[ CALL TO ARMS ] Help British Library Decipher This Inscription
Visitors to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy may have noticed that we have one or two objects on display, in addition to the many manuscripts and documents telling Magna Carta’s 800-year-old story. One of those objects is a double-edged sword, found in the first section of the exhibition, on loan to the British Library from our friends at the British Museum.
The item in question was found in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in July 1825, and was presented to the Royal Archaeological Institute by the registrar to the Bishop of Lincoln. It weighs 1.2 kg (2 lb 10 oz) and measures 964 mm (38 in.) in length and 165 mm (6½ in.) across the hilt; if struck with sufficient force, it could easily have sliced a man’s head in two.
A double-edged sword, 13th century, possibly of German manufacture but discovered in England in the 19th century (British Museum 1858,1116.5): image courtesy of the British Museum
An intriguing feature of this sword is an as yet indecipherable inscription, found along one of its edges and inlaid in gold wire. It has been speculated that this is a religious invocation, since the language is unknown. Can you have a go at trying to decipher it for us? Here’s what the inscription seems to read:
Eight hundred years ago on June 15, 1215, in a field at Runnymede, King John of England affixed his seal to Magna Carta. Confronted by 40 rebellious barons, he consented to their demands in order to avert civil war.
Magna Carta was written by a group of 13th-century barons to protect their rights and property against a tyrannical king. It is concerned with many practical matters and specific grievances relevant to the feudal system under which they lived. The interests of the common man were hardly apparent in the minds of the men who brokered the agreement. It also failed to resolve the conflict between King John and his barons, and was reissued several times after his death. But principles expressed in Magna Carta resonate to this day.
During the American Revolution, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defense. The colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. They embedded those rights into the laws of their states and later into the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The document, written on parchment in 1297 with iron gall ink, is one of four surviving 1297 versions of Magna Carta in the world today and is on display at the National Archives, courtesy of philanthropist David M. Rubenstein.
On this day in 1215, King John of England put his ‘Great Seal’
on the Magna Carta (‘The Great Charter’) at Runnymede. The charter required the King to respect the
liberties of the barons and, crucially, stated that everybody, even the king, is subject to the law. The Magna Carta was the result of political crisis, as the feudal barons
had rebelled against the king - even capturing London - and forced him to accept the charter to ensure their privileges and curtail royal power. However, the charter’s declaration of equality before the law and right to a fair trial makes it a vital piece of the history of British democracy. It was certainly limited, as its famous provisions securing legal rights of ‘free men’ would only have applied to an elite few. The Magna Carta also failed to cease hostilities between King John and the barons, as John’s reluctance to implement the charter led to civil war between the groups. The charter was largely rewritten by various monarchs through the years, though some of the original clauses remain law today, making it a key part of Britain’s uncodified constitution. Despite its limitations, the Magna Carta remains a crucial piece of British history, marking a defence against tyrannical power and assurance of individual liberties.
In June the world will celebrate 800 years since the issuing of Magna Carta. But 2015 is also the anniversary of another important, and far more radical, British milestone in democratic history.
Almost exactly 750 years ago, an extraordinary parliament opened in Westminster. For the very first time, elected representatives from every county and major town in England were invited to parliament on behalf of their local communities.
It was, in the words of one historian, “the House of Commons in embryo”.
Read more on BBC, that is covering the topic extensively, for the BBC Democracy Day (20 Jan)
Image: Statue of de Montfort on the Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower in Leicester
Amazing! Original Magna Carta Copy Found in Scrapbook
An original copy of the Magna Carta has been discovered in a scrapbook in Kent, England.
The tattered document dates back to 1300, 85 years after King John of England was compelled to sign the first agreement limiting the rights of kings. This version was issued by King Edward I (King John’s grandson), who was under pressure from the church and the barons to reaffirm good governance, said Sophie Ambler, a research associate with the Magna Carta Project.
“Nobody knew it was there,” Ambler said of the damaged document. “This Magna Carta had been stuck into a scrapbook by a Victorian official from the British Museum at the end of the 19th century.” Read more.