Today is the 15th of June. This morning, thinking about what I was going to do for today’s podcast, I was drawing a bit of a blank. Then I looked in my On This Day book, an almanac of world events and words of history. Of course, today is a very significant day in the history of the British Isles, particularly England and English history.
Let me give you a clue. I’m going to give you something to read in Latin. You can guess why on earth I’m giving you words of history in Latin, and then there will be a grand reveal.
Here is the opening clause of an important historical document (Hint! Hint!).
Johannes del gracia rex Anglie, dominus Hibernie, dux Normannie, Aquitannie et comes Andegavie, archiepiscopis, episcopis, abbatibus, comitibus, baronibus, justiciariis, forestariis, vicecomitibus, prepositis, ministris et omnibus ballivis et fidelibus suis salutem.
And here’s yet another clue, in the translation:
John, by the grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland and Duke of Normandy in Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and all his bailiffs and faithful subjects, greeting.
What do these words of history mean?
Any guesses to what this hugely significant document was?
It’s of course Magna Carta, signed on the banks of the River Thames near Windsor, in a meadow called Runnymede. It was there that King John I of England affixed his royal wax seal on 15 June, 1215. The document’s full name was Magna Carta Libertatum, mediaeval Latin for ‘Great Charter of Freedoms’. Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, drafted it.
The purpose of this document was to make peace between unpopular King John (often referred to as Wicked or Evil, Nasty King John) and a group of rebel barons. It promised the protection of church rights, to keep the church free. Barons were to be protected from illegal imprisonment. It would give them access to swift justice and put limitations on feudal payments to the Crown. Furthermore, it was to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. As history would later show, neither side actually stood behind their commitments. The charter was annulled by Pope Innocent III, leading to the First Barons War (1216-1217). It was reissued by his young son, Henry III, in 1216 (although I understand it got watered down).
At the end of the First Barons War in 1217, it formed part of the Lambeth peace treaty. But as the fledgling English parliament passed new laws, Magna Carta lost a lot of its practical significance. Interestingly (and rather amusingly), it was never about the Barons being altruistic and selfless, wanting to protect the common man. It was really about looking out for themselves with baronial self-protection. I don’t think they gave two figs about the common man in the street or the villain in the fields!
Magna Carta: still significant
Magna Carta was described by Lord Denning (famous English lawyer and judge) as, ‘the greatest constitutional document of all time…the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot’. Some elevated, 21-gun-salute language from the great man, there!
There are four copies of Magna Carta in existence: two in the British Library, one at Lincoln Castle and one at Salisbury Cathedral. I was there (or near there) the other day when I visited Stonehenge, which I’ve spoken about.
What’s the relevance in words of history for writers?
We’re no longer writing in Latin, unless we’re drafting a very archaic kind of constitutional law. Nonetheless, Magna Carta shows that in order to create and preserve freedoms, things need to be written down. The written word is a much more permanent record of what was agreed between two disputing parties than the spoken word. Yet, despite that, history has shown even that wasn’t enough to hold both parties to their commitments. However, it did serve as a model and an inspiration to other fledgling democracies — notably the United States’ founding fathers and authors of the American Declaration of Independence.
Where would we be without the written word?
It’s likely that we would still be running around as hunter-gatherers, eating each other, beating each other up and killing each other. For me, the written word is probably man’s greatest invention. It’s the invention that has most promoted modern civilization. It has given us words of history, to remember, to learn from and to preserve for all time.
I am Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, and I’d like to thank you for joining me for yet another article about how to improve writing skills. If you’d like to take your writing to the next level of quality, impact and results, let’s jump on a call and have a chat. You can book your slot here: https://calendly.com/scottkeyser91/.