Roamer: Questions raised about date of Magna Carta

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library.
One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library.

In celebration of the G7 summit’s stated intention to phase out the use of fossil fuels by the end of the century, Wednesday’s page waxed lyrical about the good old days when coal-fires glowed in our hearths and coal-furnaces heated the radiators in our schools.

In celebration of the G7 summit’s stated intention to phase out the use of fossil fuels by the end of the century, Wednesday’s page waxed lyrical about the good old days when coal-fires glowed in our hearths and coal-furnaces heated the radiators in our schools.

Most News Letter readers perused Wednesday’s page whilst perspiring in bright sunshine beating down from a blue, cloudless sky!

Roamer’s timing was perhaps a little bit out of kilter, like the date of Magna Carta, if you read on!

Kilter, by the way, is a variant of the old English dialect ‘kelter’ meaning ‘good health’ or ‘good condition’.

The word originates from the Native American language, brought here in the mid-1600s by the enigmatic, Cambridge-educated, Protestant clergyman, missionary and anthropologist Roger Williams who included it in his book A Key into the Language of America.

Williams made an indelible mark on history, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Widely acclaimed for his devout and hugely innovative theological beliefs it’s quite surprising that he wasn’t an Ulsterman!

His book that introduced us to the word ‘kilter’ brought more than American colloquialisms from across the Atlantic.

In it, Roger Williams rebuked fellow-English settlers for their attitudes of superiority towards the Native Americans:

“Boast not proud English, of thy birth and blood;

Thy brother Indian is by birth as good.

Of one blood God made him, and thee and all,

As wise, as fair, as strong, as personal.”

William’s poem, like much of his writing and teaching, reflected his strong beliefs in civic and religious liberty, principles that were brought into English law by a historic document sealed by King John 800 years ago on June 15,

1215.

Magna Carta is being marked and commemorated all across the UK and further afield, and the Queen will be visiting Runnymede next Monday to celebrate its 800th anniversary.

Magna Carta contained over 60 clauses when it was first granted and three of those clauses remain part of English law today - one defending religious liberties and rights, another confirming liberties and customs, and a third, the most famous, ending with the oft-repeated words “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

Historic words indeed, but a News Letter reader’s note to Roamer raises an important question - “Are we commemorating the sealing of the Magna Carta on the correct day?!”

Roamer isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a historian, but the reader who asked the question included some intriguing and contrasting arguments by two eminent experts, who’ve both written books about the matter.

For anyone keen to further explore the debate, they are David Carpenter, a Professor of medieval history at King’s College London, and George Garnett, a Professor of medieval history at the University of Oxford.

Professor Carpenter maintains that the date is correct, particularly because King John ends the Charter by stating that it was “given by our hand in the meadow which is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines on the 15th day of

June in the 17th year of our reign”.

Professor Garnett’s reckons that the date is misleading, and was added to the document, along with a number of other later insertions, after June 15.

Both academics’ say that their assessments of the date are based on hypothesis, but the News Letter reader who forwarded their views to Roamer included a well-verified Irish connection - the first country outside England to receive

the Magna Carta was Ireland.

In February 1217 it was sent to Dublin, where it had close links with Christ Church.

The then Archbishop of Dublin was one of King John’s most trusted officials and was present at Runnymede during the negotiations between King John and the barons which preceded the signing of the Magna Carta.

The Dublin Archbishop’s name appears on it as the second named witness after the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Christ Church document is now on public display for the first time. Details are at christchurchcathedral.ie