Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

10 June 2015

Words on Sheepskin

We have been overwhelmed by the critical response to our Magna Carta exhibition. We'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has already visited or has written to us about it, and we hope that many more people will do so before Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy closes on 1 September 2015. But readers of this blog may be aware that we're always happy to look at things from different angles, and Magna Carta is no different. We were recently approached by the poet Laila Sumpton, who had visited our exhibition and was keen to write a poem about it, reflecting on the nature of rights and our ongoing battle for them.

Laila poetry at KH

The poet Laila Sumpton speaking at Keats House

Here we publish Laila's poem. We hope it inspires you, much as Magna Carta as inspired people across the world in the 800 years since it was first granted by King John.


Words on sheepskin

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.


Laila Sumpton


Laila headshot

Laila Sumpton (@lailanadia) is a member of the Keats House Poets and works in both the poetry and NGO world, hoping to bring the two together. She runs creative writing workshops at museums, charities, hospitals and universities and writes extensively about human rights issues. She co-edited 'In Protest- 150 poems for human rights', published by the University of London's Human Rights Consortium and is working on her first pamphlet with the working title of 'King Arthur in Kashmir.' 

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. The objects on display can also be seen in the exhibition catalogue and on our dedicated Magna Carta website.



The comments to this entry are closed.