A Church and a Cathedral
As we’ve seen so far in my reviews of Magna Carta exhibitions, there are some common themes. A strong story emerges when institutions focus more on what they have (Society of Antiquaries, Hereford) than on trying to tell a much bigger story (British Library, Durham).
One of the key Magna Carta sites is the Temple Church in London, somewhere I have always wanted to visit, and when better than the anniversary year of Magna Carta? As its name implies, it is an ancient church, originally the church of the Knights Templars, tucked away within the Inns of Court. Its plan can be described as keyhole shaped, the original round Templar church being augmented by a chancel. I was happy to pay the £5 entry fee – these ancient buildings need upkeep and it is a special place architecturally, interesting in itself even without the Magna Carta connection.
Its part in the Magna Carta story is twofold: firstly, it was a key location in events leading up to the Magna Carta. Panels placed around the walls of the round church told the story of the turbulence around King John in the years and months preceding the final confrontation at Runnymede: it was here that the barons confronted John in January 1215, and it was from here that John issued a charter to the City of London in May 1215. Indeed, the ancient liberties of the City were significant enough to form Clause 13 of the Magna Carta itself.
Secondly, it is the resting place of William Marshal, King John’s adviser. According to Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, himself a key player in Magna Carta’s events, William was the ‘best knight who ever lived’. As a former Crusader, he had a natural connection with the Templars, but he was also something of a diplomat. William had had his own differences with John, but remained the king’s man and was trusted by both sides. After John’s death, he ensured the survival not only of his nine year old son, Henry III, but of Magna Carta itself, reissued twice by the boy-king under William’s seal before being formally confirmed in 1225. William’s success is legible in the present building: the chancel was added to the round church as the intended resting place of Henry III, although he was buried in the end at Westminster.
The Temple also had another role to play in the later history of the document. While the Knights Templars have long gone, by virtue of its location, the church is closely associated with the legal profession, the ‘Mother Church of the Common Law’, of which Magna Carta is a key foundation document. As in other exhibitions the impact of Magna Carta through the ages was explored, but in a novel fashion, with a facsimile of the 1297 Magna Carta, an enormous document dating from the year the charter had its most significant ‘legal moment’, when it was officially placed upon the statute book (and remains so to this day, although most of its clauses have now been repealed).
And so to Worcester and another resting place, this time of King John himself. Worcester Cathedral is intimately associated with John’s death in 1216, despite the fact that he actually died at Newark. Worcester uniquely has both the earliest surviving royal will, written in haste as untimely death from dysentery overtook the king, and the earliest surviving royal portrait effigy, believed to be a likeness of John. It was here that he kept Christmas six months before Magna Carta, and enjoyed hunting locally.
Worcester’s display therefore focuses entirely on John and is housed in the north transept of the Cathedral, making it free and accessible to all. It comprises a set of illuminated (backlit) panels set in a square, telling the story of John’s associations with Worcester and the story of a playwright from the local town of Stratford-upon-Avon who wrote King John (one Shakespeare, W). They were well-lit and easy to read.
A central feature was the reconstructed colouration of his tomb, since its original polychromy was removed during restoration in the 1930s (the Victorians had much to answer for: it was gilded in the 1870s, and when the mistaken gilding was taken off, so unfortunately was the polychrome underneath).
I was much taken with the interactive panel that allowed you to explore the tomb and its setting in greater depth: it was large and set at wheelchair-friendly and child-friendly height, easy to navigate, and all the buttons worked (not always the case with interactives). This allowed you to learn about King John’s burial and the iconography of his tomb and the quire in which he now lies. He was personally devoted to St. Wulfstan, who was canonized during his reign, and was originally interred with St. Wulfstan and St. Oswald, saints of Worcester, on either side. Both are also represented on his tomb: he lies with a bishop on each shoulder. Above him in the quire examples of good kingship look down on John, a pointed reminder of his failures as king.
The quire as we now see it is not the same quire in which John was originally interred, but was remodelled in 1225 when the country was stable enough to allow capital projects to begin again. Tellingly, this is also the year that Magna Carta was confirmed by Henry III, who gave both money and oak timber for this reconstruction work. We saw an artist’s impression of the pre-1225 quire. It was a most informative and interesting display, well-written and accessible both physically and intellectually, shedding a light on this specific corner of 13th-century England. It was highly visual with good contrast and lighting, and concentrated on still images: no videos, thus no missing subtitles . . . I was impressed with how many boxes had been ticked to provide something so informative.
These two last visits have really helped to illuminate the places and personalities behind Magna Carta – and likewise highlight the failure of Lincoln, my first stop on this journey. At Lincoln there was no sense of what it meant to Lincoln itself or to the story of England: it was a bare outline, without even leaflets to take away, and was the worst value of all at £8 concessionary entrance fee.