Following on from the posts I did on the Molmutine Laws, I wanted to use the opportunity to post on the Magna Carta (the Great Charter). The Magna Carta was an agreement between King John and the Barons of England to curb his rotten ways and excessive taxes. It was the first document of its kind in the world and has formed the basis of all democracies since. It reduced the absolutism of the monarch, enshrined – albeit to a very limited extent – the rights of the common man and reaffirmed common law in England as opposed to the foreign forest law that had been imposed since the Norman invasion.
This is a timely issue as if we do not vote for Brexit on June 23rd when Britain has its referendum, this aspect of our ancient way of life will be lost to us forever. We would have to fully adopt the Napoleonic Code-based law practised in Europe. This would mean no right to trial by jury, no ‘innocent until proven guilty’, and the abolishment of habeas corpus among other rights.
As I discussed in my previous post, the Molmutine Laws emerged in Britain shortly after it was settled by the Trojans. They were named after King Dyfnwal Moelmud (Latin: Dunvallo Molmutius) who emerged as King after a devastating civil war (the Civil War of the Five Kings) roughly 200 years after Brutus. The Molmutine Laws, established during Moelmud’s reign (Moelmud means bald and silent – as in silent and deadly – in Welsh), remained more or less in place through the time of the Anglo-Saxons. Alfred the Great (871-899 CE), a fantastic and under-studied Anglo-Saxon king, had the laws translated from the ancient Briton/Welsh into Latin and from Latin into English so that he could use them to form the basis of his great overhaul of English law (he also reformed education and written English during his reign – but that’s for another post).
After the Norman Invasion, the legal system changed virtually overnight. The Normans instituted what was called forest law, which meant that the open lands of England (it applied not just to the forests but moorland, heathland and other open regions) were under the preserve of the monarch and for his exclusive hunting use. Up until then, most land was held in common, with ordinary people using these lands to graze their livestock, collect firewood – which was important for charcoal burning – and also hunting of their own.
Although Anglo-Saxon society had its own class structure, it was less formal than the Norman system. To put it bluntly, there were ‘Lords of the Manor’ (which is a Norman concept) but they acted more like tribal chieftains than anything. This changed under William the Conqueror, who threw all the Anglo-Saxon noblemen out on their ears and brought in his own men from Normandy, to ensure there was no rebellion in the provinces. It was a root and branch change.
Fast forward 200 years to King John’s time. The Normans were firmly established as the ruling class of Britain. King John, Richard the Lionheart’s brother, was a tyrant, a bully and a despot of a King. After a period of heavy taxation, his own Noblemen rebelled and refused to pay. After a period of stand-off, they brought John to Runnymede to sign the Magna Carta, which was a written document, in an attempt to curb John’s excesses (it didn’t work, as both sides decided to break the agreement). What is interesting though is that it was reintroduced frequently during later ‘peace talks’ and eventually became a contract between the Monarch and nobility to rule more fairly (towards them at least). The document was reviewed periodically under each monarch, for the next few hundred years until Parliament eventually emerged (I will do a post on this in the future).
The only other thing I wish to add about the Magna Carta is the place it was signed – Runnymede. Runnymede is a cast iron Anglo-Saxon name and derives from the word runieg, regular meeting place and mede meadow. Runnymede had already been used by the Anglo-Saxon Kings to hold their Witenagemot, or King’s Counsel. The Ancient Britons as well as the Anglo-Saxons had a penchant for holding important meetings in the open air, in the presence of a huge tree (other examples include Parliament Oak in Sherwood Forest and Gospel Oak near Hampstead Heath, London). At Runnymede, the Magna Carta was signed in the shadow of the Ankerwycke Yew, a 2,500-year-old yew tree on the banks of the Thames. This is a very old tradition of our wonderful country and one that is little known about today.
The Yew is very significant. In terms of symbolism, it has associations with death and crossing over into the Other worlds. Due to its slow growth, it also represents longevity. Any contract signed by such a tree would be an attempt, conscious or not, of that contract integrating these themes. It’s a powerful message.
Although the Oak is synonymous with England, and with good reason, I think the Yew should also have a special place in our hearts. Its wood has been used for dowsing, for spiritual rites and also weaponry. The ancient yeomen of England, who defended the realm, were so called because of their Yew bows. This ancient tree has shaped and protected us in so many ways. Please consider that when you vote on 23rd June. Our ability to shape our destiny as a nation depends upon it.