8 Centuries Later, Contemporaneous Account of Magna Carta Discovered

November 30th, 2014

A 13th Century poem, written by Scottish monks, provides the earliest independent recording of Magna Carta. Remarkably, no one figured out what the poem was talking about till this year!

The Melrose poem, written in Latin, is remarkably clear. It begins: “A new state of things begun in England; such a strange affair as had never been heard; for the body wishes to rule the head, and the people desired to be masters over the king.”

I love the image of the “body” ruling the “head,” and the “people” as “masters over the king.” That is Magna Carta!

It goes on to explain the anger at King John. “The king, it is true, had perverted the excellent institutions of the realm, and had mismanaged its laws and customs, and misgoverned his subjects. His inclination became his law; he oppressed his own subjects; he placed over them foreign mercenary soldiers, and he put to death the lawful heirs, of whom he had obtained possession as his hostages, while an alien seized their lands.”

I think the charge of “his inclination became his law” is quite salient today.

This may be the only official report of what happened on that June day in 1215.

The library’s curator of medieval manuscripts, Julian Harrison, who made the discovery, said the Melrose Chronicle had simply never figured on anyone’s radar.

“It does set out in quite precise terms the sequence of events at Runnymede for negotiations between the king and the barons. There is no official report of what happened. We don’t actually know who was present. This is sufficiently detailed to suggest that the person was present or knew somebody who was present.”

Harrison’s hunch is that it may have been someone in the retinue of Alan of Galloway, a Scottish nobleman who is known to have been at Runnymede, who imparted the information. A scenario can be imagined of Alan and his men heading home and stopping off at Melrose rest and telling the monks of the strange events in England.

Not since the discovery of Jonathan Gruber’s comments about Obamacare have we witnessed such an important contemporaneous account of a legal milestone.