoln Cathedral. Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta went to the USA in 1939, to The New York World Fair then was ensconced within Fort Knox until 1944, alongside the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The Australians have a copy in the Members’ Hall in Parliament House, Canberra. Go see a copy of Magna Carta at Hereford Cathedral, where you can also get a butcher’s of Mappa Mundi. The Bodleian Library in Oxford has copies, but the one in Salisbury Cathedral is mine; my anchor, my stepping stone – a stepping stone of my island’s history. It can also been seen as the first stone thrown elsewhere, perhaps unwittingly waiting for the Common Sense of Thomas Paine to put in place the key stone of The United States of America.
So you may be asking why I am writing about Magna Carta. Well, I have spent the last year writing the new Pelham Hardimann story, Magna Carta Memorandum to be ready for next year’s 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (June 15th 1215), and because there has recently been much talk of what it is to be English. You may also be asking what this has to do with World War II.
War is theft; war is the theft of life and land, and it is the theft of freedom. But, no matter how many buildings you bomb, how many bones you break, no matter how many treasures you steal, you cannot steal a country’s soul. And Magna Carta is England’s soul. King John even turned to Pope Innocent to have it annulled, but even the might of Christendom (the rest of Europe) and the armies of France could not defeat it – no power could defeat England’s belief and trust in the rule of law.
A country’s history is a mish-mash; it is not as linear as we would like it to be. It can be easier to learn it by dates – important dates, but those dates are but pieces of the puzzle, which together shall make the whole. 1215 Magna Carta, 1381 The Peasant’s Revolt, 1534 The Act of Supremacy, 1642-1651 The English Civil War, 1689 The Bill of Rights, 1832 The Reform Act. There are movers and shakers such as Lollards, Levellers and Luddites. Tolpuddle Martyrs, Thomas Paine, Chartists and Suffragettes. There is our shame – Colonialism and Slavery, Penal Transportation and child labour, Suez and Iraq. There are times when Britain did the right thing – The Napoleonic Wars, 1914-1918, 1939-1945. We do the right thing, not to save others – there is little altruism in history – but to keep our freedom as a nation, and that freedom as a nation is a prerequisite to our freedom as individuals. It is fundamental: Freedom from tyranny and oppression; freedom under the protection of the law, a nation of individuals living under the rule of law. That living under the rule of law is vital; it means we are ruled by no group, no gang – no individual. It pains me that our politicians so often refer to power, having power, losing power; they haven’t caught on yet, have they? So rarely do they speak of serving. So rarely do they consider the consent of the nation.
And that is what Magna Carta was all about – a reassertion of Aethelred’s agreement of constitution in 1014. Sure, it was basically a bun-fight for barons, landed grandees and pretenders with private armies, but it was the second and more important chequered flag of the long race to freedom, a race not yet won, with the finishing tape perhaps not yet in sight. It is that rule of law, and protection of the individual by the law, giving the Englishman freedom to stick two finger up at not only the French at Agincourt, but to our own leaders, our own politicians – anyone who feels he/she has the right to tell us what to do, say, and think. We lose that freedom at our peril. And let us remember: it has taken 1000 years to get where we are today, and there is still far to go. Without Magna Carta it could have taken a lot longer – and perhaps, as other sad nations still are, we would still be in chains.
By Carl – copyright 2014