Interview: Associate Director of Oxford Library on Magna Carta, at Legion of Honor in San Francisco

An original version of the Magna Carta at the Legion of Honor. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)
The Magna Carta may have been around for some 800 years, but there’s just a week left to see it at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

Last week, Richard Ovenden, associate director and keeper of special collections at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, appeared on KQED Radio’s Forum to talk about the history of the Magna Carta, the first document to limit the absolute power of a monarch.

After the appearance, I interviewed Mr. Ovenden.

So what can people see at the Legion of Honor?

They can see a document that 800 yrs ago was written by a scribe in King Henry III’s administration. It has wax seals of the king’s guardians, the papal legate, Cardinal Guala Bicchieri, and William Marshall, the Earl of Pembroke, because Henry was a boy king.

The document, which dates to 1217, has roughly 2.5 thousand words and in 56 lines established some of the basic principles of democracy, the rule of law, and good government that persist through to our modern constitutions and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

What are some of those principles?

No individual, least of all a monarch, is superior to the rule of law, and can only govern through the consent of the people. Not the people in our modern sense of democracy — it applied to the barons of the country. But those principles remained powerful, and they were later enshrined in the charters of the New England colonies, the Declaration of Independence, the Fifth Amendment, and then in modern democracies of countries like Australia, India, and other former British colonies.

In Britain, there is no written constitution, but Magna Carta got rolled into the statutes of the realm. Six of the original 67 clauses of the charter are still law in the U.K.

And how is it a seminal document?

It was 100 years before Parliament was established, and the first time the King fixed his royal seal on something that says he’s subject to the rule of law, as opposed to divine right.

I was always taught that the charter dates to 1215, but this document was issued in 1217…

1215 was when King John made the agreement. It was reissued a number of times throughout 13th century when kings needed to reestablish that they were going to behave according to its principles. The original 1215 document doesn’t survive.

The document at the Legion of Honor is one of 17 from that period extant.

It’s not written in English, correct?

It’s written in medieval Latin. Anyone who knows Latin could struggle their way through a translation, even if they have only a smattering and a dictionary. And you can find translations online.

A few weeks ago, KQED News anchor/reporter Cy Musiker visited the exhibit and brought back these pictures.

Related:

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  • cynthiabgallagher@comcast.net

    Of foremost relevance, King John signed the Magna Carta most reluctantly–not until he did comply with the request of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, in behalf of Pope Innocent III, did the Pope’s Barons reinstate their Oath of Fealty to John. Shakespeare does in fact Stephen Langton in his first history play, King John (3.1.143); furthermore, he reminds us of King John’s impressions of those who sought the vast quantity of land that his Mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 or 1124 – 1 April 1204) had inherited, property in France that she did seek most conscientiously to bestow her sons; land that everyone in France and in England did crave. King John’s evaluation of his adversaries: “All of the kings of Christendom are led so grossly by this meddling priest; dreading the curse that money buy out…this juggling witchcraft with revenue cherish” (Shakespeare, 1955, 3.1.162-169). Shakespeare does recall that Oath in Act 3, and he does indicate that King John is somewhat innovative in the first Protestant Movement. I am not suggesting that these words be taken out of the context in which the Bard did intend them; nor am I supporting any generalized meaning of them.

    One should not forget that neither King John nor his son wrote the Carta; rather, it was written by the very Barons who supported Pope Innocent III and who were represented also by Cardinal Pandulph, the Pope’s legate–issues that Shakespeare himself addresses as he introduces us to the Holy See. You know, I am a bit puzzled because I introduced this subject to a distant cousin in ancestry.com more than a year ago with whom I share a family tree with the most distinguishable George Seward whom we trust is in the best of health.

    Indeed, another issue about the Magna Carta relates to the entire biographies, not only of Eleanor of Aquitaine, but to those of the Plantagenet descent of her second husband Henry II, whose association in Jerusalem, I witness, is being challenged by those of contemporary Western faiths.

    King John’s Mother, hence his son Henry III’s Grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Eleanor’s first husband, Louis VII (the Younger or the Young) of France with whom she sojourned in the futile Second Crusade, ultimately represented diverse ethical and religious quests.

    Geoffrey V Plantagenet (1113-1151), the father of Eleanor’s second husband, Henry II, was the first Plantagenet–his Father was Fulk V the Younger of Anjou (1092-1143), documented as a “King of Jerusalem” who died in Israel; his Mother, Ermengarde DuMaine (1096-1126). Henry II’s line to William the Conqueror is through his Mother Matilda P. England (1102-1169), the daughter of Henry Beauclerc (1068-1135) and Mathilda of Scotland (1080-1118). Please correct me if this is erroneous information.

    We must value and continue to research important concepts, analogies, and examples that are covered by the Oxford English Dictionary (the OED)–Elizabethan and Renaissance times do coincide, as indicated through the importance of the Magna Carta that is at last recognized by leaders who supported and influenced Shakespeare’s first history play, which also indicates the adversaries of King John who did accuse him of conspiring in the death of his young nephew Arthur (29 March 1187-1203). Shakepeare in fact quotes some magnificent lines of Eleanor who thought that Arthur was too young to manage the kingdom–Arthur was 20 years younger than John. Even Hubert, a citizen of Angiers before he served King John, did not take the life of 16-year old Arthur. After King John realized the seriousness of the issue, he expressed remorse just before Arthur jumped from a castle tower. Adamantly supported in France and in Italy by those who did not wish to return to Eleanor any property she intended for her sons, Constance, the widow of John’s brother Geoffrey, preferred war to win the crown for her son who was 20-years younger than John. This issue is too frequently ignored.

    Another issue that Shakespeare remarkably addresses is his introduction of the “Bastard” son of Eleanor’s first son, Richard de Coeur (Richard the Lionhearted) who always spoke French and who throughout the Crusades was respected by Muslims–at last knighted as Sir Richard Plantagenet (Philip).

Author

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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