Interview: Seif El Rashidi

This interview originally apperared in the Wessex Chronicle volume, 16, issue 4 (Winter 2015-16)

Seif El Rashidi is the Magna Carta Programme Manager at Salisbury Cathedral. Raised in Egypt, where he studied at the American University in Cairo, he has a background in art and architectural history. He has previously worked for Ahmad Hamid Architects, for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s historic cities programme and as the Co-ordinator of Durham World Heritage Site.

Salisbury Cathedral houses one of four surviving contemporary copies of the 1215 Magna Carta and organised an ambitious programme of events to mark the document’s 800th anniversary last year. Derek Pickett and David Robins recently interviewed Seif about this, in the very room where Magna Carta may have been stored when it first came to the cathedral.

DP: We know how Magna Carta came about, but how did it then evolve?

SE: King John never liked Magna Carta. It was imposed upon him and had the rebels not been in a strong position he never would have agreed. I doubt he intended to honour the terms, agreeing only in order to buy time. He had no choice. What he did next was appeal to the Pope to annul it and the Pope did so.

The Pope had had a long history of not getting on with John, and had excommunicated him and more, and finally he had John under his control, as a vassal paying him 1,000 marks a year to rule England. It wasn’t in the Pope’s interest to have a committee of 25 barons having a say in what the King could do. The initial falling-out had been over the freedom of the Church from royal control, especially whose candidate should be Archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope’s choice – Stephen Langton – now had the job and was probably the brains behind much of Magna Carta as well as the mediator between John and the barons. He made sure the Church’s interest was protected: Magna Carta begins and ends with provisions about the freedom of the Church. Nevertheless, the Pope’s wider interests lay in political control of John.

In 1216 both John and the Pope die. Magna Carta is still annulled, and so you’d expect it to come to nothing. If John came alive today and found Magna Carta still around I think he’d be very surprised indeed. The secret to its survival is what happened next. It’s during the civil strife following John’s death that the following month Magna Carta is re-issued in the name of Henry III, his nine-year-old son. The regent – William Marshal – and the papal legate agree a wording that strengthens Henry’s position as the legitimate heir against the rival French claim, protects the Church’s interests but leaves out the more controversial provisions such as the committee of 25 barons monitoring the King. That innovation, included in the 1215 document to ensure compliance, was no longer necessary with John gone and Henry under the barons’ control. The new Magna Carta, no longer imposed on the King, is almost a contract, setting out a relationship between the King and his people.

Above: the only surviving issue of the 1216 Magna Carta granted at Bristol, now preserved
at Durham Cathedral

The solution holds and in 1217 there is a further re-issue. Some provisions relating to the forest and the hunting grounds are expanded and put into a separate charter, the Charter of the Forest, leaving the rest in contrast as the Great Charter – hence the name ‘Magna Carta’. In 1225, Magna Carta is re-issued again, now that Henry III is a teenager and able to say it represents his own free will, though he’s probably still heavily dependent on others for advice. The 1225 version is the basis of what survives in law today. Although almost all its clauses have been updated and replaced by more modern legislation, the principles remain. One of the clauses that’s still part of the law is one saying that the City of London and other boroughs and towns and ports shall have their ancient rights and privileges. It’s strange that that one has survived in its 13th century form.

The re-issues provided the opportunity to qualify earlier statements in the light of experience. For example, instead of just saying that you can’t take horses and carts without the owner’s permission, they then add that you can pay a fee in lieu for taking them. The 1215 clauses mention things like ‘ancient fees’ – they refer to custom – so you can only demand payment or tax people according to what was the custom. The later versions of the charter are more explicit about financial details.

DP: What is Magna Carta’s historical significance in the longer-term?

SE: I think most societies have some idea of equality before the law and fair treatment. Even when they believe their kings have certain rights, there are few societies that believe they have absolute rights. I think too that one of the things about history is that we owe a lot of what we do to what people have already done. Very few ideas come out of nothing but we may be at risk of taking this as implicit and not really thinking about it. The Anglo-Saxons had their law codes and their Witan, so there were Anglo-Saxon precedents for Magna Carta and for Parliament. The idea of a parley at a riverside meadow or island – as at Runnymede – also has Anglo-Saxon precedents. Magna Carta explicitly acknowledges history in its references to ancient customs and rights. It’s reminding the King that his power is limited by long tradition, by Anglo-Saxon tradition.

Magna Carta is iconic, it’s a milestone, it has great symbolic value, but the Magna Carta of 1215 isn’t the beginning of rights and it’s not the end either. I disagree with David Starkey saying it’s unimportant. In some ways it looks back and is very traditional, in others it looks forward and is very radical. The committee of 25 barons can be seen as the forerunner of Parliamentary sovereignty. There’s a revolution over the course of the 13th century and Simon de Montfort can also be seen as part of that, building on earlier demands that the King confer over policies and taxes. It’s human nature not to want to confer, to believe that allowing other people a say slows things down and is inefficient. The re-issues of Magna Carta are usually related to some debate over taxation, to the King wanting money and the barons saying, ‘OK, but first you must confirm these rights’.

It would be naïve to think that from the 16th of June 1215 onwards suddenly everyone had their rights formalised in writing and no-one ever tried to take them away. What they did have – though only if they were free men – was a document they could use to defend themselves by reference to agreed rights. Later generations had varying views of Magna Carta. No-one seems to have tried – or dared – to refer to it at the time of Henry VIII, when royal control over the Church was being greatly extended. But what seems to have been established quite early on in England is that Parliament and other forces did try to defend these rights as much as they could. Charles I is a good example of someone who was seen to be ignoring these ancient agreements and paid the price, even though he was the King. Again, in the 19th century, political cartoons often refer to Magna Carta whenever rights are under threat. For example, a politician might be shown putting a dagger through it.

Part of Magna Carta’s value is that it has come to symbolise numerous things that were probably never intended in the first place. We’ve had visitors from all around the world to see our Magna Carta and I think it touches the hearts of everyone, especially this idea that no-one should be above the law and that even the King or the ruler has to follow the law, and that the law has to be fair. In the same way as Shakespeare manages often in his plays to capture some human emotion or human condition so well, I think Magna Carta does too. I think it’s a great British contribution to world culture – internationally it’s probably seen as British though within the British Isles views may differ. I’m from Egypt and I was going there in June after we’d held our celebrations here and there in the Arabic newspaper I was reading on the plane was an article about Magna Carta, with a photo of our Archivist!

DP: Was there anyone with a moral high level in the project? I’m speaking about being judged by your peers, etc. – what we know as Magna Carta today. You mentioned Archbishop Stephen Langton.

SE: Yes, Langton must have been hugely influential. He made sure his own institution benefited, but arguably the interests of the Church and the view of the Church also benefited society. The famous clauses – not denying or delaying or selling justice, not taking people’s possessions or putting them in prison except in accordance with the law of the land – these are clauses for the common good and I imagine everyone could see their benefit. Likewise the standardisation of weights and measures across the kingdom. So there are some clauses where the common benefit is very clear, other clauses that benefit certain barons or the barons as a group, and others where the motivation isn’t clear at all. There’s one clause against forced labour on bridge-building and the like but David Carpenter has argued that this was to prevent the King taking other people’s workmen to do his building for him. The barons were more likely to be acting out of self-interest here.

The Church also occupied the moral high ground in keeping John to his word. It isn’t a coincidence that three out of the four 1215 Magna Cartas we still have survived in cathedrals. It appears that Magna Carta was given to bishops for two reasons. One is that the first clause guarantees the freedom of the Church, but also this was a document imposed upon the King and the royal system, so the rebels needed a way of enforcing it and the Church was a good institution to do this because it had quite a lot of autonomy. We know it was important to cathedrals because they copied the text out into their registers, so we have a register from the 13th century where the text of our Magna Carta, word for word, is copied out. Canterbury had the same. These registers were where you copied documents of relevance to you. So if there was a new policy regarding land or a new law and it was important to you, you copied that in the register to record that you had it. So cathedrals were almost like the independent judiciary, in a way, or the election monitors of the day, people who would ask, is the King doing what he’s saying he’s doing? I think they were worried that if the sheriffs – the King’s men – were entrusted with Magna Carta they’d be instructed to ignore it. The 1216 Magna Carta isn’t distributed to cathedrals but to the royal officials, which underlines that the 1216 version was a consensual agreement, one the King’s system was willing to respect.

Against a tyrannical ruler, having a mechanism for enforcement – such as the committee of 25 barons – is vital. One of the things we tried to do when thinking about Magna Carta here in 2014 was identify which countries’ constitutions are influenced by it. That didn’t work, because on paper every constitution sounds wonderful. It’s the application of the law that’s often the big difference between countries which are very despotic and oppressive and ones where people really do have rights.

DR: Can you tell us about the history of the Salisbury Magna Carta in particular?

SE: I think it’s a fascinating story, because the context, before and after the document, may be more interesting than the document itself. I think that’s what’s fascinating – its story as much as itself.

This little room that we’re in above the Vestry – octagonal like the Chapter House but smaller – is now the Choir Practice Room. Often I think these behind-the-scenes areas are the most interesting. So the choristers rehearse here every day. When this room was built in the 13th century it was as the Muniment Room, where valuable documents such as deeds to land would be kept. We still have one of the mediæval cupboards (below, left) in which Magna Carta may have been placed At some point they must have thought, ‘well, we’re now ready enough with this new cathedral to move the archives from Old Sarum’. And so the Salisbury Magna Carta would have come with other things to be stored here. The floor tiles in this room (below, right) are from about 1260, so maybe that’s the date.

It’s interesting that Elias de Dereham, who oversaw the construction of this building, had a key role to play in the distribution of Magna Carta around England in 1215. When the Pope annulled Magna Carta he also penalised all the people who had been involved in bringing it about and Elias was one of them. So it’s interesting that he had this link with Salisbury. He’s very important in 1215 as the Archbishop’s steward and for the distribution of the documents and then comes back to oversee the construction of this building in 1220. Another interesting person is William Longespée, King John’s half-brother, and the first person to be buried in this cathedral. So Elias and William Longespée would have been on different sides initially in 1215 but by 1220 they’re working together on building this cathedral. It’s another reminder that you find alliances change and people change sides.

Robert Key, the former MP for Salisbury, has been one of our leading supporters and there’s a story about him and Magna Carta. His father was the Bishop of Sherborne and on Robert’s 10th birthday he was told, ‘we have a birthday present for you but you’re not going to appreciate it until you’re older’. They took him to the library – Magna Carta was kept in the cathedral library then – they opened the safe and got Magna Carta out and they said, ‘here, hold this’. And so he held it, not really knowing what it was and then afterwards they told him ‘your 10th birthday present was that you got to hold Magna Carta’.

DR: If that doesn’t set you up for a political career, nothing will.

SE: I’ve heard the story said about others too, so maybe it was a regular thing back then. Until recently, Magna Carta used to be in a modern frame which was thought to be the best thing for it but it meant you couldn’t get it out and examine it, so one of the things we did in 2015 was move it to a different frame which makes it easier to access and the glass is much thinner so you can see it better. I told our Archivist, ‘my one request is, can I please touch Magna Carta?’, and she said, ‘OK but you can’t touch any of the ink!’ One day when they were examining it she said, ‘it’s out of its case, so if you want you can go down, the conservator’s there, and you can touch it quickly. Just in one corner.’ I touched it twice for good measure!

DR: The cathedral has been marking the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. What has been the local reaction?

SE: One of the interesting things about Magna Carta is that most people know it’s important but very few people know much about it. It’s important but it isn’t beautiful like the Crown Jewels. It’s a legal document, in mediæval Latin that visitors can’t read. Our visitors tend to be people with average general knowledge, not specialists on Magna Carta, so we have to keep it simple and make it interesting. Many people will associate it with King John but they’re less sure what it comprises and its context. Our Magna Carta has been on display for a long time, so we already knew what kind of questions people asked and what they didn’t know and we tried to address that in our new exhibition.

We also wanted to make it fun and enjoyable, and to involve the community, so we had lots of different cultural projects inspired by Magna Carta. One of the things we certainly got right was to be diverse in the way we presented Magna Carta. For us, Magna Carta is a springboard for other things and I think it’s very relevant for the cathedral, which has a mission of social justice and equality. That’s why we worked with the prisons, trying to engage with even the people who have fallen foul of the law, to get them to think about what is justice and that it’s not only about rights but about responsibilities. Given that this is the cathedral, of course, the religious element and the importance of the Church was significant and we helped organise events like a pilgrimage from Old Sarum, where the Salisbury Magna Carta was originally taken, to this cathedral. The Salisbury International Arts Festival worked with the Globe to put on a performance of Shakespeare’s King John in the cathedral. Interestingly enough, Magna Carta isn’t mentioned in the play but it deals with the idea of usurping power and other aspects of John’s life.

Salisbury Playhouse Youth Theatre devised and performed Clause 39, about the clause specifying that you can’t arrest people arbitrarily, a play making implicit references to contemporary issues like Guantanamo Bay. It’s been important to us that Magna Carta isn’t just history. It’s relevant today and it’s relevant partly because it’s timeless and some of its clauses are still part of the law but partly because the struggles that the barons fought are still relevant struggles around the world. Amnesty International is one of our partners. So one thing that many people have discussed is the Human Rights Act and whether the idea of repealing the Human Rights Act is contrary to Magna Carta. Whatever the answer to that question may be, we know that we can’t take our rights for granted and have to remain vigilant. We also have a part to play directly in the workings of the system: for example, judgment by your peers only truly works if people get over their reluctance to do jury service. It’s the fact that human rights issues never go away that makes Magna Carta always relevant.

We were very interested in getting people to reflect on these things. Our exhibition downstairs asks people, ‘If you could get a group of barons together to fight for one thing, what would it be?’ If you look at the replies in our visitors’ book – and there are 20,000 of them, 60% from abroad – you find people valuing free education, equality, the environment, preservation of natural resources, and also people saying that politicians aren’t any less corrupt than they were in 1215. Many people are grateful we live in a free society, while others think about how society can be better and more just. We all have rights but there are also many examples of where we could have more.

We tried to make it all as broad and as engaging as possible and so we had everything from lectures by serious academics to the trail of baron sculptures in the city, painted by different artists. More highbrow people might query these things as frivolous, but they’re very important, because it is through initiatives like a trail of barons in the city that you get people asking questions: so who are these barons? what’s Magna Carta? Children start to get interested, so one of the things we were very keen to do was make sure that ours wasn’t just an academic programme of events. Some people loved the lecture series, but a ten-year-old probably isn’t going to enjoy a lecture by the former Lord Chief Justice!

We organised lots of activities involving children and schools and their engagement with what we’ve done is probably one of our greatest satisfactions. We had a concert, ‘Magna Cantata’ – composed by Philip Lawson and Andrew Mackay – which involved 800 schoolchildren telling the story of King John through music. They came from 20 schools across quite a wide catchment and many had never been in the cathedral and neither had their parents. I think our challenge has been to tell the story in a way that people remember it and think about it. Sometimes it’s the light-hearted ways that have the most impact. At the opening of our exhibition we had lots of schoolchildren in and one was asked by a reporter what he thought of Magna Carta. He said, ‘I never realised it was so important. I thought it was just going to be a scrappy bit of old paper – I never realised it was written on a partridge’! I suppose that’s a lesson that no matter how hard you try, some people are going to misunderstand you!

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