Magna Carta, not our most important text?


Relaxing in our hotel room the evening before the next days drive from Ramsgate to Rochester we made an incredible discovery: Rochester Cathedral contains a remarkable book which not only influenced the creation of the Magna Carta, but was written a century before it!

The Textus Roffensis is the only existing copy of the first code of English law and was written in Rochester during the early 1120s by a monk who copied out the laws of Ethelbert, the first Christian king of Kent (560-616AD). It has been described as one of the most important documents in English history. This manuscript, written in Old English and Latin, is hugely important in the history of English law and language and is believed to have influenced the wording of the Magna Carta of 1215 and, later, the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. I suppose when you think about it, King John didn’t just scribble Magna Carta down out of his head, he must have used something that informed him of existing English law! Historian and television presenter, Michael Wood, says that the Textus is of ‘supreme importance…one of the few crucial works in the history of the civilization of the British Isles.’

The Textus is in fact two separate books bound into one. The second book is mainly a record of property ownership, but the first is a detailed description of English Law relating to The Role of Government, The Security of Property, Women’s Rights, Compensation for Death or Injury. Also included in the Textus is an account of ceremonies of ordeal for testing innocence using red-hot irons, boiling water and a terrible curse in which the wrong-doer is cursed by the Holy Trinity, archangels and angels; he is cursed living or dying, working or resting, and every part of his body is cursed down to his toes nails!
We were very lucky to see this document because the Textus exhibition is currently closed for redesign,  but after viewing a facsimile the folks in charge were so struck with our enthusiasm and tour they opened up and let us in! So there you have it, something hidden but very important to our culture and history. One more day on this tour …… where next?

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