Magna Carta and Modernity in Medieval Films, part 1

Robin Hood

The year 2015 saw considerable attention paid to Magna Carta on its 800th birthday.  Books were published, aimed at audiences both popular and scholarly.1 The Magna Carta Trust organized a myriad of special commemorative events, including lectures, exhibits, walking tours, conferences, and performances. The Library of Congress displayed Lincoln Cathedral’s 1215 copy of Magna Carta as part of an exhibit titled “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor.”2 Not to be outdone, the British Library mounted a major exhibit, “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy,” that reunited all four surviving 1215 copies of the document.3 One medium that did not participate in this commemoration, however, was the cinema. There were no Magna Carta-themed major releases in 2015.

It’s not as if the early Plantagenet era as a whole has been neglected by filmmakers. Of all the eras in medieval history, the late-twelfth and early-thirteenth century time of Henry II and his sons is perhaps the best-known to an English-speaking audience. Modern movie-goers have become well-acquainted with the period from films like Lion in Winter and the various versions of Robin Hood. In fact, if you watch these films in the correct order, you can learn much of the story of the first Plantagenets (if you don’t mind a few inaccuracies).

Becket (1964) tells the story of the conflict between Henry II and the archbishop of Canterbury, culminating in Thomas Becket’s 1170 martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral. 4 Lion in Winter (1968) dramatizes the tortured emotional relationships of Henry, his Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John after the death of Henry the Young King in 1183.5 The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is set in 1194, with John ruling England as regent while his brother King Richard was held captive on his way home from Crusade.6 Walt Disney’s Robin Hood, released in 1973, duplicates this setting, 7 but Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood of 2010 begins with the death of Richard in battle in 1199 and depicts the early days of John’s reign.8 Ironclad (2011) jumps to the civil war that occurred in 1215.9

Most of these films are set prior to 1215 and therefore don’t include Magna Carta as part of the narrative, although it could be argued that the near-universal depiction of John as a tyrannical bully is a type of foreshadowing, given that the audience knows what’s coming.10Two exceptions to the cinematic silence regarding Magna Carta are the 2010 version of Robin Hood and 2011’s Ironclad.11

Robin Hood, which purports to present the “real story behind the legend,” imagines that an early version of Magna Carta was drafted by the Robin Hood character’s father. Ironclad is a dramatization of the siege of Rochester, part of the civil war that ensued after Magna Carta was granted in June 1215. In both films, Magna Carta is represented as a document more modern than medieval. Specifically, both Robin Hood and Ironclad transform Magna Carta into a product of the Enlightenment.

Robin Hood

Robin Hood, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe as Robin, opens in 1199, with King Richard’s army besieging the castle of Chalus in southern France. When Richard is killed by a crossbow bolt, the archer Robin Longstride, who had been confined in the stocks for insubordination, takes advantage of the situation and escapes along with a few fellow soldiers. As they make their way home, they interrupt an ambush by the French of a party of English knights who are carrying Richard’s crown. Robin and his buddies drive the French away, but the English knights are all killed. As one of them, Robert Loxley, is dying, he commends his sword to Robin and asks him to return it to his father, from whom he was estranged. Robin and his friends take on the identity of the dead knights as a means of getting passage across the Channel. On the boat, he reads words etched into the sword’s hilt: “rise and rise again until lambs become lions.”

After safely delivering the crown, thereby informing John of his brother’s death, Robin travels to Nottingham to discharge his promise to the dead Robert Loxley. There he finds the knight’s widow, Marian, and her elderly father-in-law, Walter. Walter asks Robin to assume the identity of his dead son Robert in order to protect Marian and the estate from the depredations of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin is reluctant at first, but agrees when Walter tells him his own history.

Robin’s father, Walter tells him, was a stonemason who, many years ago when Robin was a small child, led a revolt against tyranny. As Walter tells the story, we see the events in flashback. Robin’s father had carved the revolt’s slogan, “Rise and rise again, until lambs become lions,” into a slab of stone, and little Robin pressed his handprint in the wet mortar.  Robin’s father wrote a manifesto—a “charter of liberties”—but the revolt failed, his father was executed, and the charter was forgotten. Walter produces a copy of the charter and tells Robin its time has come once again. In the meantime, a traitor in John’s court, Godfrey, has incited a baronial revolt against John and plotted an invasion of England with French king Philip Augustus.

In his persona as Robert, son of Walter—or, we might say, Robert fitz Walter12—Robin joins the baronial rebellion against King John’s tyranny. He convinces the barons that rather than remove the king, they should demand that he issue a charter that would guarantee their liberties.  John agrees to the charter and, having reconciled with the barons, goes to the Channel coast to meet the French invasion. The invasion is repelled thanks to Robin’s military leadership (aided by Marian, who shows up on the beach wearing a perfectly-fitting suit of armor she apparently had hanging in her closet). Now that John’s throne is secure, he sets the charter on fire and makes a speech of his own, asserting that he rules by Divine Right. The film ends with Robin being declared an outlaw and taking to the forest with Marian. The final words on the screen are “And so the Legend begins.”

Like most historical films, Robin Hood claims historical accuracy. In the “Director’s Notebook” included on the Blu-ray version of the film, Ridley Scott says,

“I think the idea of Robin Hood is so tied up historically in terms of was he real? I believe he was real. There was somebody who existed who ignited the flames of this idea, this legend. But what’s interesting is digging up all those facts, because people think they’re just facts of fiction, the facts created by some writer of a fictional idea, when actually they’re not, they’re real, they’re absolutely real.”13

And like most historical films, those claims to historical accuracy don’t hold up. To take just one example, there was no epic battle on the beach in 1200 between an invading French force led by Philip Augustus and English defenders under King John—because Philip Augustus never invaded England. And don’t even get me started on the Higgins boats.14

The presentation of Magna Carta in Robin Hood is also historically dubious. The filmmakers have given their Magna Carta a chronology that is, shall we say, confused. The film opens in 1199, with Richard’s death. In the documentary “Rise and Rise Again: Making Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood,” Ridley Scott claims that they deliberately chose that date to distinguish this version of Robin Hood from earlier ones. In the classic Robin Hood retellings going back to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), the historical moment is 1194, while Richard is being held captive in Austria on his way home from the Third Crusade. His brother Prince John is ruling tyrannically in his absence and plotting to usurp the throne. Both Ivanhoe and the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood (heavily indebted to Ivanhoe) conclude with Richard’s triumphant return and restoration of legitimate rule. Ridley Scott, however, deliberately rejects that narrative:

“What we’ve tried to do is redefine the times, in fact shift the timeline. We kill Richard instead of having him ride in and save the day. But I think it’s more historically accurate, in my opinion anyway, in terms of what the cultural melee [sic] was that a Robin Hood character could rise out of.”15

Yet if they wanted to introduce Magna Carta into the story, it’s still fifteen years too early. And the backstory makes it earlier still. Walter Loxley tells Robin that his actual father had drafted a charter of liberties several years ago, when Robin was a small child. (Robin had earlier told Robert Loxley that his father abandoned him at the age of six.) Robin is presented as a grizzled old veteran who had fought with Richard on crusade, including at the siege of Acre (1191), so he must be at least in his 30s (Russell Crowe was 46 when the film was released). This dates the writing of the original charter to the 1160 or 1170s.16

The real Magna Carta arose out of the specific circumstances of the end of John’s reign, but we are given no hint of what prompted Robin’s father to write his charter back in the days of Henry II (who is not actually mentioned), unless it is understood to be generic medieval tyranny. When Robin as an adult resurrects his father’s charter and urges John to grant a new one, John does so, only to renege on his promise and publically burn the document. Perhaps he has to do this to leave room for the real one to be granted fifteen years later.

The time period that best fits the presentation of Magna Carta in this film, however, is neither the mid-twelfth nor the early thirteenth century; it’s the eighteenth century. The first hint of a modern overlay on the film’s ostensibly medieval setting is the occupation of Robin’s father—a stonemason. Recall that many of the American Founding Fathers were Freemasons. The content of the film’s charter of liberties also evokes the Age of Enlightenment more than the Middle Ages. In the “Making Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood” documentary, Oscar Isaac (the actor who plays King John) states, “The issues that [the film] deals with are enormous. I mean freedom, you know, the rights of man.” In the “Director’s Notebook,” Ridley Scott characterizes Robin Hood as follows: “He’s captured everyone’s imagination by being the definitive athletic warrior who has the rights of men as part of his main principle.” He’s Super-Philosophe-Man!

Robin’s speech at Barnsdale in front of the barons and King John also has a modern ring to it. The beginning of the speech at least attempts to sound medieval. Robin denounces tyranny using a metaphor of cathedral-building, probably inspired by his newly-discovered masonic origins:

“If you try to build for the future, you must set your foundations strong. The laws of this land enslave people to its king. A king who demands loyalty but offers nothing in return. I have marched from France to Palestine and back, and I know—in tyranny lies only failure. You build a country like you build a cathedral—from the ground up. Empower every man, and you will gain strength.”

But as he continues, his call for a charter of liberties begins to sound like a mashup of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights:17

“If your majesty were to offer justice, justice in the form of a charter of liberties, allowing every man to forage for his hearth, to be safe from conviction without cause, or prison without charge, to work, eat, and live on the sweat of his own brow, and to be as merry as he can, that king would be great. Not only would he receive the loyalty of his people, but their love as well.”

Guaranteeing safety “from conviction without cause or prison without charge” recalls the due process amendments of the Bill of Rights.This item, at least, might be said to stem from Magna Carta’s famous clause 39, “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go against him, or will we send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land,” usually taken to be the origin of due process.18

“Allowing every man to forage for his hearth” is rather awkwardly worded. I assume he’s not talking literally about collecting kindling in the woods but is referring more generally to private property rights, repeated when he asserts the liberty “to work, eat, and live on the sweat of his own brow.” The echoes of John Locke in this sentence shift to Thomas Jefferson with the final liberty enumerated, “to be as merry as he can.” The rights of man, according to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of merriness.

John’s response to Robin’s passionate oratory is, “What would you have? A castle for every man?” To which Robin rejoinders, “Every Englishman’s home is his castle”—thereby anticipating not only Magna Carta, but also Edward Coke’s 17th-century legal dictum. The historical confusion continues later, when John publically renounces and burns Magna Carta. He makes a speech using the language not of the rights of man but of absolute monarchy:

“I did not make myself king; God did. King by divine right. Now you come to me with this document, seeking to limit the authority given to me by God.”

If Magna Carta is the Bill of Rights, then John is James I or Louis XIV.

Given the eighteenth-century sound of the charter, it’s appropriate that the production designers gave the physical document an eighteenth-century look as well. In 1733, after a fire two years before had damaged one of the four surviving 1215 copies of Magna Carta, the engraver John Pine was asked to produce a facsimile, now in the British Museum. Pine apparently thought the unadorned text of the 1215 parchment looked too plain, so around the outer border of the document he added, in color, the coats of arms of the 25 barons whom clause 61 of the document entrusted with its enforcement.

Facsimile of Magna Carta by John Pine, 1733.

In the movie, when Robin finds a copy of the charter his father had written and hidden away years before, we see that it was modeled on the 18th-century facsimile.

The Charter of Liberties from Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood.

In other words, a 2010 movie uses an image of a 1733 copy created as a result of a 1731 fire of a 1215 document that is imagined to have been drawn up decades before by the father of a legendary character.

Next: Magna Carta in 2011’s Ironclad.

  1. David Carpenter, ed., Magna Carta (London: Penguin Books, 2015); Stephen Church, King John and the Road to Magna Carta (New York: Basic Books, 2015); J.C Holt, Magna Carta,3rd ed., revised and with a new introduction by George Garnett and John Hudson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015); Dan Jones, Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter (London: Head of Zeus, 2014); id., Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty (New York: Viking Press, 2015); Marc Morris, King John: Treachery and Tyranny in Medieval England: The Road to Magna Carta (New York: Pegasus, 2015); David Starkey, Magna Carta: The Medieval Roots of Modern Politics (New York: Quercus, 2015); Nicholas Vincent, ed. Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom, 1215-2015, 2nd ed.  (London: Third Millennium Publishing, 2015).
  2. Exhibition at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 6 November 2014-19 January 2015. The accompanying book is Randy J. Holland, ed., Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor (Eagan, MN: Thomson Reuters, 2014).
  3. Exhibition at the British Library, London, 13 March-1 September 2015. Exhibition catalog:  Claire Breay and Julian Harrison, eds., Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (London: The British Library, 2015).
  4. Edward Anhalt, based on a play by Jean Anouilh and Lucienne Hill, Becket, Directed by Peter Glenville (1964; Orland Park, IL: MPI Home Video, 2007), DVD.
  5. James Goldman, The Lion in Winter, Directed by Anthony Harvey (1968; Santa Monica, CA:  MGM Home Entertainment, 2006), DVD.
  6. Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley (1938; Burbank, CA; Warner Home Video, 2005), 2-disc special edition DVD.
  7. Larry Clemmons, Ken Anderson, et al., Robin Hood, Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman (1973; Burbank, CA:  Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2000), DVD.
  8. Brian Helgeland, Robin Hood, Directed by Ridley Scott (2010; Universal City, CA:  Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2010), Blu-ray.
  9. Jonathan English and Erick Kastel, Ironclad, Directed by Jonathan English (2011; Santa Monica, CA:  Arc Entertainment, 2011), DVD.
  10. John appears as a character in each of these films except for Becket; he is the only figure to do so.
  11. Kevin Harty’s The Reel Middle Ages: American, Western and Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Asian Films about Medieval Europe (Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland, 1999) lists two other films that deal with Magna Carta: The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (pp. 27-28) and Rogues of Sherwood Forest (p. 238). Both films are continuations of the standard Robin Hood narrative, and both connect that narrative to the history of Magna Carta. According to Harty’s summaries, Rogues (1950) imagines that it is Robin Hood’s son who compels King John to sign Magna Carta. In Bandit (1946), set during the reign of John’s son Henry III, Robin Hood comes out of retirement when Henry’s regent attempts to revoke Magna Carta. I have been unable to see either film.
  12. Robert Fitz Walter was one of the leaders of the baronial revolt of 1215 that led to Magna Carta. The writers of Robin Hood might have chosen the names Walter and Robert for their father and son to connect with this historical figure. On Robert FitzWalter, see Jones, Magna Carta: Birth of Liberty, p. 223.
  13. “Director’s Notebook,” pop-up commentary by Ridley Scott included in lieu of traditional Director’s Commentary on the Blu-Ray release of Robin Hood. By the curious phrase “facts of fiction” (not to be confused with “alternative facts”), Scott presumably meant something like “the standard elements of the received literary narrative.”
  14. The ships used by the invading French fleet look suspiciously like the Higgins boats used in the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day. My students laugh uproariously when I show them this scene—not the audience reaction Ridley Scott was going for, I imagine. Jeffrey Richards, “Sir Ridley Scott and the Rebirth of the Historical Epic,” in Andrew B.R. Elliott, ed., The Return of the Epic Film: Genre, Aesthetics and History in the Twenty-first Century (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), p. 33, notes that Scott was “strongly influenced by the Normandy landings in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1993).” Saving Private Robin?
  15. Presumably he meant to say “milieu.” “Rise and Rise Again: Making Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood,” documentary included on the Blu-ray release of Robin Hood, Directed by Charles de Lauzirika.
  16. It is unclear whether the filmmakers intended their charter to be understood to be the same one as the historical document, or a previously unknown precursor to it. Robin Hood consistently refers to the document as a “charter of liberties”; no character ever uses the names “Magna Carta” or “Great Charter.” This is historically accurate, as these names were not used until 1217, when it was reissued along with a shorter document, the Forest Charter. John’s charter became known as the Great Charter, or Magna Carta, to tell them apart. “Great,” in other words, originally referred to the document’s size, not its significance. I don’t know whether the movie uses the “charter of liberties” nomenclature to be historically accurate or to imply that the document in the movie is a forerunner of the later, “real” Magna Carta. On the naming of Magna Carta, see Carpenter, Magna Carta, pp. 4-8.
  17. Others have noticed the similarity between Magna Carta in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and the American founding documents. See, for example, Jacob Lewis, “A Myth (Not so) Betrayed: Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and the Political Evolution of the Greenwood,” in Mary K. Leigh and Devin K. Durand, eds., Marxism and the Movies: Critical Essays on Class Struggle in the Cinema (Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland, 2013), p. 181; Richards, “Sir Ridley Scott,” p. 33.
  18. Magna Carta, clause 39, in Carpenter, Magna Carta, p. 53.