In Ridley Scott’s 2010 take on the Robin Hood legend, a bit of a history lesson sneaks in the back door with the signing of a precursor to the Magna Carta by King John (played with venomous dash and charm by Oscar Isaac), amply urged on by William Hurt’s William Marshall and Russell Crowe’s Robin Longstride, together with the assembled and much-put-upon nobility of England.
This might feel far-fetched to audiences who only know of one Magna Carta, the one signed by King John’s son and heir many years after the action of the film takes place. But in fact, several precursor documents with the same intent as the Magna Carta were signed by King John under duress at several junctures much like the one dramatized in the film. He reneged on every agreement, but the nobles persevered until they had enough leverage to make the agreement binding on their sovereign.
This poem, based on the 35th Psalm, is in William Marshall’s voice addressed to King John at one of these junctures, when King John’s tax collectors have run amok on behalf of their French overlords (he hired French mercenaries to collect the exorbitant tax from nobles who claimed they could not pay). England faces invasion, and without the nobles’ support, King John cannot hope to repel the French fleet converging on Dover cliffs.
Take up arms, my Lord, against these invaders,
fight those who fight against England and your crown.
Unsheath the sword and nock the arrow – take aim
against these marauders, these wolves in the fold.
Let those who betrayed you be shamed and disgraced,
who used your tax as cover to raid the north.
Let them beat a retreat as they come ashore,
who plot the pillage of English kine and corn.
Let them scatter like chaff before the west wind,
with the longbow harrying their every step.
May they lose their footing in darkness and drown,
with the longbow raining murder over all.
For unprovoked they made designs on your crown,
unprovoked, they set out to sack your estate.
Let us spring our own trap – catch them unawares,
and turn the kernel of their plans against them.
They schemed to divide us – together, we win.
And I celebrate this day to see my King
moved to acknowledge his duties to the crown.
I feel this sea change for England in my bones.
“Majesty, who can supplant you? As our King,
only you can secure the weak against greed
and protect your subjects from their despoilers.”
Deep in your counsel, false witnesses snared you,
painting your nobles as rebels, usurpers.
This is how Geoffry repays your constant trust –
nursed at the same breast, he seeks your very life.
And I, when your kingdom ailed, went in hiding
and roused your people to remember their rights.
May my service to England furnish you well.
As for a friend, I mourned your missteps, waiting
for a chance to set you back on a straight path,
wandering bent and hooded, like a pilgrim.
Yet when your people went in mourning, they struck,
in your name they ravaged the north of England,
like mercenaries they robbed us for the tax.
They tore open our eyes to the awful truth.
With contempt they remarked in their own language
what easy prey we were to the wolves in sheep’s clothes.
Majesty, how long will this go on? We sue
because it is your duty to protect us,
and ours to rise, until lambs become lions.
I shall acclaim you before this gathering,
this great assembly looks to you to lead us.
Will you suffer our enemies to sack us,
will you stand by while the French rob us and leer?
For this is an army of invasion – peace
is an empty pledge, theirs were words of deceit.
Already they throw back their heads in laughter.
They crow, “Hurrah! All England’s for the taking!”
You, my Lord, have seen this – do not stand idle.
Majesty, do not banish me from your court,
deprive me of my duty to my country.
Judge my words by their justice, as England’s King
and let those invaders not gloat over all.
Do not allow our weakness to swell their hearts,
as they congratulate themselves for our faults.
Let them not say to their masters, “We have won.”
Let the French flee with their tails between their legs;
they rejoiced prematurely to do us harm.
Let us humiliate France for her envy,
that France sought to conquer fair England today.
Hear how your people shout and cheer and praise you,
who desire only justice from their King.
And may they always remember this fine day
by the works of their monarch, whose laws are just,
a King who safeguards his people’s well-being,
so their love will follow you into battle,
and their songs will be your ornament of praise.