Magna Carta (Latin for “the Great Charter”), also called Magna Carta Libertatum (Latin for “the Great Charter of the Liberties”), is a charter agreed by King John of England at Runnymede, near Windsor, on 15 June 1215.
First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons, it promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. At the end of the war in 1217, it formed part of the peace treaty agreed at Lambeth, where the document acquired the name Magna Carta, to distinguish it from the smaller Charter of the Forest which was issued at the same time. Short of funds, Henry reissued the charter again in 1225 in exchange for a grant of new taxes; his son, Edward I, repeated the exercise in 1297, this time confirming it as part of England’s statute law.
They found the copies held in Lincoln and Salisbury were written by scribes based at those cathedrals, rather than by someone working for King John.
The discovery was made ahead of the 800th anniversary of the historic charter on Monday.
Lead investigator Professor Nicholas Vincent, said to identify the authors was a “significant achievement”.
He said after 800 years it was “certainly equivalent to finding needles in a very large haystack”.
The new discovery sheds further light on the Church’s role in the creation and distribution of Magna Carta – which sought to restrain the powers of the king.
Professor Vincent said: “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 publicised 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.”
The project, involving academics from the University of East Anglia and King’s College London, found the Lincoln Magna Carta was written by a scribe who produced several other documents for the Bishop of Lincoln and Salisbury’s was “probably” made by someone working for the cathedral’s dean and chapter.
Project team member David Carpenter, a professor of medieval history at King’s College, said: “We now know 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.”
A replica of the Great Charter began its journey down the Thames on Saturday as part of events to mark its 800th anniversary.
The Royal Barge Gloriana is leading 200 boats from Hurley in Berkshire to Runnymede in Surrey, where the document was signed, over two days.
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