Magna Carta panel

Words on Sheepskin

On visiting the British Library’s exhibition ‘Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy’, I was struck by the story of how the document was forged through King John’s battles with the Barons and the fascinating content of the document which legislated on matters ranging from fish weirs to the right to a fair trial.

When thinking about the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta you cannot escape our current context, and for me what came to mind was the campaign to save the Human Rights Act. I contacted exhibition co-curator Julian Harrison, asking to further explore the collection so that I could create a poetry response to the wealth of information there. Having only fleeting memories from school history classes, I tried to absorb as much as I could and wanted to try and bring the scrolls to life, highlighting that the legacy of the Magna Carta has been and can be the continuous campaign for our rights.

We have rights, they are not given-

realised when inked, then acted.

We have rights destroyed, diluted, flouted,

then welded anew in rhetoric fires-

in a law maker wars that buffets our rights

between crown and barons, crown and commons,

with ‘boo’, ‘hurrah’ jousting over green benches.


Each decade rephrases our penalties,

our liberties, and the mound of cast-off laws

is growing- as the tailor re-fits skin

over bones and organs, then re-stitches

the tears on the cheek of Lady Justice,

adds to and weakens her muscles before

they argue and anoint her into being.

Whilst crowds gather to watch the few wielders

of libels, pamphlets and brazen placards

as they jump before all the king’s horses

all the king’s men; trying to put our lady

back together again.


Heirs of our rights were etched on a shield

held up by barons against a tyrant crown

laws as big as the sheep they were scratched on

with a few petering off down the legs

and into oblivion.

Above the shrivelled seal, of skeletal John

wrapped in robes with a sword pointing at God

shadows of former words proclaim that-


No free man is to be taken

without the lawful judgement of his peers.

That a woman’s word cannot imprison a man-

save on the death of her husband.

That all Welsh hostages must be returned.

That the Church of England shall be free.

That there must not be, under any circumstances,

any more fish weirs in the Thames of Medway.

That no town can be made to build a bridge,

unless they have an ancient oath to do so.

That widows can remain widows if they choose.

That wine, ale and corn should be measured

by the London quarter, everywhere.

That officials cannot partake as they please,

even if they do so in the London quarter.

That the City and their dragons can hold fairs

and be supreme, whilst no man, including the king,

most particularly the king, shall be above the law.


They scraped away gold, to reveal a wooden chair,

for below every polished floor is Earth,

and above each roof is sky-

so we still re-sole our boots

to march for the ghost and grandchild

of our Magna Carta.

This poem was first published by the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog 

Photo by Tim Evanson


Laila Sumpton

Laila's poetry uses imagery and lyricism to tell stories about identity and human rights. She studied English literature at the University of St Andrews and Human Rights at the University of London. She is a member of the Keats House Poetry Forum, a collective of London based poets supported by Keats House in Hampstead who work on poetry projects. She co-edited 'In Protest- 150 poems for human rights', a unique anthology of global poetry collated by the Keats House Poets and the University of London's Human Rights Consortium.

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