England’s King John signed the Magna Carta on this day in 1215. The watery meadow twenty miles west of London that hosted the momentous event gave Rudyard Kipling the setting for “What Say the Reeds at Runnymede?,” a poem urging the charter of rights and freedoms onward:
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 judgment found
And passed upon him by his peers.
Forget not, after all these years,
The Charter Signed at Runnymede….
1215: The Year of Magna Carta (Danny Danzinger and John Gillingham, 2003) begins with a walkabout of the British Library’s Treasures Gallery — past a Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio, and “dozens of books of such physical beauty as to rival any painting,” stopping finally at the exhibit before which the gallery’s largest crowd, arrived there from around the world, is gathered. All stare at the “dull, rather ugly-looking” sheet of parchment upon which the Magna Carta’s sixty-two clauses are written — especially at the two that have “come to represent today a ringing expression of freedom for mankind the world over”:
No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or deprived or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.
Individual chapters in 1215 are devoted to one or another of those sixty-two clauses, constructing through documentary details a lively portrait of life in contemporary England. The chapter exploring the above clauses shows that, as the nation transitioned from trial by ordeal (fire, hot or cold water, poison, cross…) to trial by jury and common law, post-charter justice could still get pretty rough. In 1217, George, lord of the manor of Northway in Gloucestershire, couldn’t resolve his differences with Thomas, an employee of the manor and former lover to George’s wife. Their disagreements took the prescribed judicial course — a jury of neighbors, the case brought before the king’s circuit judges (albeit not until 1221, their next scheduled stop in the region) — but the upshot was still a trial by battle, decided by Thomas crying the obligatory “Craven” in defeat and suffering both blinding and castration at the hands of the gathered crowd.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.