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08 November 2014

The Harley Psalter: Devils in the Details

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Miniature illustrating Psalm 103 (Vulgate numbering): The creations of the Lord: valleys and mountains (left) with springs where beasts and birds are drinking, a man ploughing with oxen, a sea with ships on it and beasts in the water (centre); lions and other beasts among the rocks (right), from the Harley Psalter, S.E. England (Canterbury), 1st half of the 11th century, Harley MS 603, f. 51v

The Harley Psalter is one of three manuscripts copied from the very well-travelled Utrecht Psalter, a Carolingian masterpiece made around 825 at the Benedictine monastery of Hautvilliers near Rheims in Northern France. Now MS 32 at the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Utrecht, the Utrecht Psalter spent at least two hundred years in Canterbury from about 1000 AD, where it was the inspiration for our very own Harley Psalter, Harley MS 603. Dating from the first half of the 11th century, the Harley Psalter has a very similar arrangement and many near-identical images to those of the Utrecht Psalter, though the version of the Psalms is different. In each one of the large pen drawings, the artist has attempted to represent the words of the Psalms in pictorial form - not always an easy task. The images often include four or five episodes from the text of the Psalm that follows, depicted in a vibrant yet intimate style. They are extraordinarily detailed, filled with tiny people and animals and many details, some amusing, and some bizarre.  This is the medieval ‘Where’s Wally?’: the reward for hours of searching is an unexpected delight from time to time.

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Miniature illustrating Psalm 5: The psalmist entering a sanctuary (left), from which a winged demon is fleeing (centre), and above him an angel placing a wreath on a martyr's head; on the right, demons are prodding the wicked in a pit of fire, Harley MS 603, f. 3r

There are, of course, the standard variations on the theme of the righteous and unrighteous, such as holy tabernacles and fiery pits, the psalmist appealing to God and his angels for help against foes and demons.  

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Miniature illustrating Psalm 134
: The Lord unleashing the fury of the wind and rain and his angels with spears slaying kings and their armies, Harley MS 603, f. 69r

God’s vengeance is portrayed repeatedly and with relish, as are the agitated gestures of the figures who suffer the consequences, particularly kings and judges.

So much for the standard fare. Here are a few unusual and interesting details we found to enjoy (apart from a medieval umbrella!). Please look for your own favourites in the online images and share them with us via Twitter: unlike the ‘Where’s Wally?’ books, Digitised Manuscripts allows you to zoom in for added searchability.

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Detail from a miniature illustrating Psalm 7: a female demon with quadruplets (below right), Harley MS 603, f. 4r

Here is a female demon with her brood of quadruplets. She seems to have her hands full!

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Miniature illustrating Psalm 21: The themes include: (1) the lamentation of the psalmist, who is shown holding two vials, and is attacked by bulls, dogs and lions, with a unicorn below (lower right); (2) prophetic images of Christ’s passion including an empty cross and two men dividing a garment in front of a lot machine (centre); and (3) praise to heaven, represented by the tabernacle with the meek eating at a circular table and seven women seated with babies (the seed of Israel), Harley MS 603, f. 12r

As those of you who follow this blog will know, we have a soft spot for unicorns. Here is one that seems to be facing up to two men with scythes. One has to wonder what the outcome of that contest will be. Our money is on the unicorn, naturally.

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Detail of a miniature illustrating Psalm 30: People watching acrobats and a dancing bear
, Harley MS 603, f. 17r

Continuing with the animal theme, this image includes a dancing bear and acrobats, presumably as a condemnation of frivolous pastimes.

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Miniature illustrating Psalm 108: Below Christ in a mandorla with angels, a wicked man is seized by a demon (left) and the psalmist with a locust, standing in oil from an oil-horn (right); the sinner is punished (lower left), his wife and children abandoned and his treasures taken from his chest, Harley MS 603, f. 56r

And here a locust is an onlooker to the punishment of a sinful man. The sinner’s treasure is looted, his wife tears her hair out and his children are abandoned, naked.  

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Added miniature illustrating Psalm 59: The Lord in a mandorla handing a pair of shoes to an angel; the defenders of the city of Edom(?) are facing the attacking soldiers
, Harley MS 603, f. 32v

Finally, did you know that angels wore shoes? No, nor did we, but in the picture the Lord is handing a pair to an angel (illustrating the line, ‘Over Edom will I cast out my shoe’). The style of this image is different: it is one of the drawings added to the Psalter in the 12th century. 

There are 112 of these fascinating and skilful illustrations in the Harley Psalter, an impressive achievement by any standard. The artistic style, originally from Reims, was influential in the development of late Anglo-Saxon book decoration and the coloured line drawings that became especially popular in England at the time. For further examples of this style, check out the Tiberius Psalter (Cotton MS Tiberius C VI), which dates to the third quarter of the 11th century. Two copies of the Psychomachia at the British Library also contain similar decoration: Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII and Additional MS 24199 (the latter will soon make an appearance on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts).

- Chantry Westwell

04 November 2014

“Snip It!” at The Jewish Museum, Berlin

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Detail of Abraham and the men of his family being circumcised, from the Egerton Genesis, Southern England, c. 1350–c. 1375,
Egerton MS 1894, f. 9v

Two manuscripts from the British Library are featured in the exhibition “Snip it! Stances on Ritual Circumcision”, newly opened at The Jewish Museum in Berlin (24 October 2014 to 1 March 2015). The British Library’s Egerton Genesis Picture Book and Omne bonum are two of some 60 objects and artworks gathered from international collections to examine the cultural and historical context of circumcision.

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The story of Abraham and Sarah from
Egerton MS 1894, f. 9v

Together with 19 other leaves, this page forms part of a remarkable picture book containing 149 illustrations of Genesis, from the Creation to the history of Joseph. The relative size of the illumination makes clear the primacy of image over the text, with the latter consisting of short captions in Anglo-Norman French, derived from Peter Comestor’s Historia scholastica. The exhibition features this page for its inclusion of Abraham and the men of his family being circumcised (see top for detail). Many more images from this manuscript feature in this previous blog post, and a discussion of the picture book genre can be seen here.

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Detail of the illustrated entry on ‘Circumcisio’ in the encyclopaedic 'Omne bonum', London, c. 1360–1375,
Royal MS 6 E VI, f. 269

The author of the second volume on loan to the exhibition, James le Palmer, said of his work: “Since virtually all good things are in one way or another contained herein, I thought it fitting to name this little work Omne bonum – all good things.” Containing more than 1350 entries arranged in alphabetical order, this work aspired to be a universal collection of knowledge. Over 750 entries are illustrated, including “Circumcisio” above. The ritual is performed on an ordinary child, in agreement with the text which discusses circumcision in the Old Testament, but the artist has followed the pictorial tradition of the Circumcision of Christ.

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Detail of the Circumcision of Abraham in Omne bonum,
Royal MS 6 E VI, f. 3

It is not the entry on “Circumcisio” which is on display in Berlin, however, but a scene depicting the Circumcision of Abraham included in the biblical cycle at the beginning of Omne bonum. This occurs among 109 tinted drawings of Old and New Testament subjects. The curators of the exhibition, Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek and Martina Lüdicke, explain that “Snip it!” illuminates “ritual circumcision from the perspective of the three monotheistic religions. Both loans, Omne bonum and the Egerton Genesis, are exhibited in the room dedicated to the Christian perception of the ritual. The depiction of Abraham’s circumcision greatly enriches our content, emphasising the Christian interpretation of Abraham’s circumcision as an act of sacrifice.” Starting from the Jewish concept of the Abrahamic covenant, via sculptures exploring the body-shaped-by-culture, to clips from contemporary TV series, this exhibition is described as “incisive in every sense of the term”; for the full details see this press release.

The British Library is delighted to be a lender to this exhibition, and we hope that as many people as possible have the opportunity to see our manuscripts while they are on display in Berlin.

 

Holly James-Maddocks

01 November 2014

A Calendar Page for November 2014

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For more information about the Huth Hours, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014.

These two calendar pages for the month of November show a typical labour for this part of the agricultural season – the fattening of pigs for autumn.  On the opening folio, beneath the beginning of the saints’ days for the month, is a roundel of a peasant in the woods.  He is armed with a long stick, and is engaged in knocking acorns from oak trees to feed the pigs that are rooting around near his feet.   On the following folio, we can see a small miniature of a centaur with a bow and arrow, for the zodiac sign Sagittarius.  Beneath him is another peasant, heading home after a day of feeding pigs.  He looks fairly miserable – understandably enough, as he is walking through a heavy rainstorm.  Surrounding this roundel and the continuation of the saints’ days is a frame made up of golden columns, circled by banners with the initials ‘MY’ and ‘YM’.  These initials might be clues to the original owner of the manuscript, whose identity/identities are still unknown.  For more on this mystery, see here.

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Calendar page for November, with a roundel miniature of a man feeding pigs in the woods, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 11v

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Calendar page for November, with a roundel miniature of a man heading home in a rainstorm, with the zodiac sign Sagittarius, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 12r

- Sarah J Biggs

30 October 2014

Guess the Manuscript XVI

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Welcome to the 16th  instalment of our popular Guess the Manuscript series. The rules are simple: we post an image of part of a manuscript that is on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, you guess which one it's taken from!

Guess the MS
Are you as surprised as we are to find an umbrella in a medieval manuscript? The manuscript from which this image was taken will feature in a blogpost in the near future.

In the meantime, answers or guesses please in the comments below, or via Twitter @BLMedieval.

Good luck!

- Chantry Westwell

 

Update: 'Félicitations' to Reconstitution Médiévale Documentée, who guessed correctly that this little umbrella is from the Harley Psalter (Harley MS 603, f. 15v).

To find out more about the Harley Psalter, tune in next Saturday morning for an in-depth look at how the Psalms were illustrated. 

There'll be another Guess the Manuscript at the end of the month!

25 October 2014

Lindisfarne Gospels in our Treasures Gallery

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The Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the greatest treasures in the British Library’s collections, is now back on display in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery. This Latin Gospel-book is thought to be the work of one remarkably gifted scribe and artist, who created it around 700 on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumbria. Its importance lies not only in the beauty of its carpet-pages and its miniatures of the four Evangelists, but also in the tenth-century gloss of its text that is the earliest example of the Gospels in the English language.

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Colophon added by Aldred, the translator of the Old English gloss, in the Lindisfarne Gospels, England, c. 700,
Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 259r 

According to the colophon added by this translator, Aldred (fl. c. 970), who was provost of the community at Chester-le-Street near Durham, the artist-scribe was a monk called Eadfrith, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. The inscription records that Eadfrith ‘wrote this book for God and St Cuthbert and also for all the Saints whose relics are on the island’. It also describes the binding made by Billfrith the anchorite, which included a cover adorned with gold, silver and precious gems.

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A Canon table
from Cotton Nero D IV, f. 12v

On display for the next three months are two pages from the canon tables that preface the Lindisfarne Gospels (ff. 12v-13r). These provide readers with a concordance to the Four Gospels, allowing them to locate episodes described by more than one Evangelist. A mistake has been made in Canon 2 (shown), where the name titles at the heads of the three columns have been confused with those of Canon 3 on the facing page. The headings which read ‘Luke’ and ‘John’ have been corrected by a near-contemporary hand to read ‘Mark’ and ‘Luke’. Interlace birds fill the columns and the arch, while a ribbon knotwork design is used for the bases and capitals.

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Detail of masons building the canon table in the Echternach Gospels, from the monastery of St Willibrord, Echternach (now Luxembourg), 11th century,
Harley MS 2821, f. 9r

Visitors to the Gallery will be able to compare the canon tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels with those in the Echternach Gospels, made in the monastery of St Willibrord (in modern day Luxembourg) in the eleventh century. The two tables on display (ff. 8v-9r) show elaborate ornamental pillars upon which masons are still working with hammers and chisels.

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Detail of a remarkably naturalistic bird and fish from the ‘Golden Canon Tables’, Eastern Mediterranean, 6th or 7th century,
Additional MS 5111, f. 11r

In another case nearby there is also the much earlier ‘Golden Canon Tables’ from the Eastern Mediterranean. Written over gold leaf, these tables are set within elaborately adorned architectural frames, including some finely executed birds and fish. These pages were later trimmed to fit a smaller twelfth-century manuscript of the Gospels, causing the loss of some of these details.

The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library is open seven days a week, and is free to visit. If you would like to see the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Echternach Gospels or the Golden Canon Tables in their entirety, please see the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site. 

 

Holly James-Maddocks

23 October 2014

How To Be A Hedgehog

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Longstanding readers of our Medieval Manuscripts Blog may know that we have a penchant for hedgehogs. In 2012, we published a post entitled The Distinguished Pedigree of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, based on the accounts of their behaviour in medieval bestiaries. In 2014, we brought you a hedgehog beauty contest, no less, featuring images of five of our favourites. And most recently we focused on the heraldic hedgehog in the 13th-century Dering Roll.

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Hedgehogs rolling on the ground to collect grapes for their young, as illustrated in the Rochester Bestiary (England, c. 1230): London, British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r. Hedgehogs were said to creep into vineyards when the grapes were ripe, to climb the vines and shake the fruit down to the ground. Then, rather than eating this bounty on the spot, they would turn onto their backs and roll around, impaling the grapes with their sharp quills. They could then trundle off back to their burrows, carrying the grapes on their spines, as a meal for their young. The bestiary writers allegorized this as a warning of the clever stratagems of the devil in stealing man's spiritual fruits.

We've now discovered this fantastic animation, based on the drawings of hedgehogs in one of the British Library's medieval bestiaries (Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r). De Herinacio: On the Hedgehog was made by the amazing Obrazki nunu and Discarding Images. We hope that you love it as much as we do! Maybe it will inspire more people to explore and reinvent our wonderful collections.

De Herinacio. On the Hedgehog from obrazki nunu on Vimeo.

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21 October 2014

Illuminated Manuscripts Conference - more places available

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We are delighted to announce that – due to exceptional demand for places – the forthcoming AMARC conference has been moved to a larger venue in the Conference Centre at the British Library. 

There are now more places available to attend this exciting conference on 14th-century illuminated manuscripts in the British Library collections – so don’t delay in reserving your spot! There are further details below of the speakers’ papers, with some images of the manuscripts they will be discussing. 

However, the post-conference reception remains fully booked. 

The conference is being held in honour of Lucy Freeman Sandler, whose book Illuminators and Patrons in Fourteenth-Century England: The Psalter Hours of Humphrey de Bohun and the Manuscripts of the Bohun Family will be published shortly. 

The Association for Manuscripts and Archives in Research Collections (AMARC) is sponsoring the conference, which will be held on Monday, 1st December, 2014. 

The conference will begin at 10:45. Papers will be 30 minutes with 15 minutes for questions after each. The sessions will conclude at 5:15. Lunch will be provided. 

The registration fees are £20; £15 for AMARC members and £10 for students. To register, send a cheque made out to AMARC to James Freeman, Research & Imaging Assistant, Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB. Foreign delegates may pay on the day, but should send a notice of their intention to attend to james.freeman@bl.uk

The speakers and their topics are as follows: 

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Detail of a miniature in two registers, showing Jonah being thrown into the sea (above) and Jonah being saved from the whale's mouth (below), from the St Omer Psalter, England (Norfolk), c. 1330-c. 1440, Yates Thompson MS 14, f. 70v
 

- Paul Binski, Lombardy and Norfolk: This paper re-examines the question, first seriously raised by Otto Pächt, of Italian influence in English art before 1350 and what is known about Italian art actually in England at that date. 

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Detail of a marginal hunting scene, with the arms of Ely and Bury St Edmunds, from the Howard Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308-c. 1340, Arundel MS 83 I, f. 14r
 

- Alixe Bovey, Bound to be Together: Revisiting the Howard and De Lisle Psalters (Arundel MS 83 I & II): This paper explores the connections between the celebrated De Lisle Psalter, a fragmentary masterpiece of English illumination, and the somewhat lesser known Howard Psalter. Bound together by William Howard at the turn of the 17th century, both manuscripts were made in England in the 1310s, and in some respects have strikingly similar contents. This paper reflects not only on what the relationship between these books reveals about their medieval creation and early modern reception, but also on Lucy Freeman Sandler’s singular contribution to our understanding of them.

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Detail of an historiated initial with two compartments, showing God the Creator (above) and the Virgin and Child with a Benedictine monk (below), from the chronicle and cartulary of Peterborough Abbey, England (Peterborough), c. 1321-1329, Add MS 39758, f. 20r
 

- Julian Luxford, Walter of Whittlesey, Monk and Artist of Peterborough: Julian will examine British Library Additional MSS 39758 and 47170, which were made in the first half of the fourteenth century by Walter of Whittlesey, a monk of Peterborough Abbey, focusing on what these manuscripts reveal of Whittlesey’s historical interests and his status as a copyist and illuminator of manuscripts. 

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Detail of a three-part miniature showing an angel giving St John the reed (left), worshippers at the altar (centre), and  two men demolishing the temple (right), from a fragmentary Apocalypse, England (?London), 1325-1330, Add MS 38842, f. 2r

- Nigel Morgan, A fragmentary Apocalypse by one of the Milemete artists - Additional 38842: This fragmentary Anglo-Norman prose Apocalypse has been little discussed in the literature on English illustrated fourteenth-century Apocalypses. This paper will consider both its figure style and iconography.

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Detail of a miniature showing Michal saving David from Saul, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London/Westminster or ?East Anglia), c. 1310-c. 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 52r

- Kathryn Smith, Crafting the Old Testament in the Queen Mary Psalter: This paper considers aspects of the crafting of the Old Testament prefatory cycle in the Queen Mary Psalter (Royal MS 2 B VII), examining analogues of and possible sources for some of the Queen Mary Master's compositions, evidence for the artist's working methods, and the history and image of the Jews as constructed in pictures and text. 

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Detail of an historiated initial showing Jezebel talking to Ahab in bed, with a lewd woman in the margin, from the Bohun Psalter, England (?London), 2nd half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 110v

 - Lucy Freeman Sandler: Embedded Marginalia in Egerton 3277: Lucy will focus on the meanings that emerge when the marginalia of Egerton 3277 are considered as integral components of page design. Specifically, she will discuss the marginalia of Egerton 3277 that are physically ‘embedded’ in the area immediately adjacent to the frames of initial letters, figural subjects linked tangibly with the figural subjects within the initials, which themselves are physical manifestations of textual meaning. The wealth of subtle and multilayered meanings made available to the reader/viewer by the medieval illuminator/designer is suggested by the illustration (above) in the initial of one of the prayers of the Litany showing Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, telling him to arise to take Naboth’s possessions (III Kings 21:15 in the Vulgate) and Jezebel’s marginal counterpart, the marginal woman raising her skirt in a lewd gesture.

 

- James Freeman

18 October 2014

The Death of King John

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King John of England (1199–1216), of Magna Carta fame, was by all accounts a particularly unpleasant ruler. The charges levelled against him, many of them during his own lifetime, included the murder of his nephew, the sexual predation of the wives and daughters of his nobles, and the starving to death of the wife and children of one of his former companions. So unpopular was John that his barons finally rose up in rebellion against his arbitrary rule, and against the severe punishments often inflicted upon them, until they eventually forced the king to grant them the Charter of Liberties, also known as Magna Carta, at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Few can have lamented King John's eventual demise at Newark Castle — most probably following an attack of dysentery —in October 1216. Writing some 40 years later, Matthew Paris (d. 1259), monk and historian of St Albans Abbey, delivered the ultimate condemnation: 'Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John'.

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King John in happier times, hunting on horseback according to this illustration in a 14th-century manuscript (London, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 116r).

Today may, or may not, be the anniversary of King John's death. The medieval chroniclers could not reach consensus on the exact date that John died. Matthew Paris and his St Albans' predecessor, Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), plumped for 17 October. Ralph (d. 1226), abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Coggeshall (Essex), stated instead that King John had succumbed to his illness on 18 October. A number of monastic chroniclers, writing at Tewkesbury, Winchester, Worcester and elsewhere, favoured 19 October as the day in question. Of these various witnesses, we should perhaps give greatest credence to the anonymous chroniclers writing at Waverley Abbey (Surrey) and Southwark Priory (Surrey), both of whom asserted that the death of King John took place on 19 October. The manuscripts of these two chronicles (Waverley, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A XVI; Southwark, British Library Cotton MS Faustina A VIII) were both being written in the year 1216, as evidenced by their numerous changes of scribe at this period. The same is also true, however, of Ralph of Coggeshall's Chronicon Anglicanum (the autograph manuscript of which is British Library Cotton MS Vespasian D X). Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris, in contrast, were writing many years after the events being described, and so their testimony — albeit possibly derived from an authentic St Albans tradition — is more open to question.

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Is this how King John met his fate? As early as the 13th century, it was alleged that he had been poisoned by a monk of Swineshead Abbey (Lincolnshire), seen here offering him a poisoned chalice (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII, f. 5v).

Earlier in his reign, King John had determined that he should be buried at the Cistercian abbey he had founded at Beaulieu (Hampshire). In October 1216, Beaulieu lay in that part of England which was held by the rebel barons; and so John asked instead that he be buried at Worcester Cathedral, where his tomb can still be seen. In fact, the tomb was opened in 1797, in order to confirm whether it did contain John's body, and certain of the remains removed, which are also on view in Worcester. Mr Sandford, a local surgeon, inspected the skeleton, and reported that King John stood 5 ft 6½ in. (approximately 1.69 m) tall. Unlike one of his successors, Richard III, John was clearly not buried under a carpark.

Next February, the four surviving manuscripts of King John's Magna Carta will be brought together at the British Library for the first time in 800 years. A ballot is currently being held to give 1,215 lucky winners the chance to see all four manuscripts side-by-side. The ballot closes on 31 October: don't forget to enter for your chance to take part in this moment of history! If you do miss out, you'll still be able to see the British Library's two 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts at our own major exhibition later in 2015: tickets are already on sale. And if you'd like to know more about the history of Magna Carta, take the chance to visit our new Learning webpages, which will be updated with more information next year.

Strangely enough, we doubt that King John would have been particularly amused by the modern-day celebrations planned for Magna Carta in 2015. Less than 10 weeks after that document had been granted in June 1215, Magna Carta was annulled by Pope Innocent III, at John's request, declaring it to be 'shameful and demeaning, illegal and unjust, and null and void of all validity for ever'. Just over a year later, a revised version of Magna Carta was issued in the name of John's son, King Henry III (1216–1272), and the rest is history. King John never did get the last laugh.