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Review. The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, by Julian Woodford.  

boss-of-bethnal-greenSometimes you have to wonder how someone as notorious as Joseph Merceron (1764 – 1839) can become all but forgotten to history. Well, it happens, because that is exactly the case here, until historian Julian Woodford stumbled across him while investigating something else, which is so often the way. It must be said that Merceron did catch the attention of radical historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the early 20C, but after that, what little there was, has been based almost entirely on the Webbs’ own research. But now Woodford, who has spent over a decade investigating the life and career of Merceron, has put him firmly in the spotlight. Joseph Merceron was singularly nasty local politician who exercised total control over the a large swathe of East London for half a century during which time Bethnal Green was – according to Roy Porter – “a law unto itself”. It can be argued that his “reign” is still being felt by the area two centuries later.

As his unusual name might suggest, Merceron was born of a proud Huguenot family made good, largely thanks to his father James, a former silk weaver who had become a well-off local rent collector and pawn broker, based in Brick Lane. Not the most noble of professions in an already poor area, you might think.

Whatever the sins of the father, Joseph put these in the shade. Of James’s children, Merceron junior took to the business to the manner born, collecting rents from the benighted local poor while still in his teens. Expanding this side of the business, he quickly expanded his intrests to property development, pub management and local politics. He became all-powerful locally through control of the parish vestry and control of the finances – virtually all the finances – of Bethnal Green by dint of being its Treasurer. There were few areas of local life that Merceron’s tentacles did not reach. He became a senior magistrate, notably the licensing Magistrate for pubs. Thereby he took care of his own and clients’ pubs, many of which descended into brothels, notably and controversially in Shadwell. Equally, if you weren’t a Merceron adherent, your pub would not get licensed. Similarly, he held a seat on the Commission of Sewers while simultaneously being a director in a water company. Conflict of interest clearly didn’t apply. In addition, Joseph sat on countless committees for this, that or the other. Whatever he didn’t control utterly, he at least influenced. Like organised criminals in the modern sense, he had placemen everywhere and, if things seemed in the balance, he could summon a mob of heavies in a trice.

When corruptly amassing eye-watering wealth, you need tame bankers. Merceron placed his and Bethnal Green’s money with Chatteris & Co, run by the Mainwaring family.  He backed William and George Mainwaring, father and so respectively, to be one of the MPs for Middlesex, thus ensuring a voice in Parliament.

When you find that Merceron defrauded members of his own family of an inheritance which was relative peanuts to him, one must conclude that his avarice was pathalogical, for he did not lead an extravagant lifestyle personally.

There has never been an individual as powerful on local government before or since, including Lutfur Rahman, whose reign in Tower Hamlets quite recently was thankfully quashed (it carried many Merceron hallmarks).

Apart from being a superb and informative read, the book is very nicely constructed. Beautifully designed and peppered with well-chosen photos, illustrations and portraits, all where they belong in relation to the text. Amazingly, no known portrait of Merceron exists, though likenesses of most of the other leading players are featured. Very good end notes, bibliography and index.

The Boss of Bethnal Green is a fascinating and impeccably-researched account. It is sensational without being sensationalist, which is what makes it such a gripping read. It’s everything an accessible history book should be and I commend it to you.


The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, 396pp by Julian Woodford is published by Spitalfields Life Books, with a jacket price of £20. Out of stock at Amazon at time of writing, it’s available in Waterstone’s, other bookshops and directly from the publisher.

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Review: Mr Barry’s War by Caroline Shenton.

mrbarryswar“What a chance for an architect,” exclaimed 39 year-old Charles Barry as he observed personally the 1834 fire which destroyed the old Palace of Westminster. This was the subject of Caroline Shenton’s previous award-winning book, The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012).

And now the sequel. It’s all about how Barry won the bid to design and supervise the building of a new Parliament. Little did he know what troubles lay ahead, hence the title of this book, published today.

Sir Charles Barry was thoroughly a Westminster person, man and boy. Son of a local stationer, he was born a stone’s throw from the ancient parliament and the Abbey: he knew the area intimately. Orphaned at 10, he was raised by his stepmother and apprenticed to an architect’s practice. Substantial travel through Europe and the Near East combined with his natural talent turned him – by the mid 1830s – into one of the leading architects on the scene, a rising star. Sir John Soane by this time was on death’s door and Barry was clearly the superior of Robert Smirke, the man best positioned politically to win the job of rebuilding Parliament.

But it was decided to have a competition for the project. This involved the customary procedure of competitors submitting anonymous sealed designs. Barry won. His entry was Number 64 and his accompanying rebus – the diagram on all his drawings – was a distinctive portcullis with chains. This logo device featured heavily in the decor of the designs and eventually became the official logo of the Houses of Parliament to this day. That’s one of many interesting things I learned from this book and I shall try and keep further spoilers to a minimum.

From here, the narriative of Mr Barry’s War, takes us through the challenges, problems and obstacles that were the architect’s constant companions for the next 20 years and more. The first, and as it turned out probably the easiest, was about engineering. How to build an integrated four-storey estate with two massive towers on the swamp that was Thorney Island? Barry sorted this with brilliant common-sense solutions which worked but nonetheless drew criticism that he didn’t know what he was doing, it wouldn’t work etc. This was a taste of what was to come.

Barry’s problem and the main narrative of the book was to do with having over 1,000 masters: the MPs and Peers who waited impatiently for their new accommodation. He found himself answering to a great many of them in addition to corporate the strangely-named Office of Woods (which became the Office of Works late into the project), the Fine Arts Commission and over a hundred select committee enquiries. They meddled, they carped, they criticised. While royal visitors, heads of state, journalists, newspapers and the public were full of enthusiasm for the building; while RIBA presented Gold Medals and the queen bestowed a knighthood, many insiders were openly hostile to Barry (and indirectly, Pugin). For running over budget, for making alterations without informing anyone, and hundreds of other perceived shortcomings, large and small.

Much of the budget overspend and delay was entirely due to the demands of the critics themselves, but they didn’t see it that way. Barry did have supporters in Parliament, of course, otherwise he couldn’t possibly have won through. But his chief antagonists were Ralph Osborne MP and Joseph Hume MP, who never missed a chance to slight Barry in the House (but rarely outside). Then there was the ventilation expert, Dr Reid, appointed without Barry’s approval or reference. The Scotsman was responsible not only for ventilation, but also heating in winter. Unless the two men worked completely in harmony, delay and cost would escalate. They were barely on speaking terms throughout. Reid was eventually replaced, but too late.

In addition to all of this, the project encountered an all-out strike by the masons, the Great Stink of 1858. And managing Augustus Pugin.

Central to the story is, of course, the partnership of Barry and Pugin who largely uncredited and underpaid undertook most of the decor of the palace. Utterly reliant one on the other, the two in the main got on remarkably well considering their wholly contrasting personalities. Pugin was constantly fractious, lovelorn, angry and often emotional as the author demonstrates liberally with extracts from his letters to Barry, but more tellingly to his confidante and supplier John Hardman.

“I am almost wild… I will not go on as I have been – I will either give up altogether or I will not be the servant of a set of architects who get the jobs & leave me to do their keyholes.”

But Barry was always able to soothe the bruised Pugin with charm, flattery, kind words and fulsome praise – genuinely meant, one feels. But ultimately they both shared the same vision so completely that they were chained together, prisoners to the project, literally unto death. After a spell in Bedlam and other institutions, in poor Pugin’s case.

The historical backdrop to this story is also very influential of events. Chartism is at its height and organised labour is emerging (mason’s strike, above); railways have just arrived and London’s great termini are rising from the streets; the old regime under Wellington, Peel is leaving the stage as Gladstone and Distraeli begin to loom.

There are walk-on parts from many leading or interesting players of the time: the queen, Prince Albert, John Ruskin (hostile), Edmund Beckett Denison M.P. (a truly mediocre amateur architect with massively inflated self-worth: great character), Joseph Bazalgette, Thomas Wakley (founder of The Lancet), and more. But one of my favourite bits of the book was Barry’s tour of the country with geologist William ‘Strata’ Smith in search of the perfect stone for the palace. They visited dozens of quarries: thorough doesn’t nearly cover it. The stone they eventually selected was subsequently thought not to be the exact stuff they actually meant to order, but unbeknownst to them!

This is a wonderful tale, brilliantly told. I shan’t ever look at the Houses of Parliament quite the same again and can’t wait to visit soon with new knowledge from this exceptional book.


Mr Barry’s War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the Great Fire of 1834 (288pp) by Caroline Shenton is published by Oxford University Press. Cover price is £25. Kindle edition available. It is London Historians book prize for September and there’s a special price offer for London Historians members coming up in next newsletter!

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A guest post by LH Member, George Goodwin.

Today, 18 March 2016, is the 250th anniversary of an event in Britain that was the cause of great celebration in America. This was the repeal of the hated Stamp Act, which, a year earlier, had been foisted on the American colonists by the British Parliament. However, today also marks the 250th anniversary of another British Parliamentary Act, which was ultimately to have far greater consequences for the relationship between Great Britain and its American colonies.

Contemporary cartoon illustrating the funeral of the Stamp Act.

Contemporary cartoon illustrating the funeral of the Stamp Act.

Unlike other imperial crises, the Stamp Act controversy was not a product of military defeat. Completely the opposite: it was caused by the complete success of Britain in the Seven Years’ War that ended in 1763. The French had been routed in both the West and East Indies and their power destroyed in North America. Britain was now the greatest power in the world, but it had come at a cost – the national debt had increased by over 50%. The British Government thought the American colonists should fund the ongoing cost of the British Army on American soil. This may or may not have been unreasonable. However the means they used to bring it about – the Stamp Act – most certainly was. It was unconstitutional. According to the charters of the American colonies, it was their right to introduce internal taxation and not a power of the British Parliament.

There was uproar in the American colonies, because the stamp duty was a tax on all paper products – all licences, newspapers, even playing cards. In fact it was a tax on everyday living. Opposition in the colonial assemblies was matched by mob violence in the Streets.

Sensibly, in response to months of protest, the British Government set up a Committee of the whole House of Commons to consider repeal. Expert witnesses were called, including most importantly, Benjamin Franklin (then living in London), who convinced them of the necessity of repeal.

Yet, the government needed a sop to give to the Parliamentary backbenchers who had been appalled by the violence in the colonies. This was The Declaratory Act, which declared the right of the British Parliament to tax the colonies. Americans, including, at this point, Benjamin Franklin, were assuaged by the assurance that it was a mere assertion of a right and would never be enforced. In the event, after a change of government, a new Chancellor of the Exchequer did enforce it with duties on glass, paint, paper and tea. But that is another story…….


George Goodwin is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father, just published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK) and Yale University Press (North America).

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Benjamin Franklin in London: the British Life of America’s Founding Father by George Goodwin.

Benjamin Franklin in London by George GoodwinThe great American Founding Father and scientist, Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790), spent 20 of his long 84 years living in London. I suspect not many people know that. One hopes, with the publication of this excellent new book, more will come to do so.

Franklin spent three spells here, each distinctly different, even the two latter ones in the 1750s to 1770s which were separated by an 18 month spell back home in Philadelphia.

First, in 1724, he arrived as a very young man of 18 ostensibly on a business mission which turned out to be something of a fool’s errand. But as a fully trained and skilled printer, he soon found work in the Little Britain area, then a nexus of the print trade. Barely a decade following the first daily newspaper, there could barely have been a more exciting time to be a printer in London. This was the London of Defoe and Addison and young Ben wallowed in it, hanging out in the coffee houses, soaking up the atmosphere, the intellectual buzz, a vibrant, competitive and intellectual landscape like nowhere else in the world. As a supremely confident and un-selfconcious American, he approached Sir Hans Sloane and sold him an asbestos purse, still in the collection of the Natural History museum. While he was diligent and hard working, he enjoyed hanging out with young fellows who were anything but, losing a lot of money in their hare-brained schemes. Investing money wisely was not always Franklin’s strongest suit as we discover later in the book. Ben returned home to Philadelphia in 1726.

The asbeston purse which the young Franklin sold to Sir Hans Sloane. Natural History Museum.

The asbestos purse which the young Franklin sold to Sir Hans Sloane. Natural History Museum.

Fast forward thirty years. Franklin had made his fortune as a writer, a printer and a publisher. He co-founded libraries and Pennsylvania’s first college. Early on he also started an intellectual gentlemen’s club: The Junto. He didn’t forget London though, corresponding with – among others – the Royal Society about his scientific endeavours, being awarded their Copley Medal in 1747. In 1753 he had become Deputy Postmaster General for North America, by his 50th birthday a very big fish indeed.

Pennsylvania was different from other colonies in that it was under the proprietary rule of the Penn family since its founding charter of 1681. This was personified by Thomas Penn who ruled in absentia from London. Franklin’s 1757 mission as the Pennsylvania Assembly’s agent was to gain concessions from Penn himself or failing that, from the king and parliament. He sailed to England with his son William and two slaves [whither #FranklinMustFall?]. They soon found digs at 7 Craven Street near the Strand (today renumbered number 36), which was Franklin’s base almost continuously until he left London for the last time in 1775.

Franklin’s second mission to London (1764 – 1775) was entirely different. First he was without William (who thanks to his work in London previously had won himself the governor-generalship of New Jersey). Second, this time his brief was to wrest government from the Penns and to direct rule of the crown. However this aim became completely sidetracked through the unforeseen Stamp Act, Townshend duties and other impositions which led inexorably to war and American independence. This third stay in London was also characterised by Franklin’s growing disillusionment with successive administrations leading finally to his hasty return to America in time to escape arrest. It had an altogether darker aspect.

Franklin's London home in Craven Street, W1. Today open to the public.

Franklin’s London home in Craven Street, W1. Today open to the public.

Although Franklin met with some success – in particular with regard to the hated Stamp Act – both of his missions ended in failure. This through no fault of his own it must be said, although he did make some major misjudgements. Problems included’ rapidly changing administrations: there was no cohesion of policy; a change in the monarchy; more pressing issues for the government, such as the Seven Years War and frequent street violence typically by followers of John Wilkes; post-war recession and criminality; probably most damaging of all, having the anti-American Lord Hillsborough as Secretary of State for the Colonies and also the Board of Trade for four years. In other words, America was just another problem, and it was far away.

These, then, are the bewildering issues that Franklin in London was faced with and which lie at heart of this book. Author George Goodwin does a wonderful job of navigating us through the whirlpools and rapids of a neo-colonial administration run by aristocratic big beasts. Franklin was no less an Empire builder than they, but their vision of how that should play out was utterly, utterly different from his.

More than anything, then, this book demonstrates through Franklin’s experience the casual (and fatally misjudged) disdain with which the London political establishment treated the American colonies. This was also very much a class issue. Franklin may have dined with kings, dukes, earls and prime ministers, it is true. But he was among them as a famous and feted scientist, never as an equal (except possibly Pitt, of course “the Great Commoner”). He may have been primus inter pares in America, but in London to the ruling elite he was still – and always would be – Trade.

Especially enjoyable are the accounts of Franklin’s man to man meetings with his enemies, in particular Thomas Penn (whom he had called in print a “low Jockey”!) and dastardly Lord Hillsborough. You sense the air crackling with tension.

I have spoken here mainly of the politics of Franklin’s second and third stays in London, because this is the real value of this work, particularly to historians of the mid-Georgian period, the British Empire and the American War of Independence. It’s important to note that the author does not neglect the more biographical aspects of Franklin’s life. There is plenty on his family, his writings, outlook, philosophy, religious beliefs, diet, likes and dislikes, foibles and so on. To the historian of London there is plenty to enjoy on Craven Street, his landlady Margaret Stevenson and her daughter Polly. And of course, Goodwin addresses Franklin’s scientific achievements, theories and inventions. I particularly enjoy his ahead-of-their-time thoughts on fresh air and keeping fit.

The book has two colour sections, mainly comprising portraits of the men and women of his circle plus other worthies – friends and enemies alike. Like all good history works, this has a comprehensive bibliography, index and end notes.

This is a deeply researched, well-balanced and thoughtfully written book of an American Great living in a rapidly changing, fascinating period of London and world history.

Benjamin Franklin in London: the British Life of America’s Founding Father by George Goodwin is published today by Weidenfeld and Nicholson with a cover price of £25. The dust jacket features a rather pleasing image of the 1767 David Martin portrait (The White House) superimposed on the 1762 William Marlow painting of Blackfriars Bridge and St Paul’s (Guildhall Art Gallery), an image which featured on London Historians member cards a few years ago!

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Benjamin Franklin House in Craven Street is open every week Wednesday to Sunday.

A signed copy of Benjamin Franklin in London is London Historians’ member book prize for March 2016.

George Goodwin is giving two talks hosted by London Historians and Benjamin Franklin House in Craven Street, W1. The first is fully booked. The second on 28 April still has places at time of writing.

Benjamin Franklin in London is BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week starting on Monday.

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A guest post by LH Member Anne Carwardine.

Source: Parliamentary Archives.

Source: Parliamentary Archives.

As a woman, if I had wanted to observe proceedings in Parliament two hundred years ago I would have had to crane my neck and peer down through a ventilation shaft. One hundred years ago I would have been in the Ladies Gallery, high above the Speaker’s Chair, with a heavy metal grille blocking much of my view and making it difficult to focus. (Campaigner Millicent Fawcett described this as like looking through a gigantic pair of spectacles which did not fit).

On a recent tour of Parliament, which focussed on connections with the Votes for Women campaign, the group I was in (mostly women) stood on the floor of the House of Commons looking up at the Ladies’ Gallery and wondering what it would have been like to be confined there.

In October 1908 Muriel Matters and Helen Fox of the Women’s Freedom League chained themselves to the grille, while Violet Tillard lowered a banner demanding that women be given the vote in the current session. The grille had to be removed temporarily in order to saw off the protestors’ chains; it would be another nine years before it was removed permanently and another ten before any women were able to vote.

The Ladies' Gallery (Source: parliament.co.uk)

The Ladies’ Gallery (Source: parliament.co.uk)

Beyond doorways to each side of the Commons we could glimpse the division lobbies, through which MPs pass when there is a vote. In November 1910 Emily Wilding Davison, one of the more militant protestors and most famous for her death at the Epsom Derby, threw a hammer through a window between the lobby and the main chamber.

We returned through the Central Lobby, where the original grille from the Ladies Gallery has been installed as a reminder of how things once were. Opposite it is a tall bronze statue of Margaret Thatcher (apparently she was disappointed that it was not made of iron). I had the impression that there were differing views in the group as to how much she did for women.

Next was St Stephen’s Hall, with statues of Walpole, Seldon, Somers and Falkland. In April 1909 four members of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) chained themselves to these statues to advertise a rally at the Albert Hall. You can still see where the spur of the Falkland one was broken off during this incident. No longer visible is the passage from the Bill of Rights which campaigner Marion Wallace-Dunlop (the first hunger striker) printed on the wall, having smuggled in a small printing press.

Falkland statue

The boot with broken spur on the Falkland statue in St Stephen’s Hall.

In one corner of St Stephen’s Hall is a more recent memorial to the suffrage campaigners – a tall stained glass window, designed by Shona McInnes, which was installed in 2002 and incorporates symbols, such as handcuffs, connected to the movement.

Suffrage window

Part of the stained glass window in St Stephen’s Hall

Disappointingly we did not have the opportunity to see the cupboard in the Chapel where Emily Wilding Davison hid in on census night, so that her address would be recorded as the Palace of Westminster, with a plaque that Tony Benn had installed to commemorate this protest.

The talks which followed the tour were mainly concerned with art in the Houses of Parliament. Unsurprisingly, given the male bias of most of the institution’s history, representations of men predominate. However, the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art has commissioned artist Mary Branson to create a piece to honour the women’s suffrage campaigners. Entitled ‘New Dawn’, it will consist of a sun made up of many glass circles, lightening and darkening in synchronicity with the Thames’ tides, and will be installed at the entrance to St Stephen’s Hall in 2016. Sunrise was an image used frequently by suffrage campaigners and so this seems an appropriate memorial to them.

The recent release of the film ‘Suffragette’ has drawn attention to the Votes for Women campaign, much of which was played out in London. I am currently working on a book about campaigners including Violet Tillard from my home town of Tunbridge Wells.

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The Sufragette Season of tours at the Palace of Westminster runs until the end of October. You may get on if you’re quick. Look here.

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How doth the Banking Busy Bee,
Improve his shining Hours?
By studying on Bank Holidays,
Strange insects and Wild Flowers!

sir john lubbock bt.So wrote Punch magazine in 1882 about the man who more than anyone gave us that strangely and quintessentially British-named institution: the bank holiday. Londoner Sir John Lubbock Bt. (1834 – 1913) was the archetypal Victorian man of affairs. A successful banker, an MP, a philanthropist, a keen amateur scientist. Lubbock was the primary sponsor of the Bank Holidays Act 1871, which introduced four bank holidays under Law: Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August and Boxing Day. These have been added to or changed under subsequent Acts, the most recent being 1971. Because some of the Bank Holidays can fall on the weekend, the dates have to be fixed each year by Royal proclamation.

Christmas Day and Good Friday were already holidays under the Common Law and therefore are not official Bank Holidays.

But why bank holidays? Until 1871 – led by the Bank of England – most banks gave their staff the day off on selected saints’ days. Sir John Lubbock felt it would be rather nice if this boon in some small measure was spread to the wider national workforce. No person is obliged to pay any debt or transact any business on days such designated.

Three cheers for Sir John!

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Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library 13 March to 1 September 2015.

DSC07630Did you know that in 1941 Churchill and his war cabinet discussed presenting the USA with an original copy of Magna Carta as some sort of sweetener to induce them to enter WW2? The document in question wasn’t even in their gift, belonging as it still does to Lincoln Cathedral. Desperate stuff, in retrospect, but perfectly true.

The documents pertaining to this incident are on show in the 20C part of this new exhibition on Magna Carta at the British Library. The show, of course, commemorates the 800th anniversary of that totemic, world-famous historical document. It is the biggest such show ever staged.

Magna Carta, British Library

On show too are many other documents of similar or even greater moment.

As you’d expect we have original copies of Magna Carta from 1215, two of them: the Canterbury, which is virtually illegible except with specialist laboratory science viewing instruments; and the London. Missing are the Lincoln and the Salisbury which were united with the others in London for about a nano-second last month. But this matters little, for in addition we have several dozen other historical rights documents which – it can be argued – are as or more important than Magna Carta itself. These include the American Declaration of Independence, in Jefferson’s own hand; and the original American Bill of Rights. These have a security guard on them at all times, quite probably a condition of the loan from across the Pond. On show is also our own original Bill of Rights from 1689. But re-wind to the 13th century and there are rights documents which pre-date Magna Carta and ones which over the next 100 years or so re-new and reaffirm the bargain between the English monarch and the free men of his Realm, of whom there were relatively few early on.

But the important thing is that these deals led to more and more important, egilatarian and ultimately democratic agreements between the rulers and the ruled. Magna Carta, which was more properly known at the time as the Articles of the Barons on the Charter of Runnymede (“Carta de Ronemede”) led to the Forest Charter of 1225, the 1297 Statute Roll and the 1311 Ordinances of Edward II.

Inexorably on through the English Bill of Rights, American Independence, women’s suffrage, universal suffrage, colonial independence movements and to the 21st Century and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. The exhibition proceeds through all of  these which are represented though a collection of well-chosen objects from swords to cartoons to commemorative teapots.

George Cruikshank, ‘Liberty Suspended’, 1817 © British Museum_500

George Cruikshank, ‘Liberty Suspended’, 1817 © British Museum

Votes for Women, 1911, British Library.

Votes for Women, 1911, British Library.

Many of our favourite freedom-fighters, politicians, martyrs and charlatans are represented here. Mine – John Wilkes – was, of course, all of these things. He certainly invoked Magna Carta in his time of need.

John Wilkes

John Wilkes

The structure is essentially a game of two halves. Magna Carta in its own time and the key players who seem almost like pantomime characters to us now: King John, the French King Philip Augustus, the great medieval pope Innocent III,  archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, noteworthy troublemaker Simon de Montfort. But this was no panto. Supported by beautiful illuminated books from the Royal Collection and elsewhere, along with body parts of the King, seals, tally sticks, clerical vestments, this part of the show gives us the why and the how, the political and social landscape: the context. And it does it brilliantly.

A first draft of Magna Carta, known as the Articles of the Barons © British Library

A first draft of Magna Carta, known as the Articles of the Barons © British Library

King John hunting a stag with hounds, 14th century. British Library.

King John hunting a stag with hounds, 14th century. British Library.

The second half gives us, as we have noted above, the effects and influences of Magna Carta in the centuries following, down to to-day: how Magna Carta burst its own banks, so to speak. For as we are shown, Magna Carta was almost immediately quashed by Pope Innocent III, making it redundant. And while it has been superceded by greater acts and charters, all but three of its own clauses have been repealed. But what clauses they are. They involve the exclusive rights and privileges of the Church; the exclusive rights and privileges of the City of London; and most importantly of all the right of any free man not to be arrested without reason or to be tried except by his own peers.

Finally, though, the show includes unobtrusive (ie via headphones) video of academics and politicians giving contextual commentary. I’m usually wary of this sort of thing, but these are very good indeed.

Magna Carta London copy, 2015. British Library.

Magna Carta London copy, 1215. British Library.

Great Seal of King John, 1203 © Eton College Archives

Great Seal of King John, 1203 © Eton College Archives

This is a substantial show, a thoughtful show, the equal of the heady topic it represents and brilliantly executed. Standard ticket price is £12 and worth every penny. I’m delighted that under 18s go free, for these are important matters for young minds to know about and to think about.

It’s not the end of March yet and I may already have seen the London exhibition of 2015.

Check out the British Library’s special web space for Magna Carta 800. You can book your tickets from there too.

 

 

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