Rule of Law

Rule of Law

Magna Carta enjoys iconic status in the UK and across the world but until recently there was much we did not know about how it was made and how it survived in the Middle Ages.

As its 800th anniversary celebrations approached, a team of expert scholars, led by Professor Nicholas Vincent of UEA, received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to set up the Magna Carta Project.

The number and magnitude of the discoveries made by the team surpassed anything previously imagined, transforming our understanding of Magna Carta and its context. The huge appetite for Magna Carta amongst the public meant that members of the team have spoken to audiences across Europe, Australasia, America and Asia. The Magna Carta Project was also a key partner in the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition, visited by 130,000 members of the public.

One major discovery came in 2014, when Professor Vincent unearthed a previously unknown Magna Carta (issued by Edward I in 1300), pasted into a scrapbook in a local archive in Kent – a news story that soon spread across the world. This was, in fact, the fourth previously unknown Magna Carta that he had discovered, bringing the total of surviving originals (of different versions of the Charter from the thirteenth century) to twenty-four: Magna Carta was far more valued – and more widely disseminated – in the Middle Ages than had previously been thought. 

Professor Vincent also worked with colleagues Professor David Carpenter (KCL) and Dr Teresa Webber (Cambridge) on King John’s scribes. They were able to reveal for the first time the identity of those who wrote two of the original Charters of 1215. The startling finding was that these were scribes employed not by the king but by the bishops – revealing that churchmen were at the heart of events in 1215.

‘This serves as an important reminder’, said Professor Vincent, ‘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.’ 

The project made 'Quote of the Day' on the front page of the New York Times on the charter's 800th anniversary, 15 June 2015.


The Expert

Desiree S Peeters

Production Management Assistant at the BBC
Film and Television Studies
Worked as as freelance filmmaker for MAKE@UEA. Earned first credit on new children's series "Technobabble" and also worked on Blue Peter. Now working in the BBC Children's Acquisitions and Animation Team - shows incuding "Scream Street", "Zig and Zag", "The Next Step", "Hey Duggee" and "The Clangers". Now manages submissions for CBBC and CBeebies.