The peace treaty that has gone down in history as Magna Carta was negotiated over 10 days at Runnymede in June of 1215. The rebel barons and King John came to an agreement on terms on June 15th, 1215, which is why yesterday we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter even though the formal copies were issued on June 19th. Only four of those original 1215 copies, called exemplifications, are known to have survived. Two of them are in the collection of the British Library; one belongs to Salisbury Cathedral and the last to Lincoln Cathedral.
As part of a project of extensive study of Magna Carta in anticipation of the 800th anniversary, scholars from the University of East Anglia and King’s College London compared the handwriting of the original copies. They have identified the scribe who wrote the Lincoln charter and probably the one who wrote the Salisbury charter as well. They were not scribes of the royal chancery, as long thought.
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.
It makes sense that Magna Carta would be copied by cathedral scribes rather than the royal ones because the bishops, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, were in favor of the charter which guaranteed their rights as well as the barons’, while John had to be forced into it and had no real intention of living up to the agreement. If it had been up to John, Magna Carta would never have gotten nation-wide distribution.
A recent study of one of the British Library’s two copies, Cotton Charter XIII 31A, which was damaged in a 1731 fire and then damaged even harder by a botched restoration attempt a century later, has found that it too had an ecclesiastical origin. Multispectral imaging has made it possible to view text invisible to the naked eye and comparison of the charter text with transcriptions in a cartulary (a manuscript of transcribed documents relating to the foundation and rights of the church) from Canterbury Cathedral found that this exemplification was the one sent to the cathedral for its records in 1215. Since Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton played a pivotal role in the Runnymede negotiations, the discovery of a Canterbury Magna Carta that may well have passed through his hands is of major historical import.
King’s College London professor of medieval history David Carpenter:
“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.”
We know later reissues of Magna Carta were sent to cities and counties as well as churches, even more extensively than first realized, as the recent discovery of the Kent copy indicates, but by then the reissuing of Magna Carta was almost a given. Every king for 75 years did it whenever he got into disputes over taxes and forests and whatnot. It’s those original 1215 iterations that appear to have been primarily supported and preserved by church authorities. Church officials wrote them, distributed them, kept them safe in their archives.
Because nothing is ever simple, the Church in the person of the Pope was no fan of Magna Carta. After clashes over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury led to his excommunication, King John had submitted to Pope Innocent III in 1213 and become his vassal. This secured him the pope’s consistent political support against enemies foreign (France) and domestic (the barons, the bishops) and, just 10 weeks after Runnymede, garnered him a Papal Bull annulling Magna Carta as “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people.” The result was the First Baron’s War.
There are piles of events and resources out there right now because of the anniversary. The British Library has put together an excellent website dedicated to Magna Carta. There are articles, a zoomable image and translation of one of the original 1215 exemplifications and more than 150 other artifacts related to Magna Carta and King John in the library’s collection. If you can get to the library in person, they have a rich exhibition on the history of the charter and its evolution in meaning from a treaty between warring factions whose terms were regularly ignored by all parties to the foundations of democratic principles like trial by jury and due process.
One of the more unusual objects on display is entirely modern, an artwork by Cornelia Parker called Magna Carta (An Embroidery). It is a 13 meter-long embroidery of the Magna Carta Wikipedia page as it was last year on June 15th. More than 200 people were involved in this project, from lawyers to barons to 40 prisoners who embroidered the word “freedom.” Every color, image, table, bullet point, reference and footnote is duplicated in embroidery.
For a cool look at the history of Magna Carta scholarship, check out the English Historical Review‘s special online Magna Carta issue which is available for free on its website. It’s a selection of articles about the charter published in the EHR over its 130 history, which makes it as interesting from a historiographical perspective as it is a study of Magna Carta.
This video is a nice overview of the history and significance of Magna Carta featuring experts from King’s College London.