Iconic documents

When I was in England last February, a friend who sometimes posts here did me the great favor of taking me to see, inter alia, Salisbury Cathedral. 

It was a wonderful experience.  The Cathedral is, after all, one of the great intact medieval buildings.  Right up my alley, or perhaps nave…. clerestory… well.. you get it.

But I was not prepared for the full surprise I was to have that day.

With a some intensity I could sense, he led me to the Cathedral’s splendid Chapter House.

There are various display cases in the chapter, containing wonderful objects.

But eventually I worked my way to the far end and, strolling around a somewhat sheltered case, I peered down at a medieval parchment. 

It was sheepskin, probably. It was written very close, in a small chancery hand, in Latin. 

Having had a bit of Latin, some training in paleography, and the requisite curiosity I began to scan the first lines.

"John, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anj…"

I can’t quite describe what occurred to me at that moment, the physical coldness of hair rising on the back of my neck and arms, my throat closing with the urgent need not to breathe.

Before me was an original copy of the original 1215 Magna carta.

Four copies exist of the 1215 exist.  Two are in the British Library, one in Lincoln and one in the splendid Chapter House of Salisbury Cathedral.

There were subsequent charters, with changes, which eventually became the text of what became the official Magna Charta, but this was the one hammered out with King John.

Magna Carta was the document which first limited the power of English kings and, among other things, established that a person was not to be deprived of liberty or property without process of law or a trial by his peers.  This is also the basis of what we call habeas corpus, that sufficient proof of a misdeed must be produced in order to imprision, hold or try someone.

So, was quite interested to read this story I found via The Cranky Professor.

By Caroline Lewis     12/03/2008

What is Magna Carta?

Is it:
(a) a menu of bottled Irish ciders
(b) an important medieval charter
(c) a Japanese cartoon strip
or (d) a member of a famous family of folk musicians?

If you answered anything other than (b), then you’re among nearly half of the UK population, going by the results of a new survey.

Commissioned by the British Library, the ‘You Gov’ poll found that 45 per cent of the UK population has no idea what Magna Carta is, or stands for.

Asked to describe what the Magna Carta is and what it did, fewer than one in three (32 per cent) were able to state that the 13th century charter set limits on the authority of the monarch.

The over-55 age group did best, with 63 per cent knowing it is a medieval charter and 37 per cent identifying that it restricted the power of the monarch. However, only 39 per cent of 18-24 year olds got the first question right, and 71 per cent did not know it related to the powers of the monarch.

The British Library initiated the survey prior to launching its new Magna Carta website on Thursday March 13, which explores the origins and significance of the charter, and allows visitors to see the medieval Latin document close up, alongside an English translation.

"Magna Carta is one of the most celebrated manuscripts in English history and the most famous document in the British Library,” said Claire Breay, Head of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts. “Many misconceptions about its original purpose and content have been generated since it was granted in 1215. Our new website challenges these misconceptions by exploring Magna Carta’s meaning, content and legacy."

Magna Carta is often thought of as the cornerstone of liberty, but 23 per cent of those surveyed had no idea of the importance of the iconic document and another 23 per cent incorrectly thought that it stated that everyone was equal before the law.

The Magna Carta applied only to England, but 19 per cent thought the document meant the same laws applied throughout the UK.

The charter actually contains few statements of legal principle and very little of it deals directly with the villeins – the unfree peasantry – who formed the majority of the population. It failed to secure lasting peace in 1215 and only three clauses are still valid today, but the longevity and adaptability of a few key clauses have secured its iconic status. Above all, it established the critical principle that the king, like his people, was subject to the law.

A new exhibition will open at the British Library in October 2008 on British political citizenship and rights.

The survey and exhibition come at a pertinent time, when new measures are being proposed by the government to strengthen the significance of British citizenship, such as schoolchildren pledging their allegiance to the Queen.

Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw MP, was pragmatic about the findings of the poll.

"If you asked an American if they had heard of their Bill of Rights, I expect they’d tell you it was a trick question,” he said. “Such is the enormous iconic value of one of their cornerstone constitutional documents. In contrast, many British people struggle to put their finger on one of our own defining documents, Magna Carta.”

“In Britain we have an innate sense of rights, but they have existed more in hearts and minds and habits than in explicit understanding. The challenge for today is to look for a new expression of our rights, and the responsibilities that go with them, which is relevant for the 21st century.”

“Magna Carta remains an epochal moment in British history, with a resonance that still lasts today,” he continued. “I hope that our proposed new British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities will in time become as deeply engrained in our culture as its equivalent on the other side of the Atlantic."

Taking Liberties: The Struggle for British Freedoms and Rights at the British Library will open on October 31 2008 and run until March 1 2009.

The total sample size of the YouGov survey, carried out online, was 2,073 adults. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all adults (aged 18-plus) in Great Britain.

Magna Carta is an Icon of England – see www.icons.org.uk.


I wonder… as I write… if there are parallels with Summorum Pontificum?

Just asking.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. RichR says:

    It’s interesting that previous civilizations who rose to greatness and then fell to ruin went through defined stages of evolution. Symptoms of a civilization that is near extinction:

    – violence and torture as means of entertainment (REALITY TV)
    – loss of sense/value of art (DO I NEED TO EXPLAIN?)
    – drop in literacy (TEXT MESSAGING, TV, VIDEO GAMES, ETC)
    – loss of interest in anything beyond personal gratification (CHECK)
    – Abortion (CHECK)
    – Euthanasia (CHECK)
    – lack of interest in civil duties/responsibilities (CHECK)
    – loss of respect for tradition
    – youth given a “voice in society” (yet they are undisciplined by traditions, so their “voice” is not a sure guide)
    – increased promiscuity and degradation of marriage
    – homosexuality openly practiced
    – increased materialism

    So, is it any surprise that people haven’t bothered to look up SP? They are too busy merrily heading toward societal perdition. Why bother with a Latin Mass? People generally look at me like I’m crazy when I mention it. However, the young adults tend to be more likely to know what’s going on – the ones with kids who don’t watch 5 hours of TV a day and are being taught their Faith.

    There’s hope, but it will take much grace.

  2. bryan says:

    There may very well be parallels.

    1. Both documents deal directly with rights (not privileges, mind you) that are enjoyed by people subject to a hierarchy which was/is at times, loathe to recognize those rights.

    2. Both documents established a new ‘pecking’ order: one by impression on the sovereign under some coercion, that John was forced to admit to those rights, the other that THE sovereign was motivated in love, by the lack of charity exhibited by those with whom he had entrusted the welfare of the subjects, to free them from the white martyrdom of obedience to something which was used to deny legitimate aspirations.

    3. Both documents established new realities in terms of how practices are viewed.

    I’m not smart enough to get into the deeper theological or spiritual dimensions; I’m just a lowly member of the laity that survived with my simple faith intact after 4 years of a Jesuit university in the 1970s. To me, there aren’t too many nuances here: Our Holy Father has changed the rules of engagement, and the stonewalling/napoleonic complex/empire-building/whathaveyou that has gone on in the dioceses around the world, with those who would hold on to Tradition being publicly scorned as luddites or reactionaries not ‘in tune’ with the ‘new realities’ being gently blown away and exposed for what they are. Blessed Paul VI was right about the character of the smoke that was being blown up everyone’s knickers…and the enemy is trying to strike back.

    Just as the conditions in the 13th century brought the nobles to surround John and put this parchment in his hand, so too the conditions of the last 40 years have brought Benedict to surround the hierarchy which has ignored their duties and responsibilities before God.

    Just my immediate, unfounded, and probably incoherent response.

  3. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Summorum Pontificum is:

    a) A historical list of the Popes
    b) Pope Benedict’s biography
    c) A bridge built during the summer months
    d) …?

  4. JML says:

    (d) an ineffable document

  5. alan rees (use AMR) says:

    Magna Carta brings to mind the dispute between King John and Pope Innocent III. John refused the election of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. Innocent excommunicated John and placed England under a papal interdict in 1207. John retaliated by plundering Church property and appropriating clerical offices. This, I presume, suspended all priests from celebrating masses, deprived people of the sacraments, and with no burial in sacred ground. The Interdict lasted from 1207-1212. What would daily life have been like? It is difficult even to imagine.

  6. Paula says:

    Funny you should mention it, Father. I had just read quotes from you on the topic in this week’s Our Sunday Visitor. They continue to present the TLM as a curiosity, of interest to only an eccentric few (although their overall attitude has become a little more positive of late). If this is the attitude of the Catholic press–and, for that matter, of a paper I seem to be the only parishioner to avail myself of, even though it’s provided free as you come in the front door of the church–how can we expect more of the larger world? Oh well, the Lord told us to pray always and not lose hope. I keep reminding myself of that. For my part, I haven’t broached the topic of the TLM with our priest because he already has so much on his plate, being pastor for two parishes.

  7. UST Alumnus says:

    Wow Father, Italy, England, Minnesota, and many places in between… Quite a Carbon Footprint you have, eh?

  8. Thomas says:

    No, d–“ineffable document” cannot be correct because the Church knows better than to issue a document that has anything to do with such a fancy word. lol. Indeed, let us “pray 4 bishops” and all of Christ’s Church.

    That cold sensation can be great…

  9. Oh My! I don’t suppose you met the Dean! Sigh!!!

  10. Hiberniensis says:

    Hopefully there aren’t too many parallels between the two documents, considering the Magna Carta was later annulled by Pope Innocent III.

  11. Tom Cole says:

    Historical knowledge seems to be at a rather low ebb these days. Folks simply don’t think much about it, I think. Historical figures seem to have a hard time competing with movie charaters in the modern imagination.

    The parallel with the recent motu proprio breaks down rather quickly. Pope Innocent III annuled the Magna Carta, as it was signed under duress by his vassal, the king of England. Later, the great pontiff even excommunicated the rebellious barons that forced John to sign it. A later version of the document was legally accepted by Henry III, though…

  12. LCB says:

    What do you expect? British civics classes are borderline insane:


    The Magna Carta stands for everything that secular liberalism hates, of course the pupils aren’t told about it. Children aren’t supposed to think for themselves, they’re supposed to shut up and think what they’re told.

  13. pelerin says:

    English schoolchildren of fifty years ago used to enjoy asking the following joke:
    Q. Where was the Magna Carta signed?
    A. On the bottom of the page!
    Today they would probably ask ‘What’s the Magna Carta?’

  14. Rose of Lima says:

    Just to let everyone know: The National Archives I in DC has a 1297 copy of Magna Carta in their permanent display. It’s the only one in the United States, I believe the private owner is Ross Perro.

    Pelerin: I understand what you mean. When I heard that the Archives had brought back Magna Carta, I said to my house mates, “They are brining back Magna Carta to the Rotunda?” to which one asked, “What’s the Rotunda?” and the other directly after asked, “What’s the Magna Carta?” and these are College Students!! We still laugh.

    Thanks for the post Father Z, I love the blog.

  15. Woody Jones says:

    Free the Sarum Use!

  16. Matt says:

    One thing that impresses me about the Magna Carta is it first establishes the rights of the Church (THE Church).

    God Bless,


  17. Bryan Dunne says:


    Dear Father Zulsdorf,

    Apart from the well-known Magna Charta there was also the Charter of the Forest which
    was the subject of a BBC Radio 4 programme – “Things we forgot to remember” about 6 months ago.

    Here is what the Wikipedia stump says:

    Charter of the forest
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Jump to: navigation, search
    The Charter of the Forest is a little-known charter sealed in England by King Henry III. Carta de Foresta was, in substance, part of the great constitutional reforms imposed by his barons upon King John. It was issued in 1217 as a supplement to Magna Carta which the previous King John wished to repudiate and annul with Papal authority as a “shameful and demeaning agreement, forced upon the king by violence and fear” and revised in 1225.

    In comparison with Magna Carta, it provided some real rights, privileges and protections for the common man against abuses of encroaching aristocracy.[1]

    At a time when the Royal forests were the most important potential source of fuel for cooking, heating and industries such as charcoal burning, this charter was almost unique in providing a degree of economic protection for serfs and vassals.

    It provided a right of common access to (royal) private lands that would wait until the Union to be equalled within the realm.

    It repealed the death penalty for taking Royal game and abolished mutilation as a lesser punishment.

    It was the statute that remained longest in force from 1217 to 1971.

    FINIS Wiki


    In caritate Xp.,

    Bryan Dunne
    Harrow UK

    22nd July 2008

  18. Louise says:

    Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw MP says
    “Magna Carta remains an epochal moment in British history, with a resonance that still lasts today,”

    How can it be “British” history when Britain only came into being in 1707?

  19. Deusdonat says:

    Did SOMEBODY say “i-CON-ic”?????

  20. Jordanes says:

    Louise asked: How can it be “British” history when Britain only came into being in 1707?

    Britain did not come into being in 1707. Pytheas around 200 B.C. refers to the island by the name of “Pretani,” so it must have come into being well before the time of Christ. What came into being in 1707 was not Britain, but the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
    Hiberniensis said: the Magna Carta was later annulled by Pope Innocent III.

    Indeed, and I believe, if memory serves, that all the nobles who had led the rebellion against John and who had put their names to the Magna Charta were also excommunicated and had to seek forgiveness.

    Also, one thing that some may not be aware of is that the Magna Charta’s principle of a right to a jury by one’s peers was only for the titled nobility, that is, it was only for the “peers,” not for every subject of the English crown. The Magna Charta did attempt to limit the power of the king, but not to make him “subject to the law,” or to make him “accountable to the people,” or any such anachronistic notion. It attempted to make him answerable to and in some ways subject to the nobility. That is probably one of the reasons Innocent III annulled it: it was seen as an attack on the divine order of society, I think. Anyway, in time the principle of trial by jury was extended to everyone, but in those days no one dreamed of granting the same rights to commoners as were enjoyed by the titled and landed class.

  21. John says:

    Isn’t the Great Charter is a dead issue in the US? I understand the President can declare whoever he likes an enemy terrorist and they can be held and severely questioned without due process.

    King John died the year after signing the Magna Carta. His luggage train, reportedly carrying his treasury and regalia tried to catch up with him by crossing an estuary (known as The Wash) to save 9 miles. The tide reportedly came in and washed everything away. Treasure seekers have been looking for it ever since. It’s near Sutton Bridge.

    Having stayed overnight at Wisbech Castle, the king’s party stopped at a Cistercian abbey west of Boston at Swineshead. There John became even more ill, and there is a legend that he was poisoned by a treacherous monk called Brother Simon, who may even have been linked to the Templars. It was he, goes this version, who made off with the jewels and sold them off around Europe to make money for his order.

    The king made it to Newark Castle, where he died, aged 49, on October 18, 1216 and was buried at Worcester – minus his missing regalia. Someone may have stolen the loot and the lost treasure in The Wash story was just a ruse to cover the glaring absence of the jewels.

  22. Richard T says:

    Splendid as it is to see the document, as a lawyer I’d question whether any provisions of Magna Carta are still in force. The three usually quoted are:

    1) the freedom of the Church of England.
    Neither the true Church nor the Anglicans are legally free; both are subject to normal secular law, and the Anglicans even have to get their liturgies approved by the secular Parliament.

    2) the freedom of the City of London
    The City might still hang on to a few of its ancient rights, but nothing compared to its old authority, when it had its own system of law.

    3) the freedom from arbitrary arrest
    That was attacked in 2000 (7 days detention without charge), seriously wounded in 2003 (14 days), and killed off in 2006 (28 days). Even if the proposal to extend it to 42 days fails to get through the House of Lords, our freedom from arbitrary arrest is ended.

  23. Jordanes says:

    John said: Isn’t the Great Charter is a dead issue in the US?

    Yes, but not for the reason you cited, since the U.S. president cannot declare “whoever he likes” an enemy terrorist and have him held and severely questioned without due process. It’s a dead issue in the U.S. because none of its provisions is currently a law in the U.S., though a few of its provisions are ancestral to some aspects of U.S. legal tradition.

  24. Deusdonat says:

    John – I understand the President can declare whoever he likes an enemy terrorist and they can be held and severely questioned without due process.

    I’m fairly certain you are refering to the PATRIOT Act of 2001. The President (although I doubt he would be so intimitely involved) could order someone to be detained/held without due process only if that person is an immigrant (even a resident alien). This does not apply to citizens (naturalized or otherwise).

  25. John says:

    I thought the 5th amendment requiring due process embodied the spirit of the Magna Carta. Then there is Article 1 Section 9 The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

    The Supreme Court has ruled a few times that Habeus Corpus is still valid. Getting elected politicians to do anything without a bribe or to defend the Godless Constitution is pretty much a lost cause.

    Article VI
    The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

  26. Deusdonat says:

    John – The constitution was a good idea and revolutionary for its time. But I personally believe it is an historic (see: anachronistic) document which is in dire need of an update/revision. We are simply not capable as a modern society of interpreting 18th century liberal values and applying them to our current situation. To pretend or give the constitution some divine status is dishonest and inevitably flawed. The biggest example I can give is the whole “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” clause. Well, first that only meant free white men. Then it included blacks. Then women. But babies in the womb fall under some nebulous “non being” status where this still does not apply. Why? Because in the 18th century Protestant liberalism, these things were a matter you just didn’t talk about, and they opted to leave such matters to the state level. And we have seen with slavery, Jim Crow, Indian Land Act etc how miserably some states can deal with their social problems.

  27. LCB says:

    Deusdonat writes, ““life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” clause.”

    That phrase does not appear in the US Constitution, it is in the Dec. of Independence.

    Just because people fail to live up to the demands of the Constitution doesn’t mean the document is dated. The Soviet Constitution also guaranteed freedom of religion, but the government and judiciary didn’t enforce it. The failure is found in our politicians and judiciary not properly interpreting a simple document, not in the document itself.

  28. John says:

    One side says the Constitution is a living document that has evolved though the government seems unable to follow it or add amendments. The other side says it sprang perfect from Madison’s god-like head and can never be changed or altered. They may grudgingly concede later amendments but hold the line at more. Both sides seem to have pretty fanciful imaginations as far as what it said or what the founders intended.

    We have come as close as one vote to a calling by the states for a Constitutional Convention. The founding fathers made provisions for both Congress and the states to have the right to amend the document and expected it to happen. The vested interest of corrupt politicians have always caused them to act to prevent this from happening as the people have no limit as to what they can do once the convention is called. That’s how we got the current document in the first place.

    The 3/4 requirement for ratification would mean the only changes that would pass would be those the majority of us can agree upon.

    We look to be reaching a time of crisis like that which forced the Barons of England to act against the misrule of John Lackland and his even worse brother Richard the Lionhearted. Richard was King of England for 10 years and spent a total of 6 months in the country, mainly extorting money for his military adventure abroad. The US government is corrupt and dysfunctional and perhaps its time the people gather to clean up the mess.

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