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University of East Anglia unveils Magna Carta research project

Thu, 22 Mar 2012

A project to bring an 800-year-old document into the 21st century has been launched at the University of East Anglia.

Magna Carta is known around the world as the cornerstone of British constitutional liberty.

Now a £910,000 project to track down lost originals and create an online database of new commentary, images, translations and research findings about the document is underway.

The three-year project will see researchers sift through more than 300 archives in the UK, France and Ireland, in a bid to trace lost originals. An original from the 1297 issue of Magna Carta, sold in New York in 2007, realized $21 million.

The team will also be on the look-out for new evidence about King John - popularised as a cruel villain in the legend of Robin Hood - to see whether he really was a monster.

And they will undertake the first complete commentary on the document - which will be available as part of an online resource for members of the public and historians alike.

Prof Nicholas Vincent from UEA's school of History, who is leading the project, said: "This work will transform academic and public understanding of Magna Carta and King John.

"There have been studies devoted to particular aspects of Magna Carta's history, but no attempt since 1914 to bring together all of the strands in our understanding.

"We will research who wrote it, what it means, whether its clauses were obeyed at the time, and how it marked a watershed between a lawless and lawful government.

"We will create the first clause-by-clause commentary on various reissues of the document - which will be freely available online in time for the anniversary celebrations in 2015. And look at its continued significance in the modern day.

"We will also piece together historical evidence about King John. Was he a monster as popular legend supposes? More than half of the surviving evidence lies buried in the archives and has never previously been either searched or assessed."

Prof Vincent was responsible for uncovering two original Magna Cartas in 2007, alongside three Forest Charters.

"This will be the first ever comprehensive survey of all the surviving originals," he said. "It is certainly possible that more exist. They tend to turn up in archives, where someone thinks they have a copy rather than an original."

Dr Hugh Doherty, a fellow of Jesus College Oxford who is currently teaching at UEA, will join Prof Vincent in his search for new evidence relating to Magna Carta and King John.

The research team also includes Prof Paul Brand, a leading legal historian from Oxford University who will concentrate on legal clauses, Dr Louise Wilkinson, an expert on medieval women from Canterbury Christ Church University who will look at inheritance, women and the family, and Prof David Carpenter, a leading political historian from King's College London who will investigate areas relating to the church, local government, and enforcement.

The core team is completed by Dr Claire Breay, lead curator of medieval and earlier manuscripts at the British Library, and Prof Andy Day from UEA's school of Computing Sciences, who will be responsible for creating the website.

As well as making their research available online, a series of public lectures and an exhibition are also in the pipeline to help raise public awareness about the important document.

The project is primarily funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and is set to culminate in 2015, to coincide with the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.