In the last entry, we saw how Magna Carta was modernized in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. Today we see a similar transformation in Ironclad.
Like Ridley Scott, Jonathan English, director of Ironclad, released in 2011, claims historical accuracy for his film. Like those of Ridley Scott, English’s claims don’t hold up.1 Compared to Robin Hood, Ironclad has more historical and less folkloric content. Ironclad is based on a real event, the siege of Rochester Castle, and its characters, although a mixture of real and fictional, do not include any mythical figures like Robin Hood. Nonetheless, Ironclad’s treatment of Magna Carta is equally as modern as Robin Hood’s and, in fact, is even more strongly reminiscent of an eighteenth-century document, the Declaration of Independence.
Ironclad is set in the fall and winter of 1215, during the baronial rebellion that followed the failure of Magna Carta. The film focuses on the siege of Rochester Castle, in which it imagines that seven brave defenders held off the forces of John and his mercenary army. (The director, Jonathan English, has acknowledged his inspirations included The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai).2 These medieval magnificent seven are led by Baron William of Albany and Thomas Marshal, a troubled Templar who in the course of the siege falls in love with Isabel, wife of the castle’s lord, Reginald Cornhill.3 John ultimately takes the castle, but is unable to follow up on his victory when an invading French force shows up, led by Prince Louis, son of King Philip. John flees, and the film ends with John’s ignominious death by dysentery after losing his treasure in the Wash while Thomas and Isabel ride away from the castle to live, presumably, happily ever after.4
While the time period of Robin Hood is well before the actual time of the granting of Magna Carta, the action of Ironclad takes place in the months after Runnymede. Magna Carta still plays a large role in the film, however. The civil war of late 1215 is presented as resulting from John’s attempt to take revenge on the supporters of Magna Carta; the defenders of Rochester Castle see themselves as defending the ideals of Magna Carta. However, the Magna Carta of Ironclad is not the Magna Carta of Runnymede. To paraphrase Greta Austin, who claims that all medieval films are “modernity in drag,” Magna Carta in Ironclad may be described as “the Declaration of Independence in drag.”5 Like the Declaration, it has a single author. Like the Declaration, it is signed by its supporters. Like the Declaration, the physical object, the document itself, is seen as significant. And like the Declaration, the meaning of the document has been transformed from its original context to be something else.
In Ironclad, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton is presented not only as a supporter of Magna Carta but also as its sole author. Langton was identified as the author of Magna Carta at one time, but today the scholarly consensus is that its composition was a group effort, with Langton perhaps insisting on clause one, on the liberty of the English Church.6 In Ironclad, however, when we first meet Langton in the episcopal palace at Canterbury, he tells Thomas, “I am to be excommunicated for writing Magna Carta.”7This is understandable for dramatic reasons—the story is easier to follow if we can attach a face to the document everyone is fighting over. But in addition, Stephen Langton is the stand-in for Thomas Jefferson.
The script refers several times to John’s “signing” Magna Carta. In reality, Magna Carta was not signed but sealed.8 Interestingly, a few references to sealing the document do creep in—it’s almost as if the screenwriters knew the proper term but frequently lapsed into the familiar error. This confusion is already evident in the film’s opening sequence, where a voiceover spoken by Charles Dance, who plays Stephen Langton, provides the historical background necessary to understand the rest of the story:
“It was agreed that John could remain on the throne, on one condition—that he would sign a document upholding the rights and privileges of all free men, but ultimately limiting the power of the monarchy. [At this point we see John sign the document.] The Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede on the fifteenth of June in the Year of our Lord twelve hundred and fifteen.” [emphasis mine]
The look of this scene is clearly influenced by nineteenth-century visual representations of what the artists imagined to have happened on June 15, 1215. Do a google image search with terms like “Magna Carta signing” and you’ll see plenty of examples.9 The one I believe the filmmakers chose is an 1864 illustration by artist James Doyle.10 In the illustration, John is in a tent, seated at a table covered with a red tablecloth embellished with gold brocade. He is surrounded by standing knights and clergymen. Through the open back of the tent can be seen more tents spread across a rolling green meadow next to a river.
In the opening sequence of Ironclad, there is an establishing shot with a tent-covered meadow next to a river; the camera then takes us inside John’s tent where he is seated at a table covered by a red cloth embellished with gold brocade and surrounded by standing knights and clergymen.
The writers did enough research to know that Magna Carta was sealed. They must have just assumed it was signed as well, partly from the influence of the visual tradition they were following, but also because in modern times we expect important legal or governmental documents to be signed. A bill doesn’t become a law until the President signs it; the Declaration of Independence couldn’t take effect until the delegates signed it. So Magna Carta must have been signed as well.
The parallel of Ironclad’s Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence extends further. The prop Magna Carta used in the film was neither a duplicate of one of the surviving 1215 copies nor modeled on the eighteenth-century facsimile (as Robin Hood’s was). Rather, Ironclad’s Magna Carta has a similar layout to the Declaration. John’s signature is centered below the main text, in large letters—like his namesake president of the Continental Congress—with the other signatures in columns to its left and right.11 In fact, the leaders of the baronial revolt did not sign it either, but our familiarity with the Declaration of Independence has conditioned our expectations of what such a document should look like.12
On the must-see list of any first-time visitor to Washington, D.C. is the Rotunda of the National Archives, where the “Charters of Freedom” exhibit reverently showcases the original documents of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Americans revere the Declaration as a physical object.
Ironclad has a similar view of the importance of the document itself. In an early scene, John and his Danish mercenaries arrive at the castle of one of his enemies. John shows him a copy of Magna Carta and, pointing to it, asks if this is his handwriting. The baron claims he was forced to sign it; John grimly replies, “I know the feeling” and has the man hanged. Later on, John is shown in a sacked burning castle surrounded by heaps of bodies; one has a crumpled-up bloody copy of Magna Carta stuffed in its mouth. When the rebels first occupy Rochester castle, a member of the resident garrison protests, “The rebellion’s over. The king surrendered to the Great Charter.” Albany then pulls a copy of Magna Carta out of a leather tube and says, “Magna Carta. This one sealed by the King’s own hand. And now he’s executing everybody who supported it.”13 Late in the siege, when the defenders are coming to realize that they are doomed, Reginald Cornhill wants to negotiate a surrender. Squire Guy, the idealist youth among our “Magnificent Seven,” objects, saying, “We swore an oath, to Albany—to England.” Cornhill answers, “Your oath is worthless. Magna Carta is worthless. The Church has annulled it. Whatever happens here is meaningless.” He leaves the room and Guy silently unrolls Magna Carta and looks at it. Almost the last thing we see in Ironclad, after a final Charles Dance voiceover that narrates John’s death and the loss of his treasure in the Wash, is a shot of Magna Carta floating in muddy water.
Ironclad’s view of Magna Carta’s broader significance is also informed by modern expectations and parallels the popular understanding of the Declaration of Independence. In the popular mind, Jefferson’s list of all the crimes of George III is forgotten; all that we remember is “All men are created equal” and the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Similarly, in Ironclad all the technical clauses of Magna Carta are ignored and its scope is extended to, as the initial voiceover sequence puts it, “upholding the rights and privileges of all free men.” English echoes this judgment in his commentary, where he references America’s other founding document: “The Magna Carta of course is one of the original documents that formed the basis of liberty and justice for all men and was the basis of the American Constitution.” When John first confronts the rebels at the walls of Rochester castle, Albany reminds him that he “sealed a charter giving the people of England freedom.”14
This emphasis on “the people” and “freedom” is especially notable in the words of Squire Guy. When Thomas finds out that Guy has never killed anyone, he tells him, “Then you will learn that it is not a noble thing.” Guy counters, “Not even when it’s for freedom?” Thomas, the disillusioned Crusader, replies, “Not even when it’s for God.” When Cornhill asks the company at dinner in the castle why they support the rebellion, Guy proclaims, “Because we are for the people.” Again, English reinforces this sentiment in his commentary: “The central theme of the film is worth—the worth of men, the worth of the people; that’s essentially the concept of the Magna Carta.” 15 Finally, the last words spoken in the film reinforce this idea of Magna Carta as a declaration of freedom that was ahead of its time: “In time the great keep of Rochester was rebuilt. It stands to this day. So too does the noble dream that was Magna Carta.”
No one has ever made a straight historical movie that tells the story of Magna Carta—one that begins in John’s reign, climaxes at Runnymede, and doesn’t have any legendary figures in it. Some studio missed a great opportunity for a 2015 release. But why has no one made such a film? Perhaps it’s because Magna Carta now exists more in memory than in history, and in memory it’s no longer tied to specific events (apart from the signing ceremony, which didn’t even happen). The legacy of Magna Carta has turned it into a document about freedom and modern constitutional democracy. Whatever it meant in 1215, this is what it means now, so even in movies that are set then, Magna Carta is presented with the significance it has now.
The directors of both Ironclad and Robin Hood claim to be telling historical truths, but both are incorrect. Not just because they are careless with historical facts (although they are), but because both films are a-historical. Ironclad at least keeps Magna Carta tied to its own historical moment, but then turns it into the Declaration of Independence. Robin Hood takes Magna Carta completely out of history, placing its origins in the 1160s or 70s and its resurrection in 1200 and transforming its content into a generic “rights of man”—in effect, making it timeless, and, in true Enlightenment fashion, universalizing it.
Both these movies perpetuate the Enlightenment stereotype of the Middle Ages. If the Middle Ages are the Dark Ages—by definition, unenlightened—then if anything positive appears in the Middle Ages, it must be modern. The filmmakers have clothed a medieval document that arose at a specific time and place, out of specific circumstances, to meet the needs of specific people, in Enlightenment dress. Truly, “modernity in drag.”
- On the historical accuracy of Ironclad, see my “From Ivanhoe to Ironclad: Excavating Layers of Tradition in a Medieval Film,” The Year’s Work in Medievalism 32 (2017).
- Director’s commentary. English also identifies a shot that shows the seven heroes on horseback as his homage to The Magnificent Seven.
- Albany and Reginald Cornhill are historical and did participate in the siege of Rochester; Thomas Marshal is fictional.
- On the medievalism of Ironclad, see my “From Ivanhoe to Ironclad.”
- Greta Austin, “Were the Peasants Really so Clean? The Middle Ages in Film,” Film History 14 (2002), 137.
- On Langton’s role in Magna Carta, see Holt, Magna Carta, 232-34, 242-43; Garrett and Hudson, Introduction to Holt, Magna Carta, 3rd ed., 10-17; Carpenter, “Archbishop Langton and Magna Carta: His Contribution, His Doubts, and His Hypocrisy,” English Historical Review 126 (2011), 1041-1065.
- In the Director’s Commentary, English says that Langton “was actually one of the three men who in history actually wrote the Magna Carta.” I have no idea which three men English might have been thinking of. In contrast to Robin Hood, characters in Ironclad consistently refer to the document as Magna Carta or the Great Charter. This is a case where the anachronism does make sense, for the sake of audience comprehension.
- On the sealing of Magna Carta, see Breay and Harrison, Magna Carta, 70-71; Carpenter, Magna Carta, 9-11; Jones, Magna Carta: Making and Legacy, 77-79. Only one of the four remaining 1215 copies of Magna Carta retains its seal; Breay and Harrison, Magna Carta, 66.
- On some of the nineteenth-century depictions of John and Magna Carta, see Vincent, Magna Carta, 141-143.
- James Doyle, “John Signs the Great Charter,” in Chronicle of England, B.C. 55 – A.D. 1485 (London: Longman, 1864), p. 226; digitized by Google Books.
- On the actual medieval origins of the Declaration of Independence, see my Huguccian Moment blog entry.
- Not only did John’s baronial opponents not sign Magna Carta, they are not even named in the text of the charter. The named witnesses were all John’s supporters.
- This is one of the instances when they remember that the charter was sealed, not signed.
- Again it is Albany who says “sealed” rather than “signed.” Maybe the actor (Brian Cox) knew better and changed it himself. But then, it’s also Albany who hands John the pen in the Runnymede flashback scene at the beginning of the movie.
- In his commentary, English points out that every scene includes a reference to “worth,” which he sees as one of the themes of the movie.