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

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.”