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Magna Carta authors identified

Published 14/06/2015

The identity of the scribes who wrote two of the four remaining original 1215 copies of Magna Carta have been uncovered
The identity of the scribes who wrote two of the four remaining original 1215 copies of Magna Carta have been uncovered

Scientists have made a new discovery that sheds further light on the church's role in the creation and distribution of Magna Carta.

The identity of those who wrote two of the four remaining original 1215 copies of the historic legal documents have been uncovered by the Magna Carta Project ahead of its 800th anniversary on Monday.

They found that the Lincoln and Salisbury copies of the "Great Charter" were written by scribes based at those ecclesiastical centres rather than by anyone working for King John, whose powers it sought to restrain.

Professor Nicholas Vincent, a medieval history expert at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the 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 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.

"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."

The project, involving academics from UEA and King's College London, found that 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.

Prof Vincent added: " 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."

Project team member David Carpenter, professor of medieval history at King's, 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."

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