David Carpenter confirms the Bury St Edmunds connection with Magna Carta

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.

Catherine Engelbrecht in The Land of the Free

Every so often I go blitzing on line, compiling lists of links to speeches that might be worth visiting more thoroughly later. So it was that I skimmed my way through “Top 10 greatest speeches from TV shows”, a series of examples of heavy dramatic fiction. The very next thing I came to was a video of testimony made on 6 February, 2014, by Catherine Engelbrecht, founder and President of True the Vote, to a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. I had to keep pinching myself to cling to the knowledge that the fiction had stopped and that this dramatic account was real life in The Land of the Free.

One of the simplest and most fundamental principles of life, one that we learn when tiny tots in the school playground, is that when one side of an argument feels that it needs to break or bend rules, or cheat in any way on behalf of their cause, then there is something wrong with their cause. They may rationalise their cheating with all sorts of end-justifies-the-means sophistry, but – and here’s the clincher – they likewise realise, deep down, that there’s something wrong with their cause. Otherwise they wouldn’t perceive a need to cheat.

I’m an Englishman, not an American. Though reasonably well-read, and accordingly some of what she says is not completely new to me, I am not well enough versed in the back story to feel qualified to comment beyond general principles like the above. But I have exceptional experience to qualify me to judge how she puts across her account.

I read stress by the bucketful. I think that, even without the story she is telling, it must be pretty tough for a private citizen to address an audience like that. Accordingly I applaud how well she copes.

This is one occasion that I am four-square behind a speaker with a script. She has to stick very tightly to time: she must be very precise with her data: she must be seen to be very precise with her data. But there’s another important plus to her credit with this script. It is written in spoken English.

I am not altogether happy with the “motherhood and apple-pie” section beginning at 1:16. It is not the content that bothers me – that’s crucially relevant – it’s the attempts at the warm smiles at the mention of her husband and family. However warm might be her feelings towards them, and however genuine those smiles at any other time, here and now under a tsunami of stress those smiles could not but look forced. I know why she’s doing it: it’s to add colour to the contrast between her two lives before and after she took on this campaign. I just don’t think it works.

In citing harassment from a range of government agencies she bravely names one of the panel at 1:47. Does she think this will neutralise some of the aggression from his cross-examination later? If so, according to this account, it doesn’t work. There’s more video material there, and you may think it worth watching. I shall not comment on it.

Is her story true? I am not in a position to know absolutely; though I know what I believe. The story that unfolds is a harrowing one and, when recounted without attempts at smiles and as flatly and unemotionally as her stress will allow, is very powerful. At 3:54 she speaks hypothetically about “a political machine that would put its own survival against the civil liberties of the private citizen”.

The preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America begins with the words, “We the people…” The implication is that government is the servant of the people. It’s an extension of the assertions in Magna Carta. Is this concept some kind of wide-eyed romantic fantasy these days? If it is, we should be nervous. History shows an extraordinary consistency in that wherever and whenever people have been free of tyranny that society has managed pretty well. Wherever and whenever a self-serving elite has broken into those freedoms the result has always been misery and immiseration. There is no such thing as a benign tyranny.

There is a silver lining to this story. In the society that currently obtains, Catherine Engelbrecht was able to present this testimony to the House of Representatives: we are able to view it on line: I am able to comment on it here. So far, for the moment, those freedoms at least continue. If any of the links in that chain become endangered it will be time to man the barricades.

Daniel Hannan inspires at Runnymede

[I posted this in January 2014.  This month, June 2015,  sees the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede, so this seems an appropriate time to revisit the speech. Also you should see a new video Hannan has made at Runnymede.]

On Friday 13 September, 2013, The Freedom Association hosted a lecture at Runnymede entitled

Magna Carta: the Secular Miracle of the English Speaking Peoples.

It was delivered by Daniel Hannan; and my being currently about halfway through his excellent book How we invented freedom & why it matters I have to say that choosing him for this lecture was not merely inspired but downright inevitable. Not only is he a magnificent speaker, not only has he studied Magna Carta’s historical significance in considerable depth but there was no danger whatever of his breaking the first Cardinal Rule in my book, The Face & Tripod. He was never going to limit himself to speaking about Magna Carta: he was always going to drive an impassioned message on the subject.

I don’t expect regular readers of this blog to expect me to do much here except use up my year’s supply of superlatives before 2014 is a week old. Indeed this is a copy-book example of speech-making. Unless you happen to be a student of speaking you could well stop here and just enjoy a fabulous lecture. Nevertheless if Hannan were consulting me there is one facet of his delivery on which I should dearly like to work.

He is speaking in the open air (never easy), competing with the sound of falling rain and periodic passing aeroplanes, and I am certain he is not amplified. He has a microphone clipped to his tie but I believe that to be only to supply a clean audio feed for this video. This means we are hearing him from a range of about eight inches. His audience is rather further away than that, and it is the way he is projecting that persuades me that there is no PA system. It is a very tough test of vocal delivery. Can you spot what he is doing wrong?

His vocal projection is that of the super-conscientious. His enunciation is excellent without suffering from death-by-consonants. So what’s my beef?

He commits disproportionate syllable stress. If you have a look at this posting (and I hope you do) you will see where I have discussed it before and save me having to repeat myself too much, except that here I have a recording for illustration. Before I begin citing illustrative examples, though, I invite you to look briefly at 11:29 in the video. There you get an idea of the distance of his audience. Remember, you and I are hearing him from only 8 inches away so you need to imagine how much of what we hear will have been dissipated on the way to his audience.

Here is a far-from-comprehensive list of syllables (and sometimes whole words or even phrases) that are faint, or in some cases almost inaudible. Unless otherwise stated, they are at the ends of the words or phrases. 4:12 “victory”; 5:88 “Englishmen”; 7:30 “foundation of modern freedom” (almost all of that was lost); 8:40 “not the king’s law”; 11:05 “as it were” (I had to replay that to check on what he said); 18:40 “authoritarianism” (I think).

Just as with Bill Stuart-White in that posting of mine in August, this flaw comes not from laziness but from a laudable desire to be expressive. There are occasions when Hannan deliberately goes very quiet for reasons of drama, and I have no quarrel with that – though I urge him to turn up the sibilance when he does – but he still needs to make every syllable heard. It’s something I discuss at length (along with my own journey down this very same path!) in my little booklet, Every Word Heard.

I have devoted five paragraphs to picking nits off nits. I wouldn’t have bothered, except Daniel Hannan is about as good as they get. When you have worked hard enough to get that close to excellence, people like me owe you the homage of showing you how close you are.