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If only we could celebrate Magna Carta by sounding the Savernake Horn in Salisbury

There are exhibitions and celebrations galore next week to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing by King John (not signing - there is no evidence he could write) of the document that became known as Magna Carta - and was the foundation of our liberty.

Salisbury Cathedral holds one of the four surviving original copies of the 1215 document, so you could choose to go to Salisbury for Wiltshire Council's parade with pageant-type baronial puppets.  

You could risk the M25 and join the 'national Magna Carta Foundation of Liberty' celebrations at Runnymede where John met the barons and sealed the charter.  

Or you could visit the British Museum's Magna Carta: Law, liberty and Legacy exhibition.  In this exhibition you will find a strong Marlborough connection - and one that sheds a different light on Magna Carta.  

Copyright Trustees of the British MuseumCopyright Trustees of the British MuseumThe connection is the Savernake Horn which for centuries had belonged to the Wardens of Savernake Forest.  Made of elephant ivory in the twelfth or thirteenth century, it was decorated at various times with intricately carved silver bands - the earliest dating from about 1340.  

It is part European and part English in its amazing craftsmanship.  One of the carvings shows sixteen hawks preening themselves - it is not known who they represent.

In 1975 the Savernake Horn was bought by the British Museum from the 8th Marquess of Ailesbury for £210,000.  It was last sounded when George VI visited the Forest during the Second World War.

It is on show in the British Museum's exhibition because King John's charter included ground-breaking changes to the law of the forests.  Suddenly we see that the charter was not just about civil rights but also about rural poverty and food security.

A section of the Salisbury copy A section of the Salisbury copy Paragraph 47 of the 1215 charter reads (in the British Library translation from the original 'abbreviated Latin'): "All forests that have been created in our reign shall at once be disafforested. River-banks that have been enclosed in our reign shall be treated similarly."

In John's reign about one third of the country was designated as 'Royal Forest' and fines levied on crimes committed on Royal Forest land had become a major source of income for the King's treasury.  Those 'Royal Forests' included heathland, woods and even arable land and meadows.

'Disafforested' did not mean cutting down the trees, but did mean that the King was required to give up possession of land that had been designated as Royal forest land.  In doing so the land became available to 'commoners' - and they could catch fish from the river banks.

The Salisbury copy of the 2015 charterThe Salisbury copy of the 2015 charterBut when King John's son Henry III (who had inherited the crown in 2016 - aged nine) issued a new version of his father's charter in 2017, the forest clauses were taken out and a separate Charter of the Forests issued.

Clause 10 of the Charter of the Forests repealed the death penalty and mutilation (having a limb cut off) as punishments for killing deer, though you could still be fined or imprisoned.  Special Verderers' Courts were set up within the forests to enforce the charter - some of which still exist in the New Forest and the Forest of Dean.

In broad terms the Charter of the Forest restored traditional rights to the people - where the land had once been held in common.  And it restrained landowners from inflicting harsh punishments. It granted free men access to the forest so they could enjoy such rights as pasturing pigs, collecting firewood, grazing cattle or cutting turf for fuel.

But these rights were limited to 'free' men and only about ten per cent of England's population was then 'free' - the rest were held in some sort of service to a local landowner and some were really enslaved.  Not one of these charters was about democracy or equality - changes, of course, came slowly to England.

Although most of Magna Carta's clauses were about disputes of the day – the removal of foreigners from government, the regulation of feudal payments – two clauses were more general. These ordered that no free man was to be imprisoned except by the judgment of his equals or by the law of the land, and that the king was not to deny, or to sell, justice. It is these two clauses above all that have given Magna Carta its global status as a charter guaranteeing liberties.

However, before we get too excited about the freedoms enshrined in Magna Carta, we should recall that they were coming from a very, very low threshold.  Here, for example, is Clause 54:  "No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband."

It was the foundation of our liberty, but, as any house owner knows, things can go terribly wrong even if the foundations look good.  We are, for instance, still waiting for equality before the law.  And with cuts to legal aid, that aim has now receded again.

It will probably be worthwhile keeping things in a little perspective over the coming Magna Carta-fest.  We could remember the summary of Magna Carta in Sellar and Yeatman's early rendering of Horrible History 1066 and All That.  It included the clauses:  "That everyone should be free - (except the Common People)" and "That the Barons should not be tried except by a special jury of other Barons who would understand."

Then there is Tony Hancock as the foreman of the jury in the Hancock's Half Hour episode 'Twelve Angry Men', defending ‘the fair name of British justice’: "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?  Did she die in vain?"

The British Museum's exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy runs until September 1.  Details at the British Library website.

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  • Town-Hall-2011-05-03 08-
  • Silbury-Sunset---10-06-08-----07
  • Marlborough-2013-04-18 St Peters
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