Tuesday 12 May 2015

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy by Tanya Landman

For anyone who’s even vaguely interested in history or politics Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is a fascinating exhibition. For a historical novelist, it’s an inspiration.


I’d heard about it on the radio and was itching to see it, so when Mary Hoffman passed on an invitation for a History Girl to attend a private view I grabbed it. Travelling up to London I was ridiculously excited. There’s something magical about seeing historical documents and artefacts in the flesh – no reproduction, however good can convey the thrill of the real thing. And this was the Magna Carta. THE MAGNA CARTA!!! I’d been taught about it in Primary School. Bad King John who ‘shamed the throne that he sat on.’ King versus barons, democracy versus tyranny. The triumph of the People’s rights, cornerstone of the British constitution.

And yet, of the 63 original clauses, only three remain on the statute book today. One defends the freedom of the English church, another the liberties of London and other towns. The third is the most famous –
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 other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement 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.

In Medieval England ‘free men’ were actually an elite minority but that concept of universal justice was hugely powerful and has inspired lawyers, politicians and activists (including Nelson Mandela) ever since. Chief Justice Lord Bingham wrote, “the significance of Magna Carta lay not only in what it actually said, but in what later generations claimed and believed it had said.”

Curators Julian Harrison and Claire Breay and researcher Alex Lock are to be congratulated on creating a narrative that leads us from the granting of the charter in 1215 right up to the present day.

There are excellent reviews that give an overview of the exhibition here



However, I’m coming at it from a different angle and taking an author’s eye view.

At every school or library visit I can guarantee someone will ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I reply that I’m like a magpie, constantly on the lookout for bright little nuggets of information. And then there are the holes in history, the gaps that can be filled with ‘what-ifs?’ and ‘maybes...’ and ‘just supposes..?’ In Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy there’s material to fill several volumes. I’ll concentrate on just three that sparked off novel ideas.

First of all was a striking statue of one of the barons - Geoffrey FitzGeoffrey de Mandeville. A small label states that he was deeply in debt to King John after paying £13,333 for the right to marry the monarch’s first wife.

My brain started ticking right away. Geoffrey married the king’s ex-wife? King and queen were divorced? Why? How? What happened? I was so intrigued that I looked her up as soon as I got home.

It was Henry II who arranged the betrothal between Isabel (or Isabella) of Gloucester and his son John, but only after Henry had disinherited Isabel’s two sisters and declared she was sole heir to Gloucester. The couple were married, but as they were distant cousins the Archbishop of Canterbury declared the marriage null and void. The Pope granted a dispensation but banned them from having sexual relations.

When John came to the throne in 1199 he almost immediately obtained an annulment of the marriage. He did, however, keep Isabel’s land and property and retained the feudal right to decide who his former wife could marry. He demanded an extortionate price for her hand yet Geoffrey FitzGeoffrey was willing to pay it.

A woman cast aside by her first husband, her second husband so deeply in in debt that his land was in danger of being seized by the crown, the king – her cousin - loathed by his subjects…there’s plenty of material in Isabel’s story.

Matthew Paris, a 13th century chronicler said King John ‘was a tyrant. He was a wicked ruler who did not behave like a king. He was greedy and took as much money as he could from his people. Hell is too good for a horrible person like him.’

King John died (probably of dysentery) in 1216. But even then people were saying ‘what if?’ and ‘just suppose…’ Rumour had it that he’d been poisoned. There’s a thriller here just begging to be written…

As someone with an interest in American history the second thing that had me enthralled was the draft Declaration of Independence. Jefferson calmly and neatly lays out a set of charges against the tyrant George III but his language becomes inflamed and his handwriting briefly explodes into furious block capitals when writing about slavery -

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce…

Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner himself, so there’s an element of hypocrisy here. This particular passage was struck out of the finished declaration, but what if it hadn’t been? Just suppose Jefferson’s original draft had carried the day? Maybe things could have been different. How would the USA look now if they had been?

My third and possibly my favourite part of the exhibition - simply because it seems to say so much about human frailty and man’s capacity for blundering blindly towards disaster - was the copy of the Magna Carta that was damaged by fire in 1731 and then ‘restored’ in 1836 by Mr Hogarth.

Mr Hogarth had been regularly employed as a book binder when Josiah Forshall requested permission from the British Museum Trustees to conserve the document.

It seems that Mr Hogarth first flattened the precious manuscript with a heavy weight, then soaked it in water and glued it to a backing sheet. Using blotting paper to dry the parchment he lifted off much of the ink. It was a total catastrophe, yet the Trustees report declared the work to be ‘satisfactory’.
This incident really fuels the imagination. Was Mr Hogarth full of gleeful enthusiasm and oblivious to the disaster he’d wreaked? Was it an Only Fools and Horses chandelier moment? Did he have to make his excuses and run for it?

As for the Trustees - I can’t help imagining their expressions when they saw what he’d done. Tight lipped, ashen-faced, declaring it ‘satisfactory’ and then burying it deep in the basement in the hope that no one would ever find it?

There’s definitely a book there. Mr Hogarth’s Bad Day perhaps, or Mr Hogarth Messes Up?

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy runs at the British Library until 1st September 2015. Go see it.

1 comment:

Clare Mulley said...

Brilliant, please write books around all three Tanya, I am thoroughly intrigued!