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Magna Carta

by Marriott Edgar (1934)
Illustrations by John Hassall

At Runningmead
At Runningmead

Here's another potted history lesson for those of us who didn't bother with such things at school.

After being threatened by his barons for abusing power, King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. This gives certain rights to the King's subjects and binds the monarch to the law.

In Edgar's poem below, look out for the lovely archaic term for procrastinating: 'Shall I? Shall I?', which morphed into 'shilly-shally'.

We no longer 'shilly-shally'; now, we just 'sit on our bums'. 


Magna Carta is old Italian for 'Great Charter'.
Magna Gati is modern Italian for something completely different!

I'll tell of the Magna Charter
As were signed at the Barons' command
On Runningmead Island in t' middle of t' Thames
By King John, as were known as "Lack Land."

Some say it were wrong of the Barons
Their will on the King so to thrust,
But you'll see if you look at both sides of the case
That they had to do something, or bust.

For John, from the moment they crowned him,
Started acting so cunning and sly,
Being King, of course, he couldn't do wrong,
But, by gum, he'd a proper good try.

He squandered the ratepayers' money,
All their cattle and corn did he take,
'Til there wasn't a morsel of bread in the land,
And folk had to manage on cake.

The way he behaved to young Arthur
Went to show as his feelings was bad;
He tried to get Hubert to poke out his eyes,
Which is no way to treat a young lad.

It were all right him being a tyrant
To vassals and folks of that class,
But he tried on his tricks with the Barons an' all,
And that's where he made a 'faux pas'.

He started bombarding their castles,
And burning them over their head,
'Til there wasn't enough castles left to go round,
And they had to sleep six in a bed.

So they went to the King in a body,
And their spokesman, Fitzwalter by name,
He opened the 'ole in his 'elmet and said,
Conciliatory like, "What's the game?"

The King starts to shilly and shally,
He sits and he haws and he hums,
'Til the Barons in rage started gnashing their teeth,
And them with no teeth gnashed their gums.

Started acting cunning and sly
Started acting cunning and sly

Said Fitz, through the 'ole in his 'elmet,
"It was you as put us in this plight."
And the King having nothing to say to this, murmured
"Leave your address and I'll write".

This angered the gallant Fitzwalter;
He stamped on the floor with his foot,
And were starting to give John a rare ticking off,
When the 'ole in his 'elmet fell shut.

"We'll get him a Magna Charter,"
Said Fitz when his face he had freed;
Said the Barons "That's right and if one's not enough,
Get a couple and happen they'll breed."

So they set about making a Charter,
When at finish they'd got it drawn up,
It looked like a paper on cattle disease,
Or the entries for t' Waterloo Cup.

Next day, King John, all unsuspecting,
And having the afternoon free,
To Runningmead Island had taken a boat,
And were having some shrimps for his tea.

He'd just pulled the 'ead off a big 'un,
And were pinching its tail with his thumb,
When up came a barge load of Barons, who said,
"We thought you'd be here so we've come"

When they told him they'd brought Magna Charter,
The King seemed to go kind of limp,
But minding his manners he took off his hat
And said "Thanks very much, have a shrimp."

All their cattle and corn he did take
All their cattle and corn he did take
He tried it on with the barons
He tried it on with the barons

"You'd best sign at once," said Fitzwalter,
"If you don't, I'll tell thee for a start
The next coronation will happen quite soon,
And you won't be there to take part."

So they spread Charter out on t' tea table,
And John signed his name like a lamb,
His writing in places was sticky and thick
Through dipping his pen in the jam.

And it's through that there Magna Charter,
As were signed by the Barons of old,
That in England to-day we can do what we like,
So long as we do what we're told.

or 'butts', as they say in the USA

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