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Lincoln at dawn  



American Roots in England


Lincolnshire, Lincoln Cathedral, and Magna Carta


by Brantley C. B. Knowles

American roots may be traced to many lands and many continents. One of the most enduring legacies is that of immigration from the British Isles in the early formation of our nation. Immigrants came from many parts of England to America; however, Lincolnshire, in the East Midlands of England, has an ineffably special connection. On the hill above the town of Lincoln, Lincoln Cathedral has presided over 900 years of English history, a silent sentinel that can be seen from many miles away, and for nearly 250 years perhaps the tallest structure in the world. The cathedral has borne witness to Lincolnshire natives who sailed away and settled America in the 17th and 18th centuries. It would have been the last landmark of home recognizable to those leaving England by sea—probably forever.


These intrepid folk included Captain John Smith of Willoughby in Lincolnshire, an “old boy” of the King Edward VI Grammar School in Louth, where his statuary bust remains on display. A bold adventurer, Smith was a founder of the Virginia Colony and renowned for his association not only with Pocahontas, but also with the powerful Powhatan Confederation of tribes in coastal Virginia. In the Seaman’s Chapel at Lincoln Cathedral, incorporated in a stained glass window, is Smith’s coat of arms, as well as a depiction of John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Colony. Shown with Winthrop are prominent members of his expedition to America on the Arabella, including the Lady Arabella Johnson, after whom the ship was named. Lady Arabella was the daughter of Thomas Clinton, 3rd Earl of Lincoln.


A group of Lincolnshire religious reformers known as Separatists were among the passengers on the Mayflower. This particular group of Mayflower passengers is believed to be responsible for the genesis of the Baptist faith as well as other Protestant denominations in America. Also from Lincolnshire was the Marbury family, including religious reformer Anne Hutchinson (née Marbury), who would later revolt against the religious convictions of the Puritan clergy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She was involved in the Antinomian Controversy that created a schism within the colony. Mistress Hutchinson is an ancestress of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and of Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Later, others too left Lincolnshire seeking religious freedom or to preach in America, as did John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, later called the Methodist Episcopal Church in America. Wesley was rector of Christ Church in St. Simon’s Island, GA. Yet another early link between Lincoln and those who, under the mute scrutiny of the great Cathedral, left English shores to settle the American colonies, is a rare copy of the first Bible printed in America, now in the possession of the library of Lincoln Cathedral. It was printed in 1663 in the Algonquian Massachusett language, and was translated by John Elliot, a Puritan missionary known as “the apostle to the Indians.”

The Blessed Virgin Mary with Christ


Centuries later, in 1945, it was from North Witham Airfield in Lincolnshire that American parachutists of the 82nd and 101st Airborne departed for France. These brave men were among the first American participants in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day 70 years ago, and they, like the brave men before them, departed under the silent watch of the Cathedral’s magnificent rose windows. The red beacon lights in the great tower of Lincoln Cathedral also served as a welcoming symbol, guiding flyers home to safety from air raids abroad. Housed in this same Lincoln Cathedral for hundreds of years lay one of the four remaining original copies of Britain’s Magna Carta or “Great Charter.” In the year 1215, at Runnymede, Hugh de Wells, Bishop of Lincoln, witnessed King John of England affix his seal to the document called Magna Carta. With its emphasis on the ideals of democracy, limitation of power, equality, and freedom under law, Magna Carta served as an inspiration and guide in the development of the Constitution of the United States of America in 1789.

Thus, ancient Lincoln, the people of Lincolnshire and its Magna Carta, have left an indelible mark on the formation of the United States of America and on her strength as a nation. In modern times, the people of these former colonies returned to Lincoln, the home of so many of their English antecedents, in solidarity and friendship with the English nation as allies in a time of world war. But the history of this area begins long before Lincoln Cathedral took its place on the high hill overlooking the town. Even before the Roman military occupation in AD 47/48, Lincoln was an important Iron Age settlement, in a desirable location adjacent to what is now called Brayford Pool, a natural lake formed by the River Witham, at the foot of a large hill. The Roman settlement was called Lindum Colonia. Lindum was derived from the Celtic word for pool, and colonia was used as a name for the army settlement. A hilltop fortress was erected, and the settlement flourished as the rivers Witham and Trent gave access to the North Sea and important trade opportunities.

Lincoln interior


After the end of the Roman occupation, during the Viking period, Lincoln was an important trading hub. Its name was shortened to the Old English Lincylene, and the area was one of the five boroughs of the East Midlands after the Viking Dane Law was established in the ninth century.


Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror, by then William I of England, ordered a castle fortress to be built on the high hill at Lincoln, now known as Lincoln Castle. The strategic importance of the area was, in part, that Lincoln was at the crossroads of two famous Roman “highways”: the Fosse Way and the Ermine Road. It was near this Lincoln hilltop site that a monumental project was begun…the building of what is now the incomparable Lincoln Cathedral, the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln.

Detail of Seaman’s Chapel window 


Lincoln Magna Carta 


Detail of Seaman’s Chapel window 


The building of the Cathedral began in 1072, and has been ongoing in various incarnations for centuries. This is due to changing architectural styles and preferences, earthquakes, and acts of man, such as Oliver Cromwell’s desecration of the Cathedral and tombs during the mid-17th-century English Civil War. The earliest ecclesiastical structure was an impressive Norman-style church, which demonstrated to the vanquished that God was on the side of the conquerors. Subsequently, an immense earthquake severely damaged the cathedral, which was rebuilt in the Gothic style under the leadership of Hugh de Burgundy of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln, later known as St. Hugh. Contemporary architectural advances allowed for flying buttresses and other techniques to support large and impressive decorative windows, including the magnificent stained-glass Dean’s Eye and Bishop’s Eye windows. In 1237 the main tower collapsed, and the cathedral was repaired and enlarged. Over time, Lincoln Cathedral became the magnificent structure it is today.


The 19th-century architectural historian John Ruskin referred to Lincoln Cathedral thus: I have always held…that the cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have.


Lincoln Cathedral is the repository of the best-preserved copy of Magna Carta still extant. Only four parchment copies of the original 1215 document of the Magna Carta remain. The Lincoln Cathedral’s copy was brought back to the cathedral from Runnymede by Hugh de Wells, Bishop of Lincoln. The parchment was written in Latin, and inscribed contemporaneously on the reverse Lincolnia, delineating that this original copy was meant for Lincoln Cathedral. It is amazing to realize that 800 years later this original copy still resides in its destined repository. In 1939 the Lincoln Magna Carta was sent to the United States for the World’s Fair, which was held in New York City. With the outbreak of World War II, it was placed for safety in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and later moved to Fort Knox for the duration of the war. Today, the Lincoln copy of Magna Carta is kept safe with 21st-century technology. 

Once settled in America, many of the colonists who founded our nation used the guiding principles of Magna Carta to form their colonial governments. The Magna Carta was the genesis of English constitutional government and its legacy is reflected in all democratic governments, especially those of the United States and Canada. Magna Carta’s important principles of freedom are part of the framework of the United States Constitution and are embodied in the Bill of Rights. The UNESCO World Heritage Center bestowed “The Memory of the World” award upon Magna Carta for its universal significance and contribution to mankind. 


In 2015, the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta will be commemorated. In June of 1215 a group of rebel barons met with King John of England at Runnymede, a meadow alongside the Thames near southwest London. These powerful barons forced King John of England to affix his seal to a document which not only diminished the power of the monarch, but also demanded a halt to the king’s injustices, and granted many rights to his subjects. Since the Norman Conquest the rulers of England had for the most part acknowledged and respected the feudal laws of England. Unfortunately, King John had been an unwise ruler who abused his power and did not comply with the laws of the time. 


Two years earlier, in 1213, a meeting was held at St. Albans to discuss the King’s abuses. Those present, nobles and clergy, drew up a list of rights, or articles, and they were presented to the King. Initially, King John refused to acknowledge the document. Ultimately, a large army was raised by the barons. Knowing he could not defeat the army, King John agreed to the articles and they became a royal charter. Sixty-three articles were contained in Magna Carta. The concerns addressed dealt with upholding feudal law, freedom of the church from the King’s interference, the rights of the middle classes, and that due process of law and trial by a jury of peers would be assured for English subjects. Importantly, it also directed that a council of barons be established to ensure the king did not violate the charter, and that the king must consult with the barons on key matters regarding the kingdom’s interests, including the raising of taxes. 


King John died in 1216. Subsequent kings acknowledged that the terms of Magna Carta were an integral part of the law of England. For centuries, the abiding rights of Magna Carta have been used as a constitutional safeguard and balance against royal power. During the usurpation of Oliver Cromwell, Magna Carta was cited against King Charles I of England, who was summarily sentenced to death by Cromwell’s regicides, and beheaded in 1649. In the 18th century, the famous barrister Sir William Blackstone wrote Commentaries on the Laws of England. This scholarly tome emphasized that the ideals of Magna Carta were the rights of the people of England.


In 2015, the four extant copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta will be displayed together, for three days only, at the British Library, in the inaugural celebration of the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. This exhibit is a collaborative effort of the British Library, which holds two copies, and Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral, each of which has one, together with an English law firm, Linklaters, as corporate sponsor. Scholars will be able to compare these documents, allowing for fresh interpretation, and perhaps furnishing new clues to the identities of the writers and scribes who created them. The head curator of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts at the British Library has stated that Magna Carta is the most popular item in the Library’s Treasures Gallery, and is venerated around the world as marking the starting point for government under the law. Bringing the four surviving manuscripts together for the first time will create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for researchers and members of the public to see them in one place, and will be a fantastic start to a year of celebrations.


In April of 2014, the Society of American Friends of Lincoln Cathedral held an inaugural luncheon at the Army and Navy Club of Washington, D.C., with approximately 125 people in attendance. The Society was formed to support the mission of the Lincoln Cathedral USA Foundation and to raise awareness of Lincoln Cathedral and Magna Carta in the United States. The Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta traveled to the United States in 2014. From July 2 to September 1, 2014, it was on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It then traveled to Williamstown, MA, where it was exhibited at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Finally, Magna Carta may be viewed at the Law Library of Congress, November 6, 2014, to January 19, 2015, in Washington, D.C.


Over the past 400 years Lincolnshire has imparted a great legacy of history and heritage to America—not only as a source of English immigration to America, by those who would have worshipped in or known Lincoln Cathedral, but also through Magna Carta, whose importance to Americans and the entire democratic world is beyond measure. Thus it is fitting that, on the occasion of its 800th anniversary celebration, this historical document should be shared with those who owe so much to the principles it embodies.


As the Very Reverend Philip J. W. Buckler, Dean of Lincoln, has said, We know from the times when Magna Carta has been exhibited abroad—most recently in the United States—just how far reaching its influence has been. This unification event [at the British Library] will be of international significance, and will mark for us a pivotal point for our manuscript in the anniversary year before it returns to enter its purpose-built home in Lincoln Castle.

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