Thursday, 18 June 2015

Magna Carta Week: The Magna Carta - A Childhood Memory

The Magna Carta: A Childhood Memory
by Louise Rule

Back in the day when I was a gangling nine-year-old, with a mass of freckles and the ubiquitous large bow in my hair, we had a Magna Carta Day at school. We were all so excited at the prospect of this. It was 15th June, 1956, a Friday it was, and we were allowed to wear our best clothes for the occasion.

We were lucky in having a teacher who had the knack of making every lesson interesting. Thinking back, I am sure she could have made the telephone directory interesting. She would just sit on the corner of her desk, and, well, just teach. Time flew in her class. Teachers like that are a gift to a child. She was my gift, and she nurtured my love of history. I will never forget her.

HRH Queen Elizabeth II
Queuing for sweets at 
the end of rationing
So, to continue; there hadn't been much to celebrate since WWII had ended, save for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and another landmark of 1953 for us children was the end of sugar rationing. We formed endless queues outside the sweet shop to buy our humbugs, barley sugars, and gobstoppers. Just don't get me started on gobstoppers with a different colour for each layer.... Sorry, I digress... Magna Carta. We were all excited when our teacher told us of the poem that we would all learn. It was simply called 'King John', by Hugh Chestermann (b. 20.03.1884 - d. 03.11.1941). It can be found in Brian Moses' anthology Blood and Roses: British History in Poetry, which was published by Hodder Children's Books in 2004.

King John
We were given it as a print-out. The teacher put the copies on the front desk, and asked us to take a copy and pass the rest back. This we did, until we each had our own. We were a class in excess of 45 children, being 'baby-boomers'. We were informed that we would be reciting it as a 'round', where one child would recite the first two lines, then the next child, the next two lines, and so on. That is why it would be done as a 'round'. By the time it had been recited many times, it stuck in my head. Over the years, however, I have only remembered the first four lines, but on seeing it again, it all came back to me. 

So, the poem

'King John'

John was a tyrant, John was a tartar
John put his name to the Great Big Charter.
Every baron from Thames to Tweed
Followed the road to Runnymede.
Every baron had something to say
To poor perplexed King John that day.
"Pray sign your name," said Guy de Gaunt,
"It's easily done and it's all we want."
"A J and an O and an N" said Hugo, Baron of Harpenden.
Quietly spoke the Lord Ranbure, 
"Oblige Lord King with your signature."
"Your name my liege, be writ just here,
A mere formality," laughed de Bere.
"A stroke of the pen and the thing is done,"
Murmured Sir Roger of Trumpington.
"Done in a twinkling," sniffed de Guise.
Said Stephen Langton, "Sign if you please!"
So many people egging him on
I can't help feeling sorry for John.

(There is an alternative ending...)

Too many people he did wrong
We have no cause to pity John.

I think it is safe to say, that whichever ending of this poem you prefer, there has never again been a king named John.

I am sure that my continued love of history stemmed from my teacher's enthusiasm for our Magna Carta Day. It conjured up in my mind all the colourful costumes, and the striped tents with their pennants flying in the breeze. I had seen Quo Vadis and Knights of the Round Table at the cinema, starring Robert Taylor, and it was those Hollywood images that were in my mind.

The Great Charter of 1215 (From Wikipedia)

John met the rebel leaders at Runnymede near both the royal fortress of Windsor Castle and the rebel base at Staines, on 10th June 1215, where they presented him with their draft demands for reform, and the "Articles of the Barons". Stephen Langton's pragmatic efforts at mediation over the next ten days turned these incomplete demands into a charter capturing the proposed peace agreement; a few years later, this agreement was renamed Magna Carta, meaning "Great Charter". By 15th June, general agreement had been made on a text, and on 19th June, the rebels renewed their oaths of loyalty to John and copies of the charter were formally issued.

This from the Magna Carta Society:

[M]agna Carta matters. It is the foundation stone supporting the freedoms enjoyed today by hundreds of millions of people in more than 100 countries. Magna Carta enshrined the Rule of Law in English society. It limited the power of authoritarian rule. It paved the way for trial by jury, modified through the ages as the franchise was extended. It proclaimed certain religious liberties, "the English Church shall be free." It defined limits on taxation; every American remembers that "no taxation without representation" was the cry of the American colonists petitioning the king for their rights as free men. For centuries it has influenced constitutional thinking worldwide including in France, Germany, Japan, the United States and India as well as many Commonwealth countries, and throughout Latin America and Attica. Over the past 800 years, denials of Magna Carta's basic principles have led to a loss of liberties, loss of human rights and even genocide. It is an exceptional document on which democratic society has been constructed.
The original Great Charter was agreed by King John on 15th June 1215, when he acceded to barons' and bishops' demands to limit his powers and directed that it be sealed. This version of Magna Carta was revised several times in the 13th century. The 1297 version became part of English la[w.]

Magna Carta 1215
It is, indeed, a document that transcends all others, and the compiling of which has demonstrated how what we do now most definitely influences the future - not just our future, but everyone's future. It is like the ripples from the stone dropping into still water. If the Magna Carta had not been written, albeit amended, who is to say what our lives would be like now? It is only with the glories of hindsight, that we can imagine the destruction that would undoubtedly have occurred.

So, I say thank you to my teacher of 1956, for gifting me the love of history, and I say thank you, to every baron from Thames to Tweed, who followed that road to Runnymede, to make John put his name to the Great Big Charter, on 15th June 1215.

Louise E. Rule is author of Future Confronted. She can be found on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.


  1. What a magnificent post, Louise! I love the way you bring in the personal, because really this is personal for all of us--down to even the ordinary details of life that would be negatively affected by loss of freedom. It is so fitting that you even included children's cries of joy, because EVERY person, large and small, has something to celebrate from this great event in history. Thank you so much for being part of remembering!

    1. Thank you! It brought back some really happy memories of that day in 1956.

  2. Fab! What a vivid, warm and enjoyable post. Thanks for sharing :-)

  3. Sharon Bennett Connolly18 June 2015 at 09:56

    Great post, Louise. It's a shame teachers don't so that kind of thing these days - my son's school never even mentioned Magna Carta on Monday (and I'm guessing they won't mention Waterloo today). Ah well, at least it gives me something to teach him!

  4. Great article, thanks Louise. And a reminder to me too of the day the sugar ration ended (what bliss!).