Wednesday, 24 December 2014

MAGNA CARTA By DAN JONES: Some thoughts from Elizabeth Chadwick

Front cover 
June 2015 sees the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede and in this book Dan Jones presents a useful guide to bring the general reader up to speed. Dan Jones is of course, the author of the bestselling non fiction work THE PLANTAGENETS which sets out the dynasty's rise to power and eventual ruin over several centuries of medieval British history. The work is also the basis for the recent TV series, written and presented by the author.

The following blurb is from the inside jacket of MAGNA CARTA and an excellent summary of what the book is about:

 '"On a summer's day in 1215, a beleaguered English monarch met a group of disgruntled barons in a meadow by the River Thames  named Runnymede. Beset by foreign crisis and domestic rebellion, King John was fast running out of options. On 15 June he reluctantly agreed to fix his regal seal to a document that would change the world.
A milestone in the development of constitutional politics and the rule of the law, the 'Great Charter' established an Englishman's right to Habeas Corpus and set limits to the exercise of royal power.  For the first time a group of subjects had forced an English king to agree to a document that limited his powers by law and protected their rights."

This book  is a joy to read, not just for a medieval-obsessive like myself, but for anyone with a general interest in history. It's one of those reference works that should be on every non fiction bookshelf.
The writing style is clean and accessible, edged with dry humour  and has broad appeal. Dan Jones educates his readers without patronising, and he never dumbs down the content. The history is straight, clear, and unfudged.  Oh what a joy and a relief this is to come across.  I have studied the Angevin period for more than forty years.  I'm not university trained, but I am very well read in non fiction works of this era (12th and 13th centuries). Often the academic studies are dry and soporific. The eyes glaze over, the same 5 pages take an hour to read and the information doesn't stick, but  unabsorbed, just passes through.   Unfortunately the popular books with a less dense writing style are frequently unreliable and have to be double-checked and taken with large pinches of salt.  Dan Jones, however, walks a perfect line between the popular and the academic. He puts over the need to know material with depth and complexity while telling it in a vibrant way that hold the reader's attention. That's a very rare talent indeed.

The book itself is a tactile thing of beauty.  It's ornate, with gold embossing on the cover to give that added luxurious feel of holding the real thing in your hand.  The paper is of thick, fine quality,perhaps gently hinting at parchment.   The rich ornamentation and fabulous illustrations  are put together in an uncluttered way that means the book is simple and practical to use.  It is divided into ten easily digestible chapters beginning with an introduction that sets the scene and discusses the fame of Magna Carta and then continues to the historical background including an assessment of the reign of King John, not forgetting the input of his predecessors.  He might have brought about Magna Carta by his policies and the way he dealt with his barons, but he wasn't acting in a vacuum and Dan Jones takes us through the wherefore and the why.
There is a section on what happened between 1215 and now, and a couple of wonderful quotes from David Cameron and Winston Churchill which made me laugh - albeit wryly. Dan Jones has a wicked sense of humour and appreciates the ironies.
Section heading from the contents.
Having guided us through the history, the book follows with several appendices including the full text of the Magna Carta in the original Latin with an English translation alongside so the reader can see the exact wording for themselves. There are interesting short biographies of the barons involved in witnessing and enforcing the charter, and a timeline of the charter from its origins to where it sits now.

By the end of the book the reader has been given an in depth history lesson but in such a way that there's not a single moment of eye-glaze or stodge. Hooray!   There are copious illustrations and page breaks that will suit those with shorter attention spans but at the same time, those who prefer a meaty read will not be let down. There's a lot of learning crammed into these 190 pages.

Any caveats?  I suspect that there may be a few raised eyebrows among those in the know about the comment accompanying the illustration of King John's tomb in Worcester cathedral. The caption says it's made from 'carved wood' when it fact it's Purbeck marble.  It seems a pity for that one to have slipped through the editorial net when King John is one of the major players.  However, that really is a nit-pick when compared with the rest of the book's excellent content.
Highly recommended.  Everyone rush out and get a copy for your bookshelves. It's one of those heirloom reference works that will stand the test of time - a bit like the charter itself!
Detail from the back of the book


Sue Bursztynski said...

Definitely a droolworthy book. Lucky you!

Libby said...

That's it now on my wish list :)

thanks Elizabeth

Marsha Lambert said...

Fantastic review. I so want this book! :)

Marjorie said...

Looks fascinating! I am going to the Magna Carta reunification event at the British Library in February, which I believe he is hosting. It sounds as though I should try to read this before I go.

Elaine said...

I am hungry for that book, now! I've always remembered 1215 and Magna Carta but you've given me the desire to get that book. It looks and sounds scrumptious. I must have it! Thanks, Elizabeth!