See all of your princes who grasp at our lives With their handshakes and greased palms and fists wrapped in cotton – They claw for a kingdom where sleight-of-hand thrives, But their fingers are crossed and their nails are all rotten. You keep all your holdings tight under your thumb As your signet-wrapped digits are stroking your beard – But grips can be prised as the years render numb, And the light-fingered upstarts are squeezing you plum, And there’s no-one to catch you when ’last you succumb – Your talons are chipped and too weak, in the end, to be feared.
The Anglo-Saxons had their own names –
Had no need for our Kate or James –
Some, like Swithin and Thunor, perhaps,
Are only found on churches and maps –
Yet some, like Edward and Hilda, survive,
Though Cedric and Cuthbert are barely alive –
And Mildred and Wilfred are old-fashioned now,
Yet rather less Saxon than Dickens, somehow.
The same with Ethel and Edith – I swear
They sound quite common, for all that they’re rare,
While some like Dunstan, Wymond, Wystan,
Are as old-money posh as Aubrey and Tristan. Stanley and Beverley back then were place names,
While Hengist and Offa are leave-just-a-trace names,
And Osborn and Osmond are now only surnames,
While Hrothgar sees Roger become the preferred name.
So Alfred and Albert are still doing fine,
But Harold and Winston are on the decline –
And Edmund and Edgar are straight out of yore,
While Edwin and Winfred are winners no more.
Thirteen copies were written, at least,
And probably many more –
All passed from bishop to sheriff to lord,
And pinned-up, read, and, finally, stored,
Then rotted or burned or thoroughly creased,
Until we were left with four.
But then, for many centuries,
Their words were out-of-date –
Their scutages and fishing-weirs
Belonged to long-forgotten years,
And busy parli’mentaries
Have moved on the debate.
Their Latin text is cramped and clipped,
With not an inch to spare.
And just like half the baron knights,
We cannot even read the rights
We’re gifted by this foreign script –
We have to trust they’re there.
But so what if the parchments fade ?
They’re passing, mortal things –
It ain’t the laws that they imparted,
But the movement that they started –
In their image we are made,
Who bow to laws, not kings.
“We will remove entirely the kinsmen of Gerard d’Athée from their bailiwicks, so that in future they may hold no bailiwick in England. We will remove from the kingdom all foreign knights who have come to the detriment of the kingdom.” – Magna Carta, 1215
English rights for English barons:
That was the cry at liberty’s birth –
And though they’d gag at the thought, would the barons,
Their rights would trickle down to the serfs.
Slowly, slowly, and bloody hard-won,
Till the days of the tyrant-kings were done.
But nothing but exile for Gerard d’Athée,
Farewell to Engelard, can’t let you stay,
Goodbye to Guy, and to Guy, too-da-loo,
Au revoir, Peter, and Andrew, adieu,
And Geoffrey and Geoffrey, you’re fate is the same:
Deported by charter in liberty’s name.
And Philip (and brothers), return to your sires,
Ex-Sheriff of Derby- and Nottingham- shires,
So there it was: the English disease:
Scraping-up some scapegoats for their sleeping in our bed.
But never for a moment did we get up off our knees
To kick out at the barons – so we kicked the French instead.
This lack of disquiet from locals is telling:
Just tugging at forelocks instead of rebelling.
But surely things have improved ?
It isn’t as though the world hasn’t moved:
It started a wave that has kept rolling on,
So we’ve far more rights now than had even King John.
But all the un-English may find us less caring,
For English-born freedoms were not made for sharing.
So tell, Magna Carta: just what are you for ?,
But a thing to suspend when we’re neck-deep in war.
Note that in the original, the clauses were not numbered. The first to do so was George Ferrers’ English translation of 1534, while the modern numbering dates from William Blackstone in 1759.
Once-a-time, when castles wore a crown of battlements,
Their merlons hid the archers in the toothy parapet –
And when the peasantry came by to pay their serf-and-chattel-rents,
It wasn’t solid walls that awed them, but the holes that made a net.
If only they had known how they were more for show and ostentation,
Arrow slits too small to use, and windows big and weak –
A single siege would give the lie to strength in crenellation
But who would dare declare their home as battle-less and meek ?
To be clear, battlements are very effective when their big enough, but by the time of Bodiam (1385) and Herstmonceux (1441) things were on the slide.
I never thought Catastrophe
Would be as beautiful as this,
That Ragnarok at sunset
Is a moment of such bliss.
So peaceful is Apocalypse,
So languid is the End of Time –
The Armageddons come and go,
But were they ever this sublime ?
So come, my dear,
Come and let us stroll awhile,
To seek the lesser-spotted troll
That builds its nest beneath the stile,
As angels circle with the hawks,
And demons gad on Sunday walks,
And banshees squawk and phantoms play
And the Ending of the World’s a world away.
We’re told and told we’re living through
The cataclysmic Final Days:
Where wrath is wrought on wretched waifs
Who sup with Jews and gays.
Yet brimstone seems in short supply,
And so too human sacrifice –
Just people getting on with lives
Amid the unseen Antichrist.
So come, my dear,
Come and let us wend a path
That takes us further round the bend
To promised bloody aftermath.
Let’s walk with blacks and greens and reds
Before the sky falls on our heads,
And, hand-in-hand, let’s thread our way
Through the law-abiding wastes of Judgement Day.
A long-dead king is promenading
Before he gets re-buried in state
A tyrant, even if not the monster
That the Tudors tried to create.
But wait –
We’re missing the beauty here,
We’re too consumed with republican hate:
“Take a good look, Liz” we’re so busy gloating,
“Take a good look at ev’ry king’s fate”.
So a long-lost king was dug out of the ground –
So what ?
But how do we know whose bones we have found
Despite some five hundred years of rot ? That is the beauty we’re missing, I say –
The beauty of DNA !
It shows us just who’s our forebear or grandson –
And surely that’s all worth a king’s ransom !
And where were such secrets first teased from their source ?
Why, right here in Leicester, of course !