[MR] Magna Carta Sealed, Not Signed

Garth Groff and Sally Sanford mallardlodge1000 at gmail.com
Thu Jun 15 03:18:23 PDT 2023

Noble Friends,

On this date in 1215, "Bad King John" of England temporarily acceded to the
document known as *Magna Carta* ("Great Charter", and really there should
be no "*the*" attached to the name).

Of course, almost everybody "knows" all about this event, since we were
taught in school that it enshrined individual rights, blah, blah, blah.
Actually, *Magna Carta* was all about the English barons' rights, and only
a few small bits applied to anyone beneath them (example: trial by jury,
but that was oft ignored by the barons themselves when dealing with

Another common fiction is that King John signed* Magna Carta*. He didn't.
He affixed his seal to it. Documents at that time were not signed, but
rather a wax-resin seal was stamped with a seal matrix. The hot wax mixture
was usually poured around a cord or parchment tail affixed to the document.
Then the seal matrix which carried the owner's personal image or heraldic
device was pressed into the still warm wax.

When I was in the 4th grade, my official California State reader contained
the following poem. It is an example of how *Magna Carta* and a lot of
other history we were taught as children gets warped to become part of the
"common knowledge". It is by Eleanor Farajeon (1881-1965), a popular
British children's author (she also wrote the words to "Morning Has
Bad king John <https://allpoetry.com/Bad-king-John>
John, John, bad King John
Shamed the throne that he sat on;
Not a scruple, not a straw,
Cared this monarch for the law;
Promises he daily broke;
None could trust a word he spoke;
So the Barons brought a Deed;
Down to rushy Runnymede,
Magna Carta was it hight,
Charter of the People’s Right,
Framed and fashioned to correct
Kings who act with disrespect –
And with stern and solemn air,
Pointing to the parchment there,
“Sign! Sign! Sign!” they said
“Sign, King John, or resign instead!”

John, John, turning pale,
Ground his teeth and bit his nail;
Chewed his long moustache; and then
Ground and bit and chewed again.
“Plague upon the People!” he
Muttered, “What are they to me?
Plague upon the Barons, too!”
(Here he had another chew,)
But the Barons, standing by,
Eyed him with a baleful eye;
Not a finger did they lift;
Not an eyelash did they shift;
But with one tremendous roar,
Even louder than before,
“Sign! Sign! Sign!” they said,

Mungo here again. My school edition added, "And King John signed", which
was not part of Farajeon's text (or at least the version above).

King John wasn't a nice guy by any stretch of the imagination, but like
George Washington chopping down cherry trees, his story has been
mythologized until many of the facts are lost.

Back to sealing, which is what I really wanted to talk about today. I love
wax seals, and occasionally seal my personal letters. I have a small
collection of seal matrices, including a really cool *memento mori* ("remember
death") signet ring featuring a skull, and a pile of wax sticks in many
colors. Sometimes I wonder if the post office's sorting machines love the
seals as much as I do, but my letters seem to get through.

If you would like to know more about seal matrices and seals, here is a
Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seal_(emblem) . Matrices
and sealing wax are widely available in high-end stationery stores, museum
gift shops, at Universal theme parks in the Harry Potter sections, online,
and through Townsend's re-enactment catalog (the *memento mori* ring came
from Townsend's).

Yours Aye,

Mungo Napier, Laird of Mallard Lodge  🦆
Working to keep Mary Rose relevant for over 16 years.

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