Now how to put this diplomatically? One doesn’t want to offend, but at the same time, one doesn’t want to eulogise without meaning it … The truth is, when I finally got to see the best-preserved copy of the most significant document in this sceptr’d isle’s history, in beautiful Salisbury Cathedral, I was somewhat underwhelmed.
I know, Magna Carta is a corner stone of democracy, influencing not only the rights of man in this country, but also many other countries including the United States of America, but … well, it is rather a mundane-looking document, with lots of tiny, neat writing on a fairly big piece of parchment with a lighter mark at the bottom where the Royal Seal was originally placed.
So, with my philistine credentials well and truly established, let me to encourage everyone who can, to visit Salisbury Cathedral and see its Magna Carta. Why? Because it is displayed in the most magnificent setting, the glorious 13thc Chapter House. Because it has interesting exhibits illustrating many aspects of significance related to the charter AND because Magna Carta is celebrating its 800 anniversary this year, 2015.
As you enter the medieval Chapter House light cascades down from the red and blue geometric mosaic of huge stained glass windows. With its intricate carvings and octagonal walls it cocoons the visitor in medieval loveliness, attracting the eye every upwards.
I like my history in small doses, easily digestible and this is the perfect place to get a ‘feel’ for Magna Carta’s importance without being overwhelmed. A computer screen gives locals a voice to express what ‘My Charter’ means today. Quills, ink and parchment shows how the documents were created whilst political symbols and Eleanor Roosevelt demonstrate its global significance.
Very impressive was the informed passion with which the Salisbury Cathedral guides shared the story and significance of Magna Carta. Effervescent Rodney, he of the gorgeous waistcoat, gave a simple, easy-to-understand explanation of how Salisbury Cathedral got their copy of the charter, outlined how it differs from other copies and answered many questions with in-depth knowledge and humour.
In the cloister corridors around the cathedral there’s a small exhibition of objects to bring history alive. Wooden figures of King John and some sheep weighed in the scales (of justice?), a banner summarising the story of 2015 and an enormous metal gauntlet, a copy of one which would have been worn by 13th c knights in battle, giving rise the the phrase, ‘throwing down the gauntlet.’
To find out more you could read this ‘Idiot’s guide to the Magna Carta by Dan Johnson’; the things you didn’t know. Even if, like me, ancient parchment, however important, leaves you rather underwhelmed, I guarantee you will enjoy the whole ‘Magna Carta’ experience, and leave Salisbury Cathedral wiser and enriched by your visit.
Here’s a short photo slideshow of Salisbury Cathedral and Magna Carta …
I was in Salisbury with other travel writers and industry specialists for the Social Travel Britain 2015 conference. We stayed at Sarum College opposite the cathedral and Visit Wiltshire organised a tour of the ancient city and an awe-inspiring dawn visit to nearby Stonehenge. You can watch a short video of that visit here
Salisbury is a lovely little city with lots of medieval buildings still intact. We stayed in The Close, the walled area within the grounds of the cathedral. Very ‘Barchester Towers’ – they even lock the gates at 11pm every night – to keep out villeins perchance? (Fortunately we had a key so felt very privileged being able get back in after a night out on the town …) Well worth a visit.