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Photograph copyright ©1999 Denis Waugh.

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King John has had a particularly bad press over the years, gaining a reputation for evil that is not entirely justified. True, he was cruel and oppressive, but no more so than his admired Norman predecessors.

The fourth son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Prince John was nicknamed `Lackland' because there was, quite simply, no land left for him to inherit. After his birth Henry and Eleanor went their separate ways and the future family history was to be one of jealousy and intrigue between parents and siblings in all directions.

After the death of his brother Richard the Lionheart, John had to deal with thugs of barons who were unused to having their monarch domiciled in England. They had done very nicely under Richard, despite their continual grumbles, because he had spent most of his time on crusade. True, a continual replenishing of the royal coffers had been required, but on the whole they were quite happy to be left alone quarrelling amongst themselves.

John was a better manager than Richard. He had an innate distrust of people, which may account for his punctiliousness, but under him the royal administration was vastly improved, not always to the barons' advantage. They did have legitimate grievances. Scutage - a tax levied in lieu of military service - was imposed eleven times between 1199 and 1215. Not only that, but a tax of one thirteenth was imposed on goods and chattels. And not only that, but the king's young nephew, Arthur of Brittany, the rightful inheritor of large tracts of France, was mysteriously murdered, supposedly by his uncle.

Small wonder that the odious barons wanted to bring John to heel and lucky them to have (temporarily) on their side the decent Archbishop Stephen Langton who drew up the Great Charter, inserting the clauses that were to benefit the whole country rather than just the participating barons and who organized the signing party. John signed the charter because it was expedient to do so but he didn't take it seriously, any more than did the barons, who saw it as an excuse to thumb their noses at the king and lay waste the royal manors. The Pope, to whom John had surrendered England as fief in 1213, annulled the Great Charter which he saw as being `as unlawful and unjust as it was base and shameful' and by which the `Apostolic See (is) brought into contempt, the royal prerogative diminished, the English nation outraged...' and the last year of John's reign was spent in turmoil with Louis of France waiting in the wings.

At Runnymede today a sign illustrates wonders of nature to be seen here: the skylark, the cinnabar moth, the common blue butterfly and the yellow rattle (named for noise of ripe seed pods when shaken) which is indicative of ancient neutral grassland. And so it is still: farmed on the ancient principles of grazing by cattle in winter and leaving for hay in summer.

Which is very interesting, but I am preoccupied with the question of why Magna Carta has become such a powerful symbol. It doesn't say a lot that had not been largely accepted before, because England has always had great law-makers: Ine, Alfred, Edward the Confessor, William I, Henry Beauclerk... why does it matter so?

I am just coming through the gate from the Magna Carta Memorial, thoughtfully provided by the people of the United States and thinking it is all a bit ho-hum, really, when a great wham! hits me right in the chest and just for an instant I can feel the presence of John and those awful barons. I can hear clanking of armour, shouting, bugles, smell sweat and horses. Suddenly I understand the significance of it - not for what it changed for John but for what it made possible to happen all over the world. It brought the Stuarts to heel in the seventeenth century, it is the basis of Tom Paine's Rights of Man and is the reason that America has a constitution (which we, incidentally, do not.) Then the sun comes out. A skylark rises from the grass disturbing a cinnabar moth and a common blue butterfly. It's one of those days when you seem to have it all.

Text copyright ©1999 Priscilla Waugh.

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