This year the Royal Mint has struck a £2 coin in celebration of the 800th anniversary of the ratification of Magna Carta. Note that I did not write “signing” – although the illustration seems to suggest that that is what King John did. Note the quill in his right hand:
This “glaring howler” has provoked the ire of one Marc Morris, a historian of some repute, who points out that John would have appended his seal to the document. “To depict King John holding a quill is simply a schoolboy error. Medieval kings did not authenticate documents by signing them, they did it by sealing them – or rather by getting one of their officials to do it for them. All the pen in John’s hand symbolises is ignorance of this basic fact.”
So much for the old joke: “Where was Magna Carta signed? At the bottom!”
But I must take issue with Dr. Morris here. The Middle Ages were not particularly concerned with anachronism, thus all those depictions of Biblical characters in medieval garb. So why not show King John with a quill, as though he is about to validate a contract by signing it, in the mode of a modern businessman? (At least he is wielding medieval writing implement, and not a ballpoint pen!) It’s true that accuracy is important in scholarship… but this is not scholarship, it is art, and the pen is surely nothing more than an attribute indicating “assent.” You might as well say, Dwight-Schrute-style, that Hilda of Whitby never really carried around a little model of the abbey she founded.
I’m glad that the Royal Mint agrees with me. From the article: “The design is symbolic of King John’s acceptance of the Magna Carta, it is not intended to be interpreted as a literal account of what actually occurred.”
But speaking of literal readings, as near as I can tell the shield of the baron on King John’s left is that of Hugh Bigod, who as son and heir of Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, could have borne Or a cross Gules differenced by a label (the horizontal line with three dependent tabs across the top – although Wikipedia claims that Hugh bore Per pale Gules and Azure a lion rampant Ermine at the time of Magna Carta). But if this is the case, why not depict the arms of Roger Bigod himself (i.e. the cross without the label), who was also at Runnymede and presumably would have outranked his son? I understand that the leader of the baronial revolt was Robert Fitzwalter, who bore Or between a fess two chevrons Gules, which would have been a better choice of shield to depict on the coin.
So I suppose that the shield is parallel to the pen, symbolic of barons in general and not any particular baron.