One of the first essays I ever wrote was, quite pompously, about what “abuses provoked men to demand the Magna Carta.” My research consisted of reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Magna Carta. I mean, hey, I was 12, and that seemed sufficient. I vaguely remember writing something about unfair taxation, loosely tied into my mind to the Robin Hood myth about King John, obviously the same guy who was forced to sign the Magna Carta, and about the dangers of unmitigated monarchy. I have no idea where the essay went.
So I was quite keen to see the most well-preserved copy of the 1215 Magna Carta original in existence. As it turned out, I couldn’t read it at all, as it is set down on a single sheet of velum in shorthand Latin. I also studied Latin at age 12, but apparently not hard enough.
The Salisbury Cathedral, where the copy is kept, is interesting in its own right, and is used for regular services. The juxtaposition sometimes throws me a little: I stumbled upon the grave of King John (and Richard the Lionhearted)’s bastard brother William Longespée, the third Earl of Salisbury, publicly acknowledged as the son of Henry II. That must have pissed queen Eleanor of Aquitaine right off. Or not, since her husband had already imprisoned her at that point. It’s an interesting bit of history to be reminded of while perusing the hymn book.
The cathedral had installed several modern art pieces within its walls, which seemed more odd than was probably intended. The bell tower had settled unevenly over the centuries, to the point that you can see the stone supports bowing under the weight.