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40 posts categorized "Magna Carta"

25 April 2015

King John's Last Will and Testament

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Did you know that the oldest surviving original English royal will is on display in our Magna Carta exhibition? And that it was written on behalf of King John in October 1216? Here, Katie Har -- who was part of the team which worked on the exhibition -- examines its context.

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The will of King John (Worcester Cathedral Muniments B1693), on display at the British Library until 1 September 2015

In the autumn of 1216, with the kingdom still embroiled in civil war, King John fell ill, probably of dysentery, while in the prosperous -- and, more importantly, friendly to the Crown -- port and town of Lynn. His illness steadily worsened as he made his way back through Lincolnshire, making it as far as the bishop of Lincoln’s castle at Newark just over the border in Nottinghamshire. Then, on the 18th or 19th of October (depending on which sources are to be believed) John eventually succumbed to his illness.

Newark Castle, Nottinghamshire by the River Trent

In the last days before his death John had his will drawn up. In it he specifically stated that the gravity of his illness prevented him from drawing up an itemized will, so instead he named 13 men to oversee the fulfilment of his wishes. Here is the text of his will, in English translation (taken from S. Church, English Historical Review, 125 (2010)):

I, John, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, count of Anjou, hindered by grave infirmity and not being able at this time of my infirmity to itemize all my things so that I may make a testament, commit the arbitration and administration of my testament to the trust and to the legitimate administration of my faithful men whose names are written below, without whose counsel, even in good health, I would have by no means arranged my testament in their presence, so that what they will faithfully arrange and determine concerning my things as much as in making satisfaction to God and to holy Church for damages and injuries done to them as in sending succour to the land of Jerusalem and in providing support to my sons towards obtaining and defending their inheritance and in making reward to those who have served us faithfully and in making distribution to the poor and to religious houses for the salvation of my soul, be right and sure. I ask, furthermore, that whoever shall give them counsel and assistance in the arranging of my testament shall receive the grace and favour of God. Whoever shall infringe their arrangement and disposition, may he incur the curse and indignation of almighty God and the blessed Mary and all the saints.

In the first place, therefore, I desire that my body be buried in the church of St Mary and St Wulfstan at Worcester. I appoint, moreover, the following arbiters and administrators: the lord Guala, by the grace of God, cardinal-priest of the title of St Martin and legate of the apostolic see; the lord Peter bishop of Winchester; the lord Richard bishop of Chichester; the lord Silvester bishop of Worcester; Brother Aimery de St-Maur; William Marshal earl of Pembroke; Ranulf earl of Chester; William earl Ferrers; William Brewer; Walter de Lacy and John of Monmouth; Savaric de Mauléon; Falkes de Bréauté.

If concessions are made for the practice of sealing rather than signing documents, this is a valid will as we would know it today. It fulfils all the criteria: that the person writing the will must be 18 or over; that they make it voluntarily; be of sound mind; make it in writing; sign it in the presence of two witnesses who are both over 18; and have it signed by their two witnesses, in their presence. Perhaps, following the use of the Latin word ‘testamentum’ in this document, we should refer to it as a ‘testament’ rather than a ‘will’. Our modern use of the word ‘will’ links back to the Old English phrase ‘ic wille’ (I desire), used in the Anglo-Saxon period in documents directing the disposal of one’s property after one’s death.

The alleged poisoning of King John by a monk of Swineshead Abbey (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII, f. 5v)

While there is an entire corpus of these sorts of documents going back to the Anglo-Saxon period, King John’s will is the earliest English royal will to survive in its original form. We have later copies of wills of two Anglo-Saxon kings, Alfred (d. 899) and Eadred (d. 955), as well as multiple copies of the will of John’s father, Henry II (d. 1189). There are references to, but no texts for, those of his brother Richard (d. 1199) or his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (d. 1204). There was no regular practice of enrolling or necessarily carefully preserving royal wills in the governmental records, either before John's reign or subsequently under his son Henry III, so it’s perhaps a fluke that this document has managed to survive to this day.  

The document itself is small, around the size of a postcard. From the fold at the bottom and the slits found there, the royal seal clearly once hung from the bottom of the will, likely accompanied by the seals of the 8 appointed executors present at the drawing up of the will. With only half of the kingdom under royal control at his death, one of the responsibilities of the men chosen to execute John’s last will lay ‘in providing support to [his] sons towards obtaining and defending their inheritance’. Among the 13 overseers we find named Guala (d. 1227), the papal legate, and the future regent, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke (d. 1219). Both men played a major part in securing the throne for Henry III, including being instrumental in the 1216 reissue of Magna Carta.

King John's will has been very generously loaned by Worcester Cathedral to the British Library's major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. John was buried at Worcester in accordance with the terms of his will. Next year Worcester Cathedral will be commemorating the 800th anniversary of King John's death, and in 2015-16 they are also hosting a series of special events relating to King John and Magna Carta.


Katherine Har

Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. There is also a comprehensive events programme and a website dedicated to Magna Carta.

23 April 2015

John Wilkes and Magna Carta

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As curators of the British Library's major Magna Carta exhibition, we're often asked how we've managed to bring to life the story of what one British government official, writing in March 1941, described as 'a bit of parchment, of no intrinsic value whatever, rather the worse for wear'. The simple answer is that we've presented numerous stories of how Magna Carta has been used (and abused) across the centuries, to show how the text has evolved and what it means to us today. Among the men and women featured in our exhibition are: Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, Edward Coke and King Charles I, William Penn, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, William Blackstone and John Wilkes, Rudyard Kipling, Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, and Helena Normanton and Eleanor Roosevelt. Here, to mark the 252nd anniversary of the publication of the infamous issue number 45 of The North Briton, our researcher Alex Lock tells the story of John Wilkes and Magna Carta.

A portrait of John Wilkes by Robert Edge Pine (d. 1788), kindly loaned to our Magna Carta exhibition by the Palace of Westminster, London 

Since the lapse of pre-publication censorship in England in 1697 newspapers could be published relatively freely throughout Great Britain – a liberty vaunted by many Britons, especially when they compared themselves with the ancien regimes of Europe. For successive British governments, frredom of the press created major problems. Uncensored and scurrilous, newspapers could be used to cultivate public opinion and to question the government’s activities. In order to suppress some of the more radical publications, the Secretary of State could therefore issue General Warrants, authorising the arrest without charge of anyone suspected of involvement in the publication of a ‘seditious libel’ (that is, anything that was deemed to insult a ‘public person’, the government or monarchy regardless of the truth of the claims). Given this broad definition of what constituted a seditious libel, and the fact that the names of the suspects did not need to be recorded, General Warrants presented a continual threat to authors, editors and publishers in the 18th century.  

This Wedgwood teapot (c. 1774) shows John Wilkes associated with emblems of English liberty, among which is Magna Carta, kindly loaned to the British Library by the Victoria & Albert Museum

The constitutionality of General Warrants had long been debated, but the scandal that surrounded them following the arrest of the newspaper editor and politician John Wilkes (d. 1797) marked a step change in the growth of popular opposition to them. In 1763 Wilkes was arrested under a General Warrant for publishing a seditious libel against King George III in the infamous no. 45 issue of his newspaper The North Briton. As an MP, Wilkes was quickly released on the grounds of parliamentary privilege, and he soon launched a campaign against the legality of his arrest and the constitutionality of General Warrants. Wilkes and his supporters invoked Magna Carta extensively as a symbol of the ancient rights and liberties that were under threat from the government. Indeed, Wilkes was a master propagandist and his use of Magna Carta in his defence, in print, portraits and caricatures, became closely associated with the ideals of ‘English liberty’. In the 1760s mobs calling out ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ became a common phenomenon on the streets of London.

The Appendix to issue no. 45 of The North Briton, in which John Wilkes set out the circumstances of his defence, beginning by citing Magna Carta

The association of Wilkes with Magna Carta was further enhanced by enterprising businessmen seeking to profit from Wilkes’ growing popularity. A range of items flooded the market, from teapots to jugs and porcelain figurines, all displaying Wilkes with the Great Charter in his hand. Caricaturists also capitalised on his renown, and made numerous prints of Wilkes with Magna Carta in order to lambast his political enemies.

Eventually, however, the law caught up with Wilkes. The House of Commons soon resolved that parliamentary privilege did not cover seditious libel. Having been expelled from Parliament, the prosecution of Wilkes was begun. The day after the Commons debate, Wilkes was seriously injured in a duel (against a fellow MP who had impugned Wilkes’ character in the preceding debate!); unable to appear before court to answer any charges, he was outlawed and forced into exile in Paris. Although resident in Paris, the propaganda celebrating Wilkes and liberty did not diminish, and there continued to be a steady stream of effective propaganda which connected Wilkes with the symbols of ‘English liberty’, most frequently Magna Carta, such as had raised his profile in the first place.

This porcelain figure vies with the Wilkes teapot to be one of our favourite items in the exhibition (kindly loaned by the Trustees of the British Museum): 'Magna Carta' is inscribed on the scroll just above the Bill of Rights

After 4 years in exile on the Continent, Wilkes returned to England in 1768, having run out of money, and handed himself over to the authorities. As popular with the public as ever, and although he had voluntarily delivered himself into custody, Wilkes was freed by a mob and was ultimately forced to re-enter prison in disguise. Indeed, so popular was he that he managed on several occasions to secure re-election to Parliament from his prison cell, even though the result was declared void each time by the government!

John Wilkes's successful use of Magna Carta in the 18th century was a landmark in changing interpretations of that document. What had originated in the 13th century as a peace treaty between the king and the barons was now being used to challenge the very authority of Parliament and the government, on the path to securing greater liberties for the population at large.

Alexander Lock


Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, the largest and most significant exhibition ever devoted to the Great Charter, is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. Most of the items on display can also be seen on our dedicated Magna Carta website. Please follow us on Twitter (@BLMedieval, using the hashtag #MagnaCarta).

16 April 2015

Murder in the Cathedral

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One of the most notorious episodes in medieval English history took place at Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. During evening vespers, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury and erstwhile friend of King Henry II, was murdered by four of the king’s knights, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville and Richard Brito. They are said to have been incited to action by Henry’s exasperated words, ‘What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!’

The earliest known miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket (London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B II, f. 341r)

Becket's martyrdom was the subject of T. S. Eliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral, first performed on 15 June 1935 in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral before it moved to a run at the Mercury Theatre in London. Eliot’s play drew on the work of an eyewitness to the event, a clerk named Edward Grim who had attempted to defend Becket from William de Tracy’s blow. Henry had actually hoped that the appointment of his chancellor, Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury, would help him to reassert royal authority over the Church. But the king had not anticipated that Becket would resign as chancellor shortly after he was elevated to the see of Canterbury. The conflict between Henry II and Becket centred on the perennial issue of the balance between royal and papal authority and the rights of the church in England.

Becket’s murder sent shockwaves across Western Christendom. The four knights were excommunicated by Pope Alexander III, who ordered them to serve in the Holy Land for 14 years while they sought his forgiveness. Becket himself was canonised in February 1173, less than 3 years after his death, and Canterbury Cathedral became a major site of pilgrimage – Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, from the late 14th century, are testament to the continued popularity of pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas. Henry II, meanwhile, undertook a public act of penance on 12 July 1174. Confessing to indirect responsibility for the murder, he entered Canterbury in sackcloth, both barefoot and mute, and made a pilgrimage to the crypt of St Thomas where he was whipped by the monks while he lay prostrate and naked by the tomb.

Our new exhibition, Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy, includes three items that relate to the legacy of Becket’s martyrdom. One is a 12th-century English manuscript of the Letters of Thomas Becket, collected by Alan of Tewkesbury, which contains the earliest known manuscript miniature of Becket’s martyrdom, shown above. The second is a beautiful enamelled Champlevé reliquary from Limoges, on loan from the British Museum. On one compartment is an image of Becket being struck with a sword; above, he rises from his tomb to ascend to heaven. Reliquaries such as this would have been used to store relics of the saint.

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A reliquary depicting the martyrdom of Thomas Becket (British Museum 1854,0411.2) 

The third item relating to Becket's martyrdom is the seal of his successor, Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury (1207-28). Langton's seal shows the murder of Thomas Becket on its reverse, as a permanent reminder of the suffering endured by the Church. It should occasion no surprise, therefore, that the first clause of Magna Carta, perhaps inserted at Langton's insistence (and still valid in English law today), confirms the liberties of the church in England.

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The seal of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, depicting Thomas Becket's martyrdom (London, British Library, Harley Charter 75 A 14)

Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015 (#MagnaCarta)

Katherine Har

12 April 2015

Guess the Manuscript With A Difference

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Today we're playing Guess the Manuscript with a difference. Normally you can find the answer on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, but that won't be any help this time round. Instead, the manuscript below is found in our Magna Carta exhibition ... but which item is it? A lead will be found on our dedicated Magna Carta website, produced by our Learning team, but just to be extra awkward we're not going to include the link here.




We'll give you the answer soon. Go on, it shouldn't be too difficult. Answers as usual can be submitted on the comments field below or on Twitter to @BLMedieval.

Update (13 April): And the answer is ... well, it wasn't that hard, the Nightmares of Henry I, on loan to the British Library from Corpus Christi College, Oxford. But be warned, the next one will be really devious.

The Nightmares of Henry I, by John of worcester (Worcester Cathedral Priory, 12th century): Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 157, p. 382W


Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is open at the British Library until 1 September 2015

"The show is a feast for anyone with an interest in medieval history or how the freedoms we cherish were devised and defended" (The Daily Telegraph)

"Magna Carta, it turns out, still packs a mighty emotional punch" (The Guardian)

"Four years in the making, this exhibition is a huge success, encompassing 1,000 years of political and cultural history with a surprising and impressive array of items" (History Today)

10 April 2015

Pictures At An Exhibition

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If you've been down to our Magna Carta exhibition, you may have realised that it's not just a show about books and documents. Among the exhibits are no fewer than 20 prints and drawings and 8 paintings, all of which help to set Magna Carta in its historical context. Mounting an exhibition of this magnitude has been no mean feat, and we're hugely indebted to the various institutions who have kindly loaned some of their key items to the British Library, namely the British Museum; the Victoria and Albert Museum; the National Portrait Gallery; HM The Queen and the Royal Collection, Windsor; the Palace of Westminster; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; and the Musée Carnavalet, Paris.


Portrait of King John by an unknown artist (c. 1620) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from The National Portrait Gallery, London)

Every picture tells a story. Below are ten of the more intriguing ones, all of them featured in our Magna Carta exhibition.

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The Death of Arthur from Bowyer’s History of England (1793) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from a private lender, reproduced here by courtesy of The British Museum, London)

This sinister engraving of the murder of Prince Arthur was one of the illustrations commissioned by Robert Bowyer (d. 1834) for a new edition of David Hume’s The History of England. The original painting by William Hamilton (d. 1801) was exhibited in London in 1793, shortly after the guillotining of King Louis XVI of France (1754-93), and it shows King John's nephew, Prince Arthur, begging for his life. The murderer is unidentified, but the catalogue accompanying the 1793 exhibition names him as King John. If you look closely you can see a bat (the harbinger of doom) hovering above the murderer’s dagger.

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King John Delivering Magna Carta to the Barons (1783) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from The British Museum, London)

There is a sad story behind this coloured print. It reproduces a painting by John Hamilton Mortimer (d. 1779), exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1776, imagining the scene of the granting of Magna Carta at Runnymede. The engraving from which the print was produced was begun by William Wynne Ryland in 1783. Later that year, however, Ryland was convicted of handling forged bills, and he was hanged at Tyburn in London. His widow, Mary, raised a subscription for this print to be published in her husband’s memory.

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Painting of Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John, by Charles Buchel (1900) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from The Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

We particularly like this brooding portrait of the Shakespearian actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree (d. 1917), loaned to our exhibition by the V&A. Tree performed King John to some 170,000 spectators at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London between 20 September 1899 and 6 January 1900, and his performance was captured in the earliest record of Shakespeare on film (also in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy). The artist, Charles Buchel (d. 1950), revealed that Tree was a ‘a bad sitter … because he was impatient and seemed to want to do the work himself!’ Part-way through the sitting, Tree jumped up and proposed acting the part of King John as he was being painted, and even enlisting the help of other members of the cast to put on the play -- an offer which the artist declined!


The Contrast, 1793: British Liberty, French Liberty, Which is best? (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from The British Museum, London)

This colourful print by Thomas Rowlandson (d. 1827) was made in London at the time of the French Revolution, and contrasts the virtues of ‘British Liberty’ with the dangers of Jacobin ‘French Liberty’. The roundel on the left depicts Britannia holding ‘Magna Charta’ and the scales of Justice, with the noble lion of England reposing peacefully at her feet. On the right, a gruesome French Medusa, carrying a trident impaled with hearts and a severed head, tramples a decapitated corpse underfoot, with a man hanging from a lamp-post in the background. The legend equates British liberty with ‘justice’, ‘prosperity’ and ‘happiness’, while French liberty led to ‘misery’, ‘injustice’, ‘ruin’ and (hmmm) 'equality.

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Jean-Jacques François Le Barbier, Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (c. 1789) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from Musée Carnavalet, Paris)

Our favourite item in the exhibition changes day by day. But this painting is always one of the leading candidates. On 26 August 1789, the French National Constituent Assembly issued the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen) which defined individual and collective rights at the time of the French Revolution. The Déclaration echoed Magna Carta in certain key statements, such as by subordinating the monarch to the rule of law, by maintaining that, ‘Nul homme ne peut etre accusé, arreté ni detenu que dans les cas déterminés par la loi’ (No person shall be accused, arrested or imprisoned except in those cases established by the law), and by ensuring that taxation could only be raised by common consent. This allegorical painting by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (d. 1826) is remarkable for its incorporation of a printed text of the Déclaration, pasted onto the canvas.

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Design for a column with a statue of William III intended to be erected at Runnymede (1788?) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from The British Museum, London)

This has to be one of the strangest stories relating to Runnymede. In 1788 the followers of the statesman, Charles James Fox (d. 1806), proposed that a column dedicated to the Glorious Revolution (1689) should be constructed at Runnymede. The scheme never came to fruition, not least because the column in question would doubtless have sunk into the floodplain of the River Thames. This plan by William Thomas is its only material legacy. But Fox's opponents used the opportunity to lambast him for the proposal, as in this print produced by William Dent. Here a fox is shown hanging from a gibbet, excreting ‘Runny Mead’ from its backside. Justice, Britannia and Liberty rejoice underneath the gibbet, chanting, ‘Let’s joyful Dance and merry Sing … Huzza! … for Ch[ar]l[e]y is quite the thing’.

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Etching of a fox hanging from a gibbet and excreting ‘Runny Mead’, by William Dent (London, 1789) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from The British Museum, London)

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Print of Arthur Beardmore teaching Magna Carta to his son (1765) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from HM The Queen and the Royal Collection, Windsor)

This print, on loan to our exhibition from the Royal Collection, refers to one of the more curious uses of Magna Carta in the 18th century. In 1762 the lawyer and journalist, Arthur Beardmore (d. 1771), was arrested for publishing a seditious libel against Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha (d. 1772), the mother of King George III (1760–1820). Beardmore sued the government for unlawful arrest, winning the case in 1765, and to commemorate the ruling this print was produced, portraying Beardmore at the moment of his arrest, ‘teaching his Son Magna Charta’.

Now look at this anonymous etching below. It shows Dick Swift teaching his son the Ten Commandments, and is a clear parody of the Beardmore print. Dick Swift was a convicted criminal, transported for handling stolen goods and re-arrested in 1765 after he returned to England. Striking a pose identical to Beardmore, Swift shows his son the 8th Commandment, torn so as to read ‘Thou Shalt Steal’. A noose hangs ominously over the head of the son, who, abiding by this instruction, picks his father’s pocket. And in case the parallel isn't clear, the print of Beardmore is nailed to the back wall!

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Print of Dick Swift Thieftaker of the City of London Teaching his Son the Commandments (1765) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from HM The Queen and the Royal Collection, Windsor)

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Procession Attending the Great National Petition to the House of Commons (1842) (on loan to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy from The British Museum, London)

This print, on loan to the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition from the British Museum, shows the presentation of the largest Chartist petition to Parliament in 1842. Written on paper some 6 miles (10 km) long, the Great National Petition weighed over 48 stone (more than 300 kg). As the print states, the petition contained the signatures of 3,317,702 people, one-third of the adult population of Great Britain. The central view of the print shows the great Chartist procession that accompanied the petition along Whitehall to Parliament, and to the left is a depiction of the radical Member of Parliament, Thomas Slingsby Duncombe (d. 1861), presenting the petition in the House of Commons. The Chartists consciously echoed Magna Carta in the choice of their name, since they agitated for the extension of voting rights and other Parliamentary reforms.


Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on display at the British Library until 1 September 2015. The items featured in this post can also be viewed on our dedicated Magna Carta website.

Julian Harrison, curator of Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

08 April 2015

The Trial of Queen Caroline

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Today we continue our series of blogposts featuring items in our major current exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. Don't forget that the exhibition is open in London until 1 September 2015, and that you can read about the exhibits in the accompanying catalogue and on our dedicated Magna Carta website ...

Caroline of Brunswick

Portrait of Caroline of Brunswick by James Lonsdale (image courtesy of City of London Corporation)

On 8 April 1795, in the Chapel Royal, St James’s, George, Prince of Wales, the future King George IV (reigned 1820–30), married his cousin, the German Princess Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. It was not to be a happy union. When the marriage broke down very publicly in 1820 it scandalised the nation. During what became known as the ‘Trial of Queen Caroline’, supporters of the jilted Queen used Magna Carta to challenge what they regarded as a hypocritical and corrupt political establishment.

From the outset the marriage was never going to be a success. Prince George was already married to Maria Fitzherbert — though as she was a Catholic it did not legally count — and he was also having an affair with Frances Villiers, Lady Jersey. Indeed, George only consented to marrying Caroline because his father, King George III, agreed to pay off all of the Prince’s considerable debts if he did. Yet George remained so uninterested in matrimony that, when he was asked who he might like to marry, he reportedly claimed it did not matter as ‘one damned German frau is as good as another’. He should have paid more attention. Princess Caroline — who was chosen for him by his father — was reportedly a woman of high spirits, loose conduct, indecent language and poor hygiene. When Prince George first met her he was so dismayed that he turned aside and asked for brandy, and on the morning of their wedding he was so inebriated that he had to be physically supported throughout the ceremony. Unsurprisingly, within a year the royal couple were living separately, althought Caroline had achieved some success as a high society figure. She resided in Blackheath, London, and regularly made extravagant tours around the Mediterranean where she travelled with a large entourage, her favourite being her valet Bartolomeo Bergami — a well built, tall, handsome Italian.

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Queen Caroline, Britain’s Best Hope. England’s Sheet Anchor (1820), on loan to the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition by kind permission of the Palace of Westminster

As soon as George IV became king in 1820, Caroline immediately returned to England to claim her place as Queen of England. Outraged, and seeking a divorce, George pressured Parliament to prepare a bill to strip Caroline of her title and end the marriage by Act of Parliament. A divorce through the ecclesiastical courts was difficult for the King given his own embarrassingly scandalous love life, and the bill in Parliament was considered the most expedient mode of attaining a divorce. The passage of the bill through Parliament became a spectacular cause celebre. The queen attended Westminster on a daily basis to hear the MPs debate her conduct (particularly with the Italian Bergami) in a process that emerged as something akin to a trial. The ‘trial’ of Queen Caroline became, as the government feared, a cause which radical parliamentary reformers exploited, as yet one more example of a corrupt political establishment supporting its own interests and in need of change. Caroline became the focus of many demonstrations and the topic for public prints in which she was represented as a wronged woman and an icon of the oppressed. Her lost rights became associated with the people’s lost rights, and she was often depicted as a heroine alongside that great symbol of English liberty, Magna Carta.

Henry Hone, The Queen and Magna Charta (London, 1820) (London, British Library, G.18982(25), p. 24), on show in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

Since at least the English Civil Wars Magna Carta had been used as an important symbol of ancient English liberty, and in their public defence of Queen Caroline the radicals invoked the Great Charter with equal zeal. In the print Queen Caroline. Britain’s Best Hope!!, generously loaned by the Houses of Parliament for our exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, Caroline leans, in a pose reminiscent of Britannia, against an anchor representing the constitution composed of ‘Magna Charta, The People,’ and the ‘Bill of Rights’. United, they represent ‘Britain’s best hope’ of stability and strength in the face of corrupt government.

This theme was even more emphatically pursued in William Hone’s satirical poem The Queen and Magna Charta (1820). Hone was a radical writer, publisher and occasional bankrupt of some renown, and the fact that this book went through at least five editions in 1820 is testament to how it captured the mood of the British public during the ‘trial’. Based on another well-known satirical poem by Hone, The House that Jack Built (which again invoked Magna Carta), this poem compared:


Of Runnymede Field,

Who once made a Tyrant’s ambition to yield,

By guarding OLD ENGLAND

With Liberty’s Shield,

And demanding THE THING


with their ‘PUNY DESCENDANTS’ who now sat in judgment upon the Queen from the comfort of their seats in Parliament. Encouraging his readership to rise up against the establishment, Hone invoked Magna Carta throughout the poem as:




Round which



will join’

Henry Hone, The Queen and Magna Charta (London, 1820) (London, British Library, G.18982(25), p. 25)

Such powerful propaganda, stressing the rights of British subjects as outlined in Magna Carta, had a significant effect on public opinion and altered the fate of Queen Caroline as the bill passed through Parliament. With memories of the French Revolution still vivid in the minds of many government ministers, and concerned that public outrage at the trial might lead to insurrection, Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister, announced that the bill would be dropped, leading to country-wide celebrations on a large scale.

Caroline’s victory was short lived. Following the ‘trial’ Caroline accepted the government’s offer of an allowance of £50,000 a year if she went to live quietly abroad, but within a year she had died following a short illness. Her funeral cortège through London attracted a large crowd, who rioted when the government attempted to re-route the procession through the quieter backstreets of London. Eventually reaching Harwich, her remains were returned by boat to Germany where — in accordance with her wishes — she was buried by her father at their ancestral home in Brunswick.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library, London, until 1 September 2015. Entry costs £12, under 18s enter free and other concessions are available.

Alex Lock

01 April 2015

Nothing But The Trooth

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Here at the British Library we’re famous for our April Fool blogposts. Who can forget the discovery of the unicorn cookbook, the time we encountered the Loch Ness monster, or the alien spaceship we found illustrated in a medieval calendar? But this year we’ve decided to keep to the straight and narrow. No jokes this year. Honest.

King John teeth

Instead, we’re going to bring you the teeth of King John. Yes, King John of Magna Carta fame, who notoriously snarled and gnashed his teeth when forced to concede the Great Charter in 1215 (at least, that’s what we’re led to believe) and who, to judge by the evidence, was in need of a very good dentist. At the Library we have two of John’s molars on display in our Magna Carta exhibition, and we’re not making that up. The gnashers in question were reportedly removed from the king’s tomb at Worcester Cathedral when it was opened in 1797, by one William Wood, a stationer’s apprentice. Next to the teeth we have on show a note recording their return, together with an account of the opening of the tomb. The molars have been kindly loaned to us for the duration of the exhibition by our friends at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum.

So, in this week when another medieval English monarch was interred at Leicester Cathedral, what can we learn about Bad King John from his teeth? For starters, John must have been in an exceedingly foul mood when Magna Carta was presented to him, to judge by the state of his molars. X-rays were made of the two royal teeth that still survive outside the coffin, and we are indebted to Professor Jason Buschman of the University of Oklahoma, who wrote to tell us that one of the teeth is a lower molar, most likely "number 30 or 31 in palmer notation”. The dentist who made the x-ray reported that one of the teeth was exposed at the root, meaning that King John would have been in great pain: in his case, "abscess didn't really make the heart grow fonder".


We can also speculate for the first time as to King John's diet. When his body was examined in 1797 by Mr Sandford, a surgeon from Worcester, it was reported that only four teeth survived in his "upper jaw". We are often led to believe that people in the Middle Ages had better teeth than their modern counterparts, due to the lack of sugar in their diet. Had John's gnashers started to fall out in his old age? One doctor we consulted suggested that King John may have imbibed too much runny mead during his lifetime (did it give him the runs?). What we can deduce, however, is that John may have suffered from chronic toothache in his final years, which potentially prompted his abysmal fits of temper, leading the barons to rebel against him. Did the king have more on his mind in June 1215 than simply putting his seal to Magna Carta?

After King John had died (in 1216), the monastic chronicler Matthew Paris wrote, "Foul though Hell is, it is made fouler still by the presence of John". Or, to put it another way, King John, "Fangs for the memories".

Of course, this may all be an April Fool after all ... if they were royal teeth, surely they would have a crown?

29 March 2015

The Anglo-Saxon Origins of Medieval Justice

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Our major Magna Carta exhibition is now open in London, but for those of you who can't come to the British Library in person, over the coming months we're going to showcase some of the exhibits on this blog. You may imagine that our story starts in the years immediately before the Great Charter was granted in 1215; but in fact the earliest items in our exhibition pre-date the Norman Conquest of England ...

Miniature of a king dictating the law (London, British Library, Royal MS 11 D IX, f. 6r)

‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.’

So reads the most famous clause of Magna Carta, still valid in English law. But what do we know about the concept of justice before the 13th century?

The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon law code was actually issued around the year 600 by King Æthelberht of Kent (r. 560–616), and was written in Old English. Meanwhile, the Bible provided models for good Christian kingship, as demonstrated in this 11th-century manuscript of the Hexateuch (the first 6 books of the Bible), on show in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

The Old English Hexateuch (London, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 59r)

Here is the biblical story of Pharaoh sentencing his chief baker to be hanged (Genesis 40:21-22). However, the 11th-century artist has dressed the figures in costumes of his own day: the king in the centre, holding a sword and a sceptre or rod, is surrounded by his counsellors; the condemned man, on the right, is being strung from the gallows. According to a 14th-century catalogue, this beautifully illustrated manuscript was kept in the monastery library at St Augustine’s Canterbury on the first shelf of its first bookcase. You can see this page in our Magna Carta exhibition, and the whole manuscript can be viewed on our Digital Manuscripts website.

The Ten Commandments were a particularly important model for the drafting of Anglo-Saxon law codes. They are referenced in the laws of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and formed part of the preface to his law book, grounding the secular laws in biblical precedents. God’s law is also specifically referenced in the longest Anglo-Saxon law code, which begins with the line, ‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice suppressed, that every illegality be eradicated from this land with the utmost diligence, and the law of God promoted’. This was issued by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035) with the advice of his counsellors. The text was drafted by Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023), and one of the eight surviving medieval manuscripts containing the text was produced in either York or Worcester in the 11th century. It was probably owned by the archbishop himself, and may contain his own annotations.

The Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)

This item is also on display in our Magna Carta exhibition. When you see it in person, you realise that this pocket-sized book was deliberately made to be easily portable, perhaps by Archbishop Wulfstan himself.

It's quickly apparent that the concept of justice in medieval England was firmly established before King John came to the throne. We'll review why Magna Carta came to be granted in some of our later blogposts (look out for them on Twitter, @BLMedieval with the hashtag #MagnaCarta).

You can view the Old English Hexateuch and King Cnut's lawcode alongside other items relating to the history and legacy of Magna Carta in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. They are also featured on our new Magna Carta website (Old English Hexateuch and lawcode of King Cnut).