History Friday: Kipling and Hannan on Magna Carta

In our book, America 3.0, and in Daniel Hannan’s new book, Inventing Freedom we talk about the importance of Magna Carta.
Mr. Hannan gave an excellent speech about Magna Carta, entitled “The Secular Miracle of the English-speaking Peoples,” which I commend to your attention.


Mr. Hannan says, correctly, that Magna Carta is the “foundational Anglosphere text.” He quotes Lord Denning as saying “Magna Carta is the greatest constitutional document of all time, the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”
Mr. Hannan begins his speech with a passage from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, which is a thing of beauty and worth quoting in full:

What Say the Reeds at Runnymede?
A poem commemorating the signing of Magna Carta
Runnymede, Surrey, June 15, 1215

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
What say the reeds at Runnymede?
The lissom reeds that give and take,
That bend so far, but never break,
They keep the sleepy Thames awake
With tales of John at Runnymede.
At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Oh, hear the reeds at Runnymede:
‘You musn’t sell, delay, deny,
A freeman’s right or liberty.
It wakes the stubborn Englishry,
We saw ’em roused at Runnymede!
When through our ranks the Barons came,
With little thought of praise or blame,
But resolute to play the game,
They lumbered up to Runnymede;
And there they launched in solid line
The first attack on Right Divine,
The curt uncompromising “Sign!’
They settled John at Runnymede.
At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Your rights were won at Runnymede!
No freeman shall be fined or bound,
Or dispossessed of freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgment found
And passed upon him by his peers.
Forget not, after all these years,
The Charter signed at Runnymede.’
And still when mob or Monarch lays
Too rude a hand on English ways,
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays,
Across the reeds at Runnymede.
And Thames, that knows the moods of kings,
And crowds and priests and suchlike things,
Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings
Their warning down from Runnymede!

I love that “curt uncompromising ‘sign!'” and I think the painter must have had it in mind when he depicted the scene in this painting, which is from the cover of Mr. Hannan’s book:

The painting is by Albert Herter, and is a mural in the Wisconsin Supreme Court building.

2 thoughts on “History Friday: Kipling and Hannan on Magna Carta”

  1. I’m struck by all the symbology in that painting:

    The army on the left, the king on the right, outnumbered and under duress, looking none too pleased.
    The empty throne. The king has been displaced from his power. He is no longer decreeing what shall be.
    The repeated motif of the lion.
    The crucifix on the soldiers uniforms, implying righteousness.
    The dogs of war, barely restrained.

    I wonder if we’ll come to this.

  2. Great clip. He’s such an inspirational speaker. We’re are the Americans speaking so nobly for freedom?

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