Monday, 15 June 2015

Magna Carta and the Garter

Just over 130 years after his great grandfather had brought the Monarchy to its knees, a medieval King of England was in a strong enough position to establish an order of chivalry that would honour those who had done him good service and show the rest of the world (or Europe at least) just how important he was. Today, the legacy of King John and Edward III were both honoured by their descendant and successor, Elizabeth II, a monarch who is already a legend in her own lifetime.

The Queen at the events marking 800 years of Magna Carta  at Runnymede today

The Queen was at Runnymede early this morning to mark 800 years since the sealing of the Magna Carta. The great document, which became reality in June 1215 when the barons forced King John to put his name to it, is seen as the cornerstone of democracy and the bedrock of many constitutions around the world.  Eight hundred years ago tonight, King John was weeping into his mead at the power he had given away and what was left of his reputation - poor from the very start of his reign and on a permanent downward spiral in the years leading up to the Great Charter - was ripped to pieces and left to rot in the chapters saved for really bad kings in history books for centuries to come.


King John's throne now belongs to Elizabeth II and she was joined by a man who will hold it in years to come, the Duke of Cambridge, as well as by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Princess Royal for a ceremony commemorating eight centuries since Magna Carta was sealed. Also there was the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Eight hundred years ago, Justin Welby's predecessor drafted the charter to make peace between his monarch and the leading advisers, or politicians, of the day. The fact that eight centuries on those who have followed in their places came together at the same spot to commemorate the document is truly remarkable and rather awe inspiring.

Even more awe inspiring is the power that simple document has yielded since it was sealed in anger, bitterness and resentment all those years ago by King John. Lauded around the world for its role in establishing democracy, it is one of the most famous things ever written. John, a spinner if ever there was one, might well have made the most of that had he lived to see the power it would wield. But he died the following year. His great contribution to history was remembered today with a plaque unveiled by the Queen, a speech by the Prime Minister and the rededication of the Magna Carta Memorial by the Princess Royal.


Eight hundred years ago the odds on the monarchy run by John surviving were slim. There was an ambitious French king not far away who had already smashed his continental holdings into pieces while the beleagured English monarch had annoyed just about every power player in Europe in his short reign. He was succeeded by a boy king with an ambitious mother but somehow the House of Plantagenet survived. And the legacy of one of its greatest kings was on show this afternoon. After she had finished at Runnymede the Queen headed back to Windsor to take part in a ceremony started by Edward III, great grandson of John, and as strong and successful as his ancestor had been weak and failing. One of his most famous ideas was the Order of the Garter. On a grey but warm afternoon in Berkshire, Elizabeth II carried on his tradition as Sovereign of the Order with thousands turning out to cheer her.

The Order of the Garter was set up in 1348, just 130 years after the shock of Magna Carta. Edward had been king for 18 years and felt strong enough in his position to establish an Order of Chivalry where those he nominated as members would be honoured to have his favour. Twenty five knights were chosen to stand alongside their monarch and the patron was St George.


Women were associated with the Order but couldn't be full members. The Queen changed that in 1987 and today there are still 25 members but a mixture of both men and women while there are now royal knights in addition - among them Elizabeth II's next two successors, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge.


The modern order is most famous for its annual procession which took place today as the knights and their Sovereign made their way to the Chapel of St George, Windsor. Led by the Queen, they walked in their robes made to an age old design. It was grand, it was splendid and it showed the power wielded by Edward III, the man who started it all.


But perhaps the most famous thing about the Order of the Garter is its motto - Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense. It has been translated many ways, most usually Shame on him who thinks this evil. And perhaps on this day when the many facets of the House of Plantagenet converged in modern day England under the gaze of a modern day monarch who has redefined the role more successfully than many of her predecessors could have dreamed of, it is a fitting phrase to bear in mind. On June 15th 1215 the king and many of those around him thought the great charter he had sealed a bad thing. But it turned into one of the great gifts of western Europe, a bringer of democracy. Magna Carta has become a great triumph of royal history while the Order of the Garter is another glittering facet which shows its longevity and its ability to adapt. Anyone who thinks otherwise might do well to think again, as knights of old once said. Magna Carta and the Garter are parts of royal history and the co-incidence of one great anniversary and another great following of tradition on one single day in June is remarkable, extraordinary and unique. It is only right that this truly historic queen, about to enter the record books with an achievement that may never be beaten, is the one who oversaw it all.

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