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Magna Carta scribes uncovered on eve of the charter's 800th anniversary

Date: 14/06/2015

It is a conundrum that has puzzled scholars for centuries, but now experts from the Magna Carta Project have established the scribe of at least one and possibly two of the original Magna Cartas of 1215.

The discovery by scholars at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and King's College London of who wrote the Lincoln charter – and probably also the Salisbury charter – comes on the eve of the 800th anniversary of the ratification of Magna Carta. Authorised on June 15, 1215 by King John, Magna Carta asserts the fundamental principle of the rule of law, but the new finding of who actually put ink to parchment points to the church as the impetus behind the charter's production.

Four original charters setting out the text of Magna Carta are known to have survived since the unpopular king ratified it at Runnymede, in a short-lived effort to make peace with a group of rebel barons. Two of these 1215 charters are held at the British Library, one is held at Lincoln Cathedral and one at Salisbury Cathedral. All four original charters have been granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

The Magna Carta Project, based at UEA and King's, has undertaken detailed work on the four surviving 1215 charters. The project, supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), also works closely with curators at the British Library and an expert at the University of Cambridge.

In recent weeks, following an exhaustive search and examination of the handwriting, the researchers have established that the Lincoln and Salisbury charters were written by scribes working outside the king's own writing office.

It was not the king's efforts that gave birth to these charters, but the efforts of the church. The Lincoln charter was written by a scribe who produced several other documents for the Bishop of Lincoln. The Salisbury charter was probably produced by a scribe working for the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury.

Prof Nicholas Vincent, professor of medieval history at UEA and the Magna Carta Project's principal investigator, said: To have found and identified the work of these scribes, 800 years after their writing, is a significant achievement, certainly equivalent to finding needles in a very large haystack.

But it also has important historical implications. It has become apparent, not least as a result of work undertaken for the Magna Carta Project, that the bishops of England were crucial to both the publication and the preservation of Magna Carta.

King John had no real intention that the charter be either publicized or enforced. It was the bishops, instead, who insisted that it be distributed to the country at large and thereafter who preserved it in their cathedral archives.

We now find at least two cathedral churches, Lincoln and Salisbury, each producing its own Magna Carta, supplying the time, the scribe and the initiative to get the document copied.

Crucially, Prof Vincent said those aware of Magna Carta in the 13th Century would have seen not a royal charter but something produced, published, preserved and even physically written by the English church.

Prof Vincent said: What contemporaries would have seen in Magna Carta, both as text and as physical artifact, was an ecclesiastical document.

This serves as an important reminder of the ways in which our modern ideas of freedom, democracy and the rule of law emerged from a close co-operation between church and state.

Bizarrely enough, Magna Carta is the product of a situation far closer to that which elsewhere in today's world we might associate with the enemies of modern liberal democracy, with Sharia law, or with those systems in which church and state are indistinguishable.

Prof David Carpenter, professor of medieval history at King’s and a member of the project team, said: These exciting discoveries dovetail perfectly with another major finding of the project, namely that one of the two originals of Magna Carta now in the British Library was sent in 1215 to Canterbury Cathedral and can be known as 'The Canterbury Magna Carta'.

We now know, therefore, that three of the four surviving originals of the charter went to cathedrals: Lincoln, Salisbury and Canterbury. Probably cathedrals were the destination for the great majority of the other original charters issued in 1215.

This overturns the old view that the charters were sent to the sheriffs in charge of the counties. That would have been fatal since the sheriffs were the very people under attack in the charter. They would have quickly consigned Magna Carta to their castle furnaces.

The church, therefore, was central to the production, preservation and proclamation of Magna Carta. The cathedrals were like a beacon from which the light of the charter shone round the country, thus beginning the process by which it became central to national life.

Prof Rick Rylance, chief executive of the AHRC, said: Understanding the wider context of documents such as the Magna Carta helps us to learn from our past and enhance our understanding of the society we live in today. The Magna Carta Project demonstrates the importance of this and inevitably, the formative influence of the UK's experience on institutions the world over. The exhibition is eye opening.

For more information or to arrange an interview with Prof Nicholas Vincent, please contact Laura Potts, Media Relations Manager in the UEA Press Office on: +44(0)1603 593007 or laura.potts@uea.ac.uk. After hours, a duty press officer can be reached at: press@uea.ac.uk.

For more information or to interview Prof David Carpenter, please contact Claire Gilby, PR Manager (Arts & Sciences) in the King's College London press office on: +44 (0)20 7848 3092 or email claire.gilby@kcl.ac.uk.

Notes to Editors

  • The University of East Anglia (UEA) is among the top 1 per cent of universities globally (Times Higher Education World Rankings 2014-15) and placed 10th in the UK for the quality of its research output (Research Excellence Framework 2014). Also known for its outstanding student experience, it has achieved a Top 10 rating in the National Student Survey every year since the survey began. UEA is a leading member of the Norwich Research Park - one of Europe's largest concentrations of researchers in the fields of environment, health and plant science. The city of Norwich boasts more highly cited scientists than any UK city outside London, Oxford and Cambridge.
    The University of East Anglia's School of History contains one of the largest groups of historians in the country, specialising in the political, social and cultural history of Britain and Europe from the Middle Ages to the present day. The school was ranked 11th in the UK in the Guardian League Table 2015, and had a 96 per cent student satisfaction rating in the 2015 Guardian University Guide. Seventy-seven per cent of research in the School of History was rated 4* (world leading) or 3* (internationally excellent) according to the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014), a major Government analysis of university research quality.
  • King's College London is one of the top 20 universities in the world (2014/15 QS World University Rankings) and among the oldest in England. King's has more than 26,500 students (of whom nearly 10,400 are graduate students) from some 150 countries worldwide, and nearly 6,900 staff. The university is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.
  • A film outlining the findings of the Magna Carta Project and the British Library's ongoing Magna Carta exhibition has been created by the AHRC. For more information about the AHRC's involvement in the project, please contact Dr Alex Pryce, Communications Coordinator, on: +44 (0)1793 416025 or a.pryce@ahrc.ac.uk.
  • Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition bringing together for the first time the iconic documents and artefacts that tell the story of Magna Carta. Among over 200 exhibits are two of the four original 1215 Magna Carta documents, Jefferson's handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence and one of the original copies of the US Bill of Rights, both on display in the UK for the first time, as well as stunning manuscripts, paintings, statues and royal relics. Accompanying the exhibition is a major public programme and exciting digital project, Magna Carta: My Digital Rights, marking the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015. For more information about our Magna Carta learning resources and public programme please visit our website, www.bl.uk/magna-carta.


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