MAGNA CHARTA OUR HERITAGE AND YOURS
PRESENTED AT THE ANNUAL DINNER
NATIONAL SOCIETY MAGNA CHARTA DAMES AND BARONS
BY THE VERY REVEREND DR. ALEC KNIGHT
DEAN OF LINCOLN
APRIL 17, 2004
It is a great honour and pleasure to be speaking to you tonight about Magna Carta, our heritage and yours. You will know that the Great Charter, or to give it its traditional Latin name, Magna Carta, was negotiated at Runnymede on 15 June 1215 when King John met with his Bishops and Barons. What you may not know is that by the end of that month one of the several copies then made arrived in Lincoln.
I very much hope that you will one day, in the not too distant future, also arrive in Lincoln. However, when you do so you may well wonder why anyone would have wanted to send Magna Carta to Lincoln. It is now a traditional English county town, seemingly somewhat isolated from the mainstream of English life. There are many English cities much larger and therefore Lincoln doesn’t give the sense of being a place of such great importance in the world apart from the astonishing domination of its vast and ancient Cathedral, which is arguably the most beautiful of all gothic buildings in the world. We have had prepared for you a gift as a memento of this evening. It is an 18th century print of the city with its Cathedral. In medieval times it had three spires, not the two you can see on the print. The central spire on the central tower was as tall again as the tower, making it the tallest building in the then known world. Today there are no spires, the great central spire collapsed in the 16th century, the two western spires were dismantled in the 19th century. They were no longer safe. Never-the-less, the Cathedral still dominates the city and the skyline and can be seen from 35 miles away. During the Hitler War, many an American airman returning from a bombing raid over Germany knew when he saw Lincoln Cathedral that he was home. So many bases were in Lincolnshire.
However, back to why Magna Carta was sent to Lincoln. It is a very ancient city. It has at least 22 centuries of history behind it. It was a major Roman town. William the Conqueror in 1072 needed to secure his eastern seabord and northern frontiers. He made the Bishop relocate from near Oxford to Lincoln who began building the Cathedral. William also sent a Baron to build a castle next to the Cathedral. King William was a shrewd operator – he sent two powerful and probably ambitious men to the boundary of his new Kingdom, not only to protect it but also to watch each other to make sure that neither stepped out of line. Both Cathedral and Castle are built inside the Roman city wall. By the year 1215 Lincoln was the third largest city in England. It was the centre of the wool and woollen cloth industry and thus enormously wealthy. The best quality regular cloth, the sort we are told Robin Hood wore, was known as Lincoln Green. There was also Lincoln Scarlet, in demand amongst the wealthy. It was a famous place. It was the centre of a huge and wealthy ecclesiastical diocese.
At the time of Magna Carta, without the benefit of emails and websites, the only way to let people know of the confrontation between the King and his Barons and of its successful conclusion was by sending a copy of the Charter to the major centres of population. The Lincoln copy is the only one of the four originals to have its address written on it. The word Lincoln is there for all to see. Lincoln’s Bishop, Hugh of Wells, was one of the witnesses. The copy was deposited in his Cathedral. For some 600 years after its arrival we don’t know what happened to that copy. All we can imagine was that it was neatly filed away in the muniment room. However, great things happened in and to the Cathedral during this time. Lincoln has its own saint – Hugh of Avalon who died in 1200 – King John, a man not noted for his love of the Church, was one of the pall bearers at his funeral. All of the Angevin kings were renowned for the violence of their tempers, which could be directed against any of their subjects, as the murder of Thomas Becket demonstrates. But St Hugh was an exception. As a Holy Man, famed for his ascetic life and closeness to God, he was both revered for this sanctity and feared for the power of his curse. Both Henry II and Richard I found themselves unable to withstand Hugh’s authority.
When John came to the throne, he asked Hugh to accompany him to the tombs of his father and brother at Fontevrault. As they entered the church, High indicated to the king the tympanum over the doorway, with its carvings of the Last Judgement, showing him the figures of kings among the damned. Then he warned the king that this would be his fate unless he ruled over his subjects in accordance with the will of God. It is a measure of Hugh’s extraordinary spiritual power that John not only accepted the warning but, as we have seen, came to Lincoln to be present at the saint’s burial later that year.
The history of the reign of King John, with his long dispute with the Church culminating in the Interdict of 1208-1213 when all churches were closed by papal decree, shows to clearly that he paid little heed to Hugh’s warning. But when at Runnymede in June 1215 the King was confronted by the text of Magna Carta, he would have been forcibly reminded of St Hugh’s admonition that his rule as king must not be an arbitrary one, but must be exercised under the law of God. Hugh was made a saint in 1220 and his cult became so popular that it was decided to extend the east end of the Cathedral and by 1280 what we know as the Angel Choir ready to accept Hugh’s remains in a great shrine. Witnesses at the ceremony were King Edward I and Queen Eleanor.
Edward I is famous for being the father of the “Mother of All Parliaments” and he held one of the first Parliaments in the Chapter House of Lincoln Cathedral. By the time of his death in 1307 Parliament had become the established method of conducting public business – a culmination of part of the process begun by Magna Carta.
There is a love story connected with Edward and Eleanor – Eleanor died near Lincoln 10 years after the dedication of the Angel Choir. Edward was distraught. He had her viscera interred in the choir and on each stop along the cortege’s route to London he instructed a great stone cross to be erected, beginning at Cross o’Cliff hill in Lincoln and ending at Charing Cross in London. She is buried in Westminster Abbey.
There is evidence of another love story in the Chantry Chapel of Katherine Swynford. She was first mistress and then wife to one of the richest and most powerful men in England, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Earl of Lincoln. They were not free to marry until 1396 when his wife died but by that time they’d had four children. Their births were legitimised retrospectively after their parents’ wedding in Lincoln Cathedral.
Back to Lincoln’s Magna Carta. We hear of it again in 1800 when the Chapter Clerk of the Cathedral reported that he held it in the Common Chamber and then silence again until 1846 when the Chapter Clerk of that time moved from within the Cathedral to a property just outside it and in 1848 Magna Carta was shown to a visiting group who reported it as “hanging on the wall in an oak frame in beautiful preservation”. In 1939 the Lincoln Magna Carta went to New York’s World Fair to be displayed in the British Pavilion. It received a triumphal welcome but was caught by the war and through the generosity of your Government it was allowed to join the Constitution in the security of Fort Knox. In 1976 it was placed in the Cathedral’s medieval library. This move was funded by generous donations from the United States. Magna Carta had been brought over to San Francisco for a month through the sponsorship of the Union Bank. The impact and excitement generated by the Charter wherever it travelled stimulated the well known generosity of the American people.
Magna Carta, clearly, is very precious. When I became Dean of Lincoln I have to admit that I did not know of the existence of the Lincoln copy and that I would have to accept responsibility for the care of such an international treasure. It was a bit like being asked to look after the two stone tablets of the 10 Commandments that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. On its last visit to the United States a US Airforce serviceman saw it exhibited at the Pentagon here in Washington. He said “I suppose this is what we fight for”. There can be very few objects in the world about which he could have said that. For him, the Magna Carta was the starting point for a view of history and politics that gives your Society its identity and is inseparable from your values. And tonight I am all too aware that it’s easy to confuse the King John, who ground his teeth in frustrated rage at Runnymede with the King George, against whom the 13 colonies revolted and to know that the Barons and George Washington had a great deal in common. In 1215 never before had Royal Authority been so fundamentally challenged. Today nearly 800 years later two of the Charter’s 63 clauses are still a ringing expression of freedom for mankind.
“To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.”
“No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or in any way ruined except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land”.
These two clauses are quite clearly as important today as they have ever been. The rights of the individual over against the good of all and over against over weaning power of the executive remain matters requiring constant vigilance to reach and maintain a proper balance.
Last month, on the Discovery Channel, the discussion was about the wonderful World Heritage site buildings being damaged or destroyed in Iraq – and the presenter said “there are some things owned by all of us, no matter what country or state they belong to. These buildings in Iraq belong to the World, as does Magna Carta..!” Encouragingly it is seen as being of current worldwide importance. And on the worldwide web Hi Pakistan! Com – a newspaper site was quoting clauses from the Magna Carta on the subject of democracy in the country. A Korean website too was reflecting on Bush’s initiatives and again quoted the Magna Carta and MagnaCarta.demon.co.uk carried and anti EU piece again giving the reasons for “getting out”.
I believe that Magna Carta should be seen by as many people as possible. It is the forerunner of so many documents and constitutions relating to liberty. By seeing it people are inspired not only to think about the issues that it set out to tackle in its day, but also in their own modern day context to do all they can to protect those freedoms yet again. I want people to see it because by sharing our cultural heritage we strengthen the bonds of friendship that exist between nations and our desire to protect the principles of freedom and justice.
I have a second objective and that is to persuade you to come and discover the beauties of our great Cathedral and the other architectural treasures in our city of Lincoln. You can be assured of a very warm welcome and special treatment. Come and see Lincoln Cathedral – wartime beacon for returning aircraft, visit the tombs of Eleanor of Castile and Katherine Swynford and glory in one of the worlds greatest buildings.
My third objective is to secure the care and maintenance of the building that for so many centuries has housed this exemplar of the Magna Carta. I, with others, am charged with the care of a great medieval Cathedral. It has more than 500 windows and nearly three acres of lead as its roof. Large parts of the Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood fame were cut down to build the roof and some of the timbers have been accurately dated to 900AD. I need help to maintain this part of our common heritage. Remember that parts of Lincoln Cathedral had been standing for centuries when Magna Carta was signed. Other parts of it were being built at the time. We have to raise $1.5 million a year just to keep it standing.
I would be very grateful for any help that you can give us to ensure that we can exhibit the Magna Carta widely in this country and to maintain the great building from which it comes. Help us to protect your heritage and ours.
Robin Hood and Lincoln Cathedral
By the later middle ages, stories and ballads of the outlaw Robin Hood were circulating throughout England. Their location, however, was firmly fixed in the East Midlands and South Yorkshire. Robin and his men were associated both with Barnsdale in Yorkshire, conveniently placed for robbing travellers on the Great North Road, and with Sherwood Forest, well stocked with the king’s deer and within the jurisdiction of the ever-watchful Sheriff of Nottingham.
Lincoln would have been a significant part of the outlaws’ world. At the time when the tales are set, in the late twelfth century, it was one of the most flourishing towns in the kingdom and its thriving economy was due in large part to the manufacture of cloth. Lincoln Scarlet, the most expensive, was in demand from wealthy households all over the country, and Lincoln Green, the choice of Robin and his men, was still remembered in the early seventeenth century as having been ‘the best greene of Englande’.
The earliest surviving rhymes of Robin Hood date from the beginning of the sixteenth century. A century earlier, however, the very first poem on the subject of the outlaw, a few lines in doggerel English, was scribbled into a Lincoln Cathedral manuscript:
Robin Hood in Sherwood stood
hooded and hatted, hosèd and shod
and the hood and the hose we can surely picture as Lincoln Green.
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