IN THE centre of the ornate Chapter House of Salisbury Cathedral
is a very small tent, and inside, on a table behind glass, is an
800-year-old one-page document written in tiny black Latin words in
tight lines on parchment. It is Magna Carta. Insignificant as it
may look, no medieval document has been so iconic and inspiring in
supporting human rights.
When it was first written, it was an attempt, overseen by the
Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, on behalf of the Church,
to make a legal peaceful agreement between King John and the
English barons who had rebelled against his over-taxing and
The King first offered it to God and sought the protection of
the Pope, and the Archbishop wisely made the first clause to state:
"The English Church shall be free and shall have its rights
undiminished and its liberties unimpaired."
Although revised many times over the years, it could be said to
be the old dried shell from which has grown a fair legal system
sanctioned by the Church and acceptable to most people in most
countries. It has influenced the wording of many constitutional
statements, including the American Bill of Rights.
Over this weekend of 13 and 14 June and on Monday 15th, the
anniversary of the actual sealing of Magna Carta, many churches and
Christian centres are celebrating with bells ringing full peals,
specially written music, including settings of Veni, Sancte
Spiritus, believed to have been written by Archbishop Stephen
Langton, A Letter of Rights, using quotations from Magna
Carta written by the Revd Alice Goodman, with music by Tarik
O'Regan (only tomorrow evening in Salisbury Cathedral), dedicated
evensongs, pageants, exhibitions, plays, lectures, and
At the institutions that hold the four surviving original
charters - Salisbury Cathedral, the British Library, and Lincoln
Cathedral - there are more elaborate displays, which have been in
preparation sometimes for more than a year, and will be on show
over the summer months.
Salisbury has a very special interest in Magna Carta; for
Archbishop Stephen Langton's right-hand man Elias de Dereham placed
the parchment before the King to make his seal and then organised
copies to be circulated throughout the kingdom. He brought the
finest copy to Sarum and then later to the new Salisbury Cathedral,
whose building he oversaw. It is the best-preserved of the four
surviving copies, as it was written on fine well-scraped vellum in
"book hand" ink from oak galls, used for books and manuscripts,
instead of "chancery hand" ink, used for letters and documents.
At Salisbury, there are several moving and beautiful art
displays reflecting the principles of Magna Carta, where people
have worked together to create mutual understanding and artistic
harmony. Jacqueline Cresswell, the cathedral's visual-arts adviser,
and cathedral volunteers have been running regular workshops with
groups of men serving long sentences at Erlestoke Prison to express
in art how they saw justice and Magna Carta. The men were each
given a sketchbook initially to write or draw their feelings. Then,
inspired by the medieval tiles in the cathedral, they were helped
to each make a terracotta tile using black or white slip to
decorate and develop their ideas.
One man's tile represents King John sealing the charter with a
dove of peace overhead; another, hands together in prayer; another,
a chain; and another, Latin words from Magna Carta. They were
glazed and fired in the prison kiln and then set into two frames
shaped like Gothic church windows, grouted in the medieval way.
They now hang in the south cloister until September, with a glass
showcase laying out the sketchbooks.
Another innovative way of using clauses from Magna Carta is
Squidsoup's use of modern digital installations in Power of
Words in the Morning Chapel, where animated texts and
quotations from Magna Carta are projected on to the wall and change
as people react to them and give their comments. It is paired with
another moving light installation in the north cloister, through
which people walk and by doing so alter the light pattern.
The artist David Podger has also been working with a
cross-section of ages from primary school to senior citizens on a
community project to produce ten banners shaped like medieval
standards and reflecting the clauses of Magna Carta. They are
worked in mixed media - paint, collage, gold leaf, and embroidery -
and illustrated with images of freedoms people enjoy brought about
by Magna Carta. Each pair is dominated by a colour relating to
Christian values, and they hang in the cathedral until
Alongside its exhibition "Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy"
(which runs until 1 September), the British Library has chosen a
more modern socio-political rendering by commissioning an
embroidery of the Wikipedia Magna Carta page as it appeared on the
charter's 799th birthday on 15 June 2014. The artist Cornelia
Parker made a digital copy, and printed it on to 13 metres of half
panama cotton, and invited 200 people closely involved with justice
and human rights, including 40 prison inmates, to choose words or
images from the printout and embroider them, using DMC Perlé
cotton, on to the cloth. "I wanted to create a portrait of our
age," Parker said. "Like a Wikipedia article, this embroidery is
multi-authored and full of many different voices."
The more demanding images were embroidered by professionals,
mostly from the Embroiderers' Guild, dedicating many hours to this
detailed work: Anthea Godfrey took 450 hours to embroider the image
of Pope Innocent lll. Wikipedia Magna Carta is on show in the
entrance hall until Friday 24 July, and may later go on tour.
Lincoln Cathedral holds the fourth Magna Carta, which was
brought back by Hugh of Wells, Bishop of Lincoln, who had also been
a royal supporter, and it has celebrated with the opening of a new
Magna Carta Centre in the Castle grounds and by holding an
up-market dinner in the cathedral nave, reflecting, perhaps, the
fact that Magna Carta was concerned with barons' rights rather than
ordinary people's, including serfs.
Hereford Cathedral feels that it is also a "Magna Carta
hotspot", as it holds the slightly later original Magna Carta of
1217 sealed by Henry III, and is holding an exhibition and
activities throughout the summer, such as writing one's own Magna
Carta clause, or (for children) putting on 13th-century clothes.
Chris White, a well-known Hereford artist, has made Flags of
Freedom, calligraphic banners inspired by some of the
important clauses in Magna Carta which have had a lasting impact on
our society and law. He used a traditional quill pen and inks to
replicate the experience of a medieval scribe. They hang in the
cathedral until December.
Some one-off activities are in later summer, including "Magna
Cantata" from 7 to 10 July in Salisbury Cathedral: 800 primary- and
secondary-school children from Wiltshire and Dorset taking part in
a musical celebration of Magna Carta, freedom, and justice. It is
directed by Ben Ochipiti.