2015 will see, and has already seen, much fuss being made about the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, sealed on 15 June 1215. A new £2 coin has been minted showing King John holding the charter in one hand and a quill in the other, thus perpetuating the howler that he signed it. He didn’t of course: he put his seal to it. And where did he put his seal to it? On the bottom, of course.
Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk held its own Magna Carta 800 celebration last year, because local legend has it that the Barons met in the great abbey on St Edmunds’ Day in 1214 to swear an oath at the shrine of St Edmund to force the king to accede to the demands in the charter. For a time Bury people believed that the charter was actually drawn up then and there, but historians give this honour to St Albans a year earlier in 1213. How much truth therefore remains in the legend of the barons’ meeting?
Last Saturday, 17 January, David Carpenter, Professor of Medieval History at King’s College in London, who has published a new translation of Magna Carta and who has made at least one TV documentary on the subject, gave a talk at Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds. The audience was eager to know whether the Bury connection was true. I know this because Bury is my local town, and I was there.
Carpenter explained that it was Roger of Wendover, a monk at St Albans abbey, who had chronicled much of the goings-on behind the scenes prior to the historic day at Runnymede. He it was who had asserted that the barons had sworn their oath at St Edmunds’ shrine, though he was somewhat sketchy as to when. Sir James Clarke Holt, one of the greatest of Magna Carta scholars, had declared that this legend had to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Carpenter took the audience through a timeline of events which were contemporaneously chronicled, and authoritative because they principally concerned the movements of the king, the meetings he held, and those of his subjects who had their heads chewed off in such meetings. On the basis of this timeline Carpenter declared that he found that the indications pointed very strongly to a meeting of the barons in Bury, not on 20 November (St Edmunds’ Day) but on or around 19 October 1214.
It was a fascinating talk and, my being there out of interest in the subject, I was absorbed in what he had to say rather than in his manner of saying it. Nevertheless my rhetor hat is never far away. He shot his talk from the hip, only consulting notes when he had other people’s writings to quote. It was a thoroughly professional piece of speaking, well structured, well argued and well delivered. You might think that this would be a ‘given’ with a professor – but in my experience you would be wrong. Essentially he committed only one error: he put the Q&A in the wrong place, but nearly everyone does that – even N.T.Wright made that mistake.
Was I convinced by his argument? Yes I was, I really was. You may wonder whether this is a case of Confirmation Bias, but of course I am uniquely immune to such things. It was a great relief, because if the whole thing had turned out to be a fairy tale, a lot of people in Bury wasted a great deal of time last year.