Magna Carta commands a semi-mythical status in the English-speaking world. There are still four surviving copies of this 13th-century document. These surviving copies bear the following date: 15 June 1215. Accordingly, articles have recently appeared, reminding us of Magna Carta’s significance.
At present, some statements, images and film scenes have given us the impression that Magna Carta was signed by the infamous King John. However, the copies of Magna Carta were sealed like other medieval charters. Thus, they had the king’s Great Seal.
“Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!…The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.”
Theses lines are taken from Joseph Conrad’s famous novella Heart of Darkness.
Louis-Charles Fougeret de Monbron was an 18th-century French writer. Among his works was the anti-British pamphlet Préservatif contre l’anglomanie (1757). He made the following statement:
“We are the only nation in the universe that the English do not despise. They rather do us the honor of hating us with all the heartiness possible. Their aversion against us is a sentiment with which they are inculcated from the cradle. Before they know that there is a God to worship, they know that there are Frenchmen to be detested.”
Although we know little about Saint George, he arguably served as a soldier and was martyred on this day (i.e. 23 April) in 303 during a persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian because he presumably refused to recant his faith. In legends and in iconography he is usually depicted as a dragon slayer.
St George has been the patron saint of England since the 14th century. King Edward III founded the prestigious Order of the Garter in 1348, choosing St George as its patron. For this reason, the cult of St George became immensely popular.
Cannon, John. Ed. Dictionary of British History. Rev. ed. Oxford: OUP, 2009.
Since this blog often deals with issues concerning the Anglosphere, it is worth quoting Alexis de Tocqueville. In the 19th century he famously stated:
It is true that each people has a special character independent of its political interest. One might say that America gives the most perfect picture, for good or ill, of the special character of the English race. The American is the Englishman left to himself.
This quote is taken from Daniel Hannan’s book How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters (London: Head of Zeus, 2013).
England’s monastic past is evoked through a line in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. It also reminds us of what happened to many monasteries and abbeys in Britain during and after the Reformation in England and Scotland.
Poetry generally possesses a unique character. However, because of the metaphorical language and the elusive allusions, we frequently have difficulty in deciphering the stories poems tell or the messages they convey. The same applies to William Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Although Sonnet 73 is no exception in this regard, a single line is particularly striking. We find it at the end of the first quatrain:
“That time of yeare thou maist in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few doe hange
Upon those boughes which shake against the could,
Bare ruin’d quiers, where late the sweet birds sang.”
(This quatrain is taken from Duffy, Eamon. Saints, Sacrilege & Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformation. London: Bloomsbury, 2012. P. 234.)
Here Shakespeare evokes England’s monastic past but also alludes to the monastic ruins in the post-Reformation period. In general, the one-line evocation gives a feeling of nostalgia. It permits the interpretation that Shakespeare arguably assumed a critical attitude towards the English Reformation, while he appeared to be in favour of late medieval monasticism and Catholicism.
During as well as after the Reformation in England and Scotland the overthrow of late medieval monasticism resulted in the dissolution, destruction and pillage of many monasteries, abbeys and other religious buildings. A large amount of church land was also transferred.
Today, we can still visit the romantic ruins. They are a reminder of a distant past. Examples are Battle Abbey, the partially ruined building on the alleged site of the famous Battle of Hastings, and the ruins of Holyrood Abbey beside the Palace of Holyroodhouse in the Scottish capital Edinburgh, even though in the 17th century the demolished Augustinian monastery was rebuilt and fell into disrepair in the 18th century.
Note: All photos were taken by me (Nils Zumbansen) in 2012 and 2018.
Duffy, Eamon. Saints, Sacrilege & Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformation. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.