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Published date: 13 July 2012

The University of East Anglia’s Professor Nicholas Vincent is a leading authority on the world of Magna Carta. Here, he discusses the work of the consortium of scholars and computer scientists who have recently been granted £1 million by the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a major project on the ‘best-known document in English history’ in the run up to the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015.

Author: Professor Nicholas Vincent Duration: 55:26

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Years ago I heard Jim Holt, who may be familiar to some of you here today. The foremost authority on the Magna Carta, talking in Oxford. At that stage Jim was in his early 80s and he had the extraordinary privilege to be introduced by his supervisor, John Prestwitch, who was in his mid-80s. Well I have the honour to be introduced to my supervisor because I owe everything I know, really, to John who was my supervisor at Oxford. [John: Not quite in his mid-80s]. Right…not quite in his mid eighties yet he assures me.

I’m going to talk for about three quarters of an hour on Magna Carta and really my starting point is the fact that in the last six months a consortium of scholars, with myself as one of them – David Carpenter, Paul Brand, Louise Wilkinson, all of whom are here this evening -also two computer scientists – Andy Day and Geoff French – have attained a large sum of your money, public money, almost a million pounds of arts and humanities research council money for a major project on Magna Carta towards the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015. And you may well ask why on Earth would anybody give any money to study what is the best known document in English history. There you see it – or perhaps you don’t. That is obviously the burnt Magna Carta. This is one of the four original Magna Cartas of 1215. This is one of two of them that were in the Cotton Library, the library of Sir Robert Cotton that was burnt in 1731. And this one as a result is rendered illegible and all we’re left with is a thing that looks like a chewed-up toffee at the bottom which is what remains of the seal of King John.

The document itself, however, is extremely well known, perhaps more in the spirit than in the detail. And because this is an audience made up very largely of the general public, I think I owe it to you to explain something of what that document actually says.

Historians focus upon it because it is a means of binding the King to Law. How do you get the king, who is an absolute sovereign, with the right to do pretty much what he likes. How do you get him to obey the laws he himself makes? That’s why in the wider scale of things Magna Carta is so important. It includes within 60 or so clauses, two or three clauses that have still a general resonance today. That we will go against no one, that we will not do injustice, that we will not harm individuals, that everyone has in essence has the right to a trial by their peers or by the law of the land, that the privileges of the City of London should remain inviolate. Those statutes are still with us today, they remain barnacles on the great ship of state. When the rest of Magna Carta has very largely been cut away from modern legal statute as redundant feudal law. Much more of the charter concerns the financial relations between the king and his barons. And that really isn’t of very great significance today in legal terms save as part of that attempt in 1215 to bind the King to the Law.

Others of the clauses were entirely ephemeral even in 1215. The expulsion of a list of the king’s named foreign favourites. Well they weren’t actually expelled by King John but their names no longer appear in the reissues Magna Carta that followed on from 1215 because they fall into the terms on what was really a peace agreement between King John and his barons in 1215. That all the fish winners on the rivers Medway and the Thames should be taken away, that they should be disposed of. Well that’s about the navigation of the Thames, the navigation of the river Medway, the fear that otherwise the rivers will silt up. That can seem t us today to be a very trivial aspect of the personal interest of individual barons or in this case the city of London in the terms of this peace treaty.

The most important of those ephemeral clauses in 1215 was a clause the so called Sanctions Clause of 1215 Magna Carta that in essence gave the barons the right to rebel against the King if in any way he contravened the terms of the charter. Now that was a clause that was immediately unacceptable to the King and really immediately unacceptable to anyone that the king could appeal to, above all to the Pope. The idea that you could place a committee, in this instance a committee of 25 rebellious barons above the king. And as a result that clause died very early on.

As a peace settlement Magna Carta failed, miserably in the summer of 1215. It didn’t bring peace. The result was a civil war between the king and the barons. It was rescued from oblivion a year later when King John died and his infant son, Henry III, ascended the throne. And in order to provide this new weak boy king with some documentary evidence of his determination to rule in peace and harmony with his barons, the council round the boy reissued Magna Carta, now without various of those more controversial clauses, above all that Sanctions Clause that had licensed rebellion.

So we get to a situation where we don’t just have a Magna Carta that was issued by King John in 1215, of which we have four examples, but we have a whole series of later reissues of the charter through to the last of those single sheet, individual county by county reissues in 1300. The most important of those reissues where made in 1216 at the death of King John on the succession of Henry III, a year later, at the end of the civil war, the official end of the war in 1217, and again in 1225. In 1225, shorn more of the specific detail, boiled down to a general series of principles about how kings should relate to their barons, and issued, in return for taxation for the king. Thereafter, that 1225 text into the English law and was debated and reissued throughout the 13th century.

And that’s really where I come in because in 2007 Sotheby’s in New York phoned me up and told me they were about to put up for auction a much later Magna Carta, a reissue of 1297, 80 years or so after the original issue, issued under the seal of Edward I that was in the possession of the one-time presidential candidate Ross Perot. They told me rather remarkably that this document was written on cat’s skin which, any of you that know anything about medieval documents is a most improbable suggestion, not least because of the number of cats that would have been involved. In fact it was written of sheepskin. When I saw it in New York it appeared in an extraordinary space-age capsule for which I will return in due course. It appeared in that capsule because Ross Perot quite rightly believed that it was of very great value. In the end it was sold in New York for $21.3 million which is the highest price ever paid for a single sheet document, for one single piece of parchment. And what an ugly looking piece of parchment it is too. The furore around that sale is itself some indication of the importance Magna Carta still has today as a totemic object in public consciousness. There you see we were all going to die of the blue tongue disease. We haven’t heard much of that recently. Over there we have the then telegraph of the Magna Carta.

Now part of my function in that sale really was to find out how many Magna Cartas were issued in 13th century that survived today. And here as it were we have the reason why I was chosen to do this, because I’ve been round an awful lot of archives and I’ve seen an awful lot of these documents. The very first one I found really through David Carpenter. Now this is the Hereford Magna Carta which is a 1217 Magna Carta. Back in the mid-1990s when David and I were both working simultaneously on the same period of English history, the early years of Henry III, looking through a catalogue of what Hereford had by way of documents, I saw that they came to have what was described nearly as a Royal Charter of the second year of Henry III and it could be nothing else but a Magna Carta. So I phoned them up and said could I come over from where I live outside Oxford the next day to see their Magna Carta and they were very annoyed. They said they didn’t have a Magna Carta, that I was mistaken. What they have is Mappa Mundi! (This was in the middle if you remember of that fuss about whether they could or could not sell their great map of the world, Mappa Mundi.) So I said no, I think you do have a Magna Carta though it’s not catalogued as that and I’ll come over anyway. And I knew that something was up when I arrived on Hereford railway station the following morning and the Dean and Chapter of Hereford were there waiting for me. And the first question they wanted to know was how much is it worth [audience laughs]. Now because that I was aware of the fact that there was quite a lot of these Magna Cartas knocking around that weren’t actually known about. We have the famous ones, the 1215 ones; [shows images] this is the other Cotton Magna Carta which you can see has got a whole series of corrections written at the bottom. We have the Magna Carta in Lincoln Cathedral, we have another one Salisbury. Those are very well known. They’re world heritage status documents today. But there were plenty of others that were not known about and it was those that I catalogued and although I think the tally comes to something like 23 original Magna Cartas from 1215 through to the finial reissue of 1300. And of those, four or five were not known before I made that catalogue.

What I found most extraordinary of all that was the fact that no such catalogue had been attempted since 1810 when a volume called ‘Statutes of the Realm’ which was George III’s, England’s response to the code Napoleon, so the attempt to codify French Law, to bring together all the statutes into one body. Well an attempt was made in England, a multi-volume called ‘Statutes of the Realm’ that was the last attempt, properly to list the originals of Magna Carta. And here we come to one of the reasons why it is necessary to do further work on this document. Because although it is terribly well known the assumption has been made that it is so well known that there is nothing further to say. In fact there is very great deal to say.

Some of that saying involves not so much the history of Magna Carta and King John in the 13th century but the history of the modern reception of Magna Carta. This is the Lincoln Magna Carta, it’s very well known, it’s probably the only one of those 1215 Magna Cartas that’s been in its original custody since it was issued; it’s always been at Lincoln. You can see it’s a bit faded, well one of the reasons its faded is that it has travelled around a great deal. Its peregrinations in the latter part of the 20th century appeared in the tabloid newspapers if you remember because of the unfortunate financial attempt by the then Dean of Lincoln in the 1980s, to raise a large sum of money by touring Lincoln’s Magna Carta. But even in the 20th century that Lincoln Magna Carta travelled. In 1940, 1939, on the outbreak of World War II the Lincoln Magna Carta was in America and one of the sub-stories I was able to tell in writing up the history of this advance of that sale in 2007 involved Roosevelt and Churchill. Because in 1941, in an attempt to bring the Americans into the Second World War on the side of Great Britain. A series of senior government officials with Churchill at the head suggested that the Lincoln Magna Carta that was then in America be gifted to the American people and that this be done on 15 June 1941 on the anniversary of Magna Carta’s issue, instituting itself a new Magna Carta day in America. And upstairs, over there there’s a whole file of correspondence, Foreign Office correspondence with people like Julian Amery and Rab Butler and here we have Churchill himself, minuting this proposal which went to cabinet in the summer of 1941. Here we have indeed Churchill saying to Rab Butler ‘I insist that this be brought with immediacy before the attention of the’; an attempt to bring the Americans in. There was of course one real problem with offering the Lincoln Magna Carta to the American people though, for Churchill and Butler and Amery and so forth that was all very well but they didn’t own it, it belonged the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln. So we get a contorted correspondence in which the senior public officials attempt to get the British Library, or what was then the British Museum, to give one of their Magna Cartas to Lincoln so that Lincoln could then give theirs to the American people, setting up an entire chain, a nightmare chain of circumstance in which none of the individual owners wished to participate. Fortunately, while that debate went into the ground the Japanese stepped into the breach and if you recall at Pearl Harbour actually did the job that the gift of Magna Carta was intended to do in the first place. And as a result the Lincoln Magna Carta returned to Lincoln in 1946 at the end of the war. Those of you that, sorry this is rather an in joke, but those of you who know anything about the historians of medieval England, can see how David Carpenter, even in 1946 [audience laughs], at the return of the Lincoln Magna Carta, dressed at that stage as a clergyman but he is observing the return of the document.

That attempt to restore Magna Carta to Lincoln didn’t prevent a further attempt to give away one of Britain’s Magna Cartas. Here we have Miss Talbot, the owner of the Talbot Magna Carta from Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, in this instance dressed as Ela, the Countess of Salisbury. Which is, if you wish to dress up as anybody you might as well as the 13th century Countess of Salisbury.

At the end of the Second World War the entire Lacock estate was gifted by Miss Talbot to the National Trust. It was an extraordinary act of generosity. And with that estate came not only the house and the estate lands but also the 1225 Magna Carta that belonged to Lacock Abbey and that had been held throughout the Second World War wrapped up in oilcloth buried under the library floor in Lacock.

When the Lincoln Magna Carta returned to England Miss Talbot was sent out by the Foreign Office, I don’t think necessarily dressed as Ela, Countess of Salisbury, no doubt dressed in tweed, to tour the 1225 Magna Carta round the eastern seaboard of America. And again, upstairs there’s an extraordinary Foreign Office correspondence there which explains that in the circumstances, the financial circumstances of 1945-46, it was not considered appropriate to make a very large allowance to Miss Talbot so that she was allowed $3 a day or if she was forced to stay overnight in hotels that could be raised to $5 a day. I don’t know quite what sort of hotel you could get for $2 a night in 1945 but it’s an example of post-war meanness, that that great act of benediction was treated with a great act of meanness towards Miss Talbot. Also upstairs, also not looked at until this sale of 2007, there is an entire correspondence concerning this document. This, if you like is a pair to the charter that was sold in New York in 2007, it’s also from that reissue of 1297, and it’s now in the Australian Senate in Canberra in Australia. It’s Australia’s Magna Carta.

The correspondence upstairs tells a remarkable story. In 1951 one of the governors of this small school in Somerset, King’s School Bruton turned up in Sotheby’s in London with that 1297 Magna Carta that he said belonged to the school and that the school was anxious to sell. Sotheby’s valued the charter then at £10,000 which was a very large sum of money in 1951. It did not prevent, however, the British Library from taking an interest and the then Keeper of manuscripts in the British Library, British Museum, AJ Collins, from wishing to acquire that charter for the nation. The British Library has most of the reissues of the Magna Carta but it didn’t have an example of the 1297 reissue. Collins was prepared to pay £2,000 or 3,000 rather than the £10,000 Sotheby’s were asking.

There followed a battle of the books, in which various leading officials, this is Lord Blackford who you can see has the finest rugby noses that it’s been my pleasure to see. This is Lord Blackford who was one of the governors of the King’s School Bruton. In the end, presenting the prize to the Australian High Commissioner. And there is behind that a story of establishment contacts. Lord Blackford was himself a leading member of the Livery Companies as was the Australian High Commissioner. One can imagine some of the backstage intrigue that went on there.

The correspondence itself is preserved upstairs in the papers of this man Sir Edward Playfair who records an extraordinary battle between Collins of the British Museum and Sir Henry Jenkins, then Jenkinson, then of the Public Record Office. One of the incidental extraordinary details of that correspondence is Hilary Jenkinson’s attempts to explain to the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln why their original 1215 Magna Carta was so faded. As you can see the writing is faded even in this photograph and it’s continued to fade since. Jenkinson explanation there turned on what he describes as a mysterious fungoid and unnecessarily difficult infection that had in some way, and then we get into real Eurospeak, in some way interfered with the destiny of this document. My suspicion is that as with a lot of early 13th century parchments in the early 1950s, when the Lincoln Magna Carta was sent for repair in the Public Record Office, the equivalent of the steam kettle was got out, in order to flatten the thing and probably hot steam was applied to it, probably rather too much, perhaps…not that that could possible happen today. But perhaps at that stage they take their eye off the operation and perhaps as they do still today discuss matters of great weight and only as a late stage realise they’d rather overdone it. Indeed they had rather overcooked the Lincoln Magna Carta.

Well Jenkinson intervened against the British Museum in 1952 and was instrumental in insuring that that Canberra Magna Carta went to Australia rather than to England. Behind that lie a series of political manoeuvrings and particularly in the early 1950s an attempt to bind the dominions, bind the former parts of the British Empire to what was even at that stage a rather rocky looking Imperial structure.

One of the rather remarkable things to emerge from the correspondence on that Canberra Magna Carta through is this letter from Rab Butler, RE Butler, who is receiving here from Playfair a note. As a final comment on the confused morals of these problems I should mention nobody knows how the charter came in the possession of the King’s School Bruton. But I’m told the best guess is that the school’s lawyer was keeping it on behalf of another client and had put it into the wrong box sometime within the last 100 years. And Butler has written underneath this, this is secretly entre nous.

Now, what I was able to do thereafter is actually prove this is indeed what happened. The 1297 Magna Carta now in Australia that was sold from the King’s School Bruton is one of at least four of those 1297 charters that survive, one of them is here. This is a touch of Lancaster document which is in the Public Record Office and you can see this rather nice decorated ‘E’ of the initial of the name of King Edward I, standard late 13th century engrossment of Magna Carta. But the one that went to Australia wasn’t in any way connected with the one here. The one that went to Australia originally belonged to the county of Surrey. Comitatus Surriae it says there, examinartor, it’s been examined. And it’s been signed a scribe by Yarn, who is actually a man called Hugh of Yarmouth.

Now we could compare those signatures at the bottom with those on other examples of late reissues of Magna Carta. The one in Washington, for example the Ross Perot charter, was the copy belonging to the county of Buckinghamshire. This one in London, this is again 1297 Magna Carta. It retains the original writ, ordering its publication and you can see at the bottom it actually has London as its place of destination. So that’s been in the Corporation of London’s records ever since. That’s the signature at the bottom and again doesn’t have that scriber’s signature of Hugh of Yarmouth at the end.

By pure serendipity, pure serendipity, there is no reason whatsoever why that should have been the case, that I happened at that precise time in 2007, to be going through large numbers of unsorted deeds in the British Library. It is a little known fact, and perhaps one should cover the microphone at this stage, that virtually everything by way of charters that has entered into the British Library since 1905 has either not been catalogued or catalogued in the only the very most basic of details. So to actually look at those documents, you have to order them up one by one, or by box, and see what is in them. Now I ordered this one up, this is additional charter number 43,712, so we’re way off into the high numbers of these additional charters. It was described as ‘a copy of the Forest Charter’. Now the forest charter is the charter that accompanies the issue of the Magna Carta from 1217 onwards. It covers that part of England that was placed under Forrest Law rather than directly under the standard Common Law of the rest of England. This isn’t actually a copy of the Forest Charter at all, it is the original Forrest Charter from that reissue of 1297. And if you look at the bottom of it, it has the same set of signatures, Surriae examinartor, and it’s signed by Hugh of Yarmouth. It is indeed the pair of the Charter 9 Australia. These are the signatures of that Charter of London. And if you compare them with the signature of the Charter 9 in Australia you can see that they are identical. So I found a pair.

Now the question arose how did that one get to the British Library when the other one went to the Kings School Bruton and then to Australia. And here we can enter another interesting realm of myth and make-believe. According to the rough register of the acquisitions by the British Museum, British Library, that document, the Forest Charter entered the collections of the British Museum in 1905, as a gift from a man called F Quekett Zouch. Now I don’t know if there are any Quekett Zouchs in this room today but it’s not a very common name, Quekett Zouch. So I went looking out on the web for Quekett Zouchs and got nowhere what so ever. The entire Quekett Zouch family seemed to have disappeared off the face of the Earth.

It appeared in the British Museum in 1905 together with a large collection of other Surrey and Sussex documents, and its important here to remember that the counties of Surrey and Sussex had the same sheriff. So the Sheriff’s archives of Surrey might well have ended up in a Sussex institution. A large number of the documents are of the foundation minor priory in Sussex called Easebourne Priory which in all in theory belonged to this Mr Quekett Zouch. It was pretty easy to imagine a situation in which the Sheriff’s archive from Surrey had been deposited in that Sussex nunnery. Precisely the same thing happened with the Lacock charter, Miss Talbot’s charter, that was the charter for Wiltshire but it went to the nuns of Lacock at some point in the 13th century.

So it was easy to see why these Surrey documents should have ended up in the same Sussex priory through the Middle Ages but far more difficult to establish what had happened to them thereafter. It was a mutual friend of several people present in this room, Chris Whittick, archivist at Lewes who actually offered me the explanation. Now Chris is accustomed to genealogists, and the particular needs of genealogists, and therefore did a bit of lateral thinking about this Mr Quekett Zouch and went and looked on those sites for genealogists and came up not with Mr Quekett Zouch but with another figure altogether a Mr Quekett Louch. What had happened was the British Museum had mis-spelt the name of its benefactor and that in fact the man who had given the Surrey Forrest Charter to the British Museum in 1905 was a Mr Francis Quekett Louch who a solicitor and banker from Langport in Somerset. The story told by Playfair in 1945/1951 was therefore absolutely spot on. At some point in that solicitor’s office, when the other documents were gathered up and sent off to the British Museum, perhaps around about 1905, in Somerset, perhaps indeed in Langport in Somerset, one client’s documents went to the British Museum but the most important of them, the Magna Carta now in Caberra, got detached and ended up in the Deed Box of the King’s School Bruton and as a result was sold in 1951. Therefore if there are any Mr. Quekett Louchs or Mrs Quekett Louchs, or Miss Quekett Louchs in the room today be aware of the fact you might, in the hands of the crafty solicitor be able to prove your entitlement to a share of that document worth tens of millions of dollars today in Caberra.

I’ve told you that when I saw the Magna Carta in New York it was housed in a space-age container, protected by argon gas. That posed problems because it meant I couldn’t actually get to the back of the document in New York. Ross Perot, who was a technical expert with IBM, had paid someone a very large amount of money to construct this box. And the man who built the box was no idiot, had realized that there was as it were an infinite supply of gravy in this particular trade and had therefore built the box with 250 individual screws which meant if we wanted to get into it we had to follow a series of instructions that were so difficult as to make it unimaginable that we would ever get in there. So what we instead decided to do was to offer the successful bidder for the document in New York an axe with which if he wished to break into that metal and glass cabinet.

But as an example of the way that Magna Carta has been totemised, fetishised in the 20th century, the Australians approach to Magna Carta after 1963 is itself rather interesting. They placed it in a case made of 800 year old oak. Fine. But they then filled it with argon gas. Remember we’re in the age of the Space Race, the age of the Invention and all of that sort of stuff. Well, what I love about this particular photograph is this particular technical officer of the whatever that is, the acronym CSIRO division of physical chemistry, Mr JH Baston is testing Magna Carta case for the release of argon gas.

Now argon gas is an entirely inert gas, and how you could actually test it, I’m not at all sure. Perhaps he’s rather like a bicycle pump, perhaps he’s about to plunge it into a bucket of water to see were the bubbles appear. But as an example of the fetishisation of Magna Carta, that sort of bullet proof commercialisation of the document, I think that gives us an idea of the way it’s been treated. But it also brings us back to the question of the physical state of the document. And it’s on this that I’m going to end. (And I’ve got another quarter of an hour so we’ll have a bit more.)

I want now to talk about the physicality. The Magna Carta is a physical object. And here as it were we come to another stage of what we want to do, Paul and David and I, Louise and those others involved, towards celebrating Magna Carta in 2015. One of the things we’re going to do is write a proper commentary on the 1215 Magna Carta and also on the 1225 Magna Carta which is the document that entered into English Law on which there is no official commentary. The last commentary on the 1215 Magna Carta, clause by clause, was written before 1915. It appeared in time for the 700th anniversary and a lot has changed since then.

But the other thing we want to do is look at the physical significance of this document. Who actually wrote it, can we identify the scribe who wrote it? An awful lot of work has been on 12th century documents on hands like those who write Domesday Book, that there are endless articles on the Domesday scribes. There is an entire book on the 12th century English chancery which consists of series of photographs that identify the handwriting of individual royal scribes around the king who write the king’s letters. None of that work has been carried out for King John. Rather as it has been assumed that Magna Carta itself has been fully described and there has been very little else to say, the assumption has spread about that the letters of King John are in themselves an open book. That we know all of them, that we understand them all. Some of them are interesting. This is a letter from the publication of these letters that was undertaken in the 1830s by the record commissioners who published using this extraordinary record type. It’s an attempt, using typographical means, to repeat the abbreviations of original medieval handwriting. Well this is a letter from King John to one of his officials asking him to release a prisoner. Its significant and it’s been pointed out that its significant because it shows us one of the suspicions sides of King John. What it actually says is that I know that I gave a series of passwords for anyone who wanted to go talk to this prisoner but in case I might have forgotten what those passwords might have been could you please allow this clerk, who may or may not actually remember those passwords to have access to the prisoner presently in chains. It’s an extraordinary example of the king laying down one set of passwords then forgetting them. It’s an example of King John’s nastiness.

Not all of those letters, that have, as it were, those coded meaning are so well known. This is another one of those that were published. This is a letter to a man called Theodoric the Teuton, Terry the German, apparently talking about a hawk. We will shortly come to you and when we come to you it will be as if we had been absent for only a few days. Look well after the thing you have been entrusted with and let us know about its state. When that letter was read originally by historians, I suspect that it was read as a letter about a hawk. It talks about the loan of falcons. In fact if you piece together its historical circumstances, it’s actually a letter about the queen, Isabella of Angoulême. She is the custody that has been entrusted to Terry the German. This is the King returning from France at the end of 1214 in a desperate political mess and terrified of political rebellion, writing a coded letter to one of his most trusted officials. I don’t know if you write coded letters about your wives but if you describe them in those letters as a hawk or a falcon, I think that tells you something of the nature of relations that may or may not have existed between King John and Isabella of Angoulême. In other words within that body of published texts, there’s quite a lot to find out anyway.

But the story runs much deeper than that. Nobody because those texts were published in the 1830s or 40s has actually gone out and looked at the individual examples of original documents of King John. No these are scattered across hundreds of archives across England and France. And part of our task will be to gather them together. They’re extraordinary physical objects. We can see here as early as the middle of King John’s reign, as early as 1207, the king beginning to develop a decorated style in letters, in the capital letter of his name that is precocious in that the assumption has always been that that didn’t happen till the reign of Edward I. They’re also remarkable documents as symbols of status. This is the seal tag, made of silk, blue and white silk, that hangs down from the bottom of that charter with the decorated Q. You can see the seal tag is something like twice the length of the document itself. We’re talking here about an object of very great prestige and on it hangs the king’s seal. Some of those documents have magnificent silk seal bags or they have entire decorated letters for the king’s name. Here we have the capitalisation of John’s name Johannes de gratia rex Anglorum or Rex Angliae an example of the physical presence of those documents.

Because of the wonders of the digital cameras, upstairs in the Summer, I wondered to myself whether I might be the first person to actually stare on the face of King John because unlike his successors John uses a seal that on the equestrian side, on the side that shows him riding a horse has his visor up and his face visible. And that face is a real face. It isn’t merely an image of any old king, it’s a real person . And really only through the wonders of digital technology can we actually recapture that face.

One important aspect of all that to the fine detail of that seal of King John can be compared only to the seal of his brother Richard I. Before that the seals of the kings of England are really rather crude. And its led me to wonder recently, over the last couple of months or so whether what we are seeing there is rather a major technological step forward. The older I get the more I depend upon ground glass lenses to actually read those documents and the more I depend upon the magnification that’s available through digital photography. Well it does occur to me that one of the reasons I there’s a seal changes in the quality of the seals made from the 1180s and onwards is that suddenly new methods of magnification become available to their engravers, that we’re actually looking at a technological change.

Another important point: although we assume that we know the letters of King John because they were published by the record commissioners in the 1830s and 40s. In fact in a very large part of the realm – those of you at the back not in possession of spectacles, this will mean very little to you, it’s like the worst bit of that eye test in the chemist where you really can’t make any of this out. What I’m trying to show there are these gaps, yes, yes, yes, it says the roles are available for those years. But there are whole periods for which the principle central chancery enrolments in which those letters are copied out are missing, so the charter roles of 1201 to 1203 are missing, again 1206, 1207 and we don’t have any charters issues during that period from 1208 through to 1212 when the king was in dispute with the Church and England was placed under a sentence of Interdict. The services of the church were brought to a end so far as we can tell that may have had a knock on effect for the king’s court, the withdrawal of a large number of clerical servants who had previously made the rolls.

One of our tasks will be to recapture those years and they are crucial years in the history of Magna Carta and of English government.

The physical documents themselves can tell other stories. This is a standard issue of the charter of King John, now in the Staffordshire Record Office, issued in the fifth year of his reign, so 1203. Deforesting, taking away the Forest Law from part of Staffordshire, from the so called New Forest of Stafford. And part of what I’m going to end with is actually about Forest Law. It’s really given in tribute to someone sitting at the back in traditional modest style here, David Crook, who is also a member of our team, who we are feting tonight because for many, many years, I don’t think David would like me to tell quite how many years, he was the honorary editor of The Pipe Roll Society, and he saw through the press many of the volumes that those of you who use the Pipe Rolls will have benefitted from. And David has a particularly interest in the forests so, I’ve tended to concentrate rather on here from, on forest documents.

Notice this though, the bottom of the document, rather than where the seal would have hung there’s some horrible odd writing. What on Earth is that? Well again, through the wonders of digital technology I can turn that upside down and what it actually records is a fine of over 300 marks and two palfreys and from another part 40 marks. Well this is the fine that was made for the issue of that charter. The fine roll for that year is missing and the pipe roll doesn’t say anything about a fine from the men of Stafford for the issue of this document deforesting large parts of Stafford. That that looks to me very much like a contemporary mark on the document recording the fine. And I suspect that the more of these originals we look at the more of those we are going to find. For example this one I saw very recently in Aberystwyth – and I’m afraid I didn’t photograph the back of it – but its a charter from a Welsh beneficiary to the Cistercian monastery Strata. On the back it has a record of a sale of a certain number of shillings and four pence which to me again looks like a contemporary endorsement of the fine paid. Now that’s of a particular significance because that bit of Wales lies beyond the authority of the English Exchequer. But it implies nonetheless that Welshman beneficiaries were like English beneficiaries paying for their documents.

I show you that, that’s presently in the custody of the Duke of Rutland, in Belvoir Castle and therefore entirely inaccessable but are fortunately we have a photograph of it. My suspicion is that that is written in the same hand as that. And that we are very shortly going to be able to identify a series of these individual chancery scribes who actually wrote the king’s documents.

Now I’m going to go very quickly through these [images]. Because a large part of the king’s documents are missing and have to be reassembled from local archives, we are therefore going to end up with an addition, in addition to that that was published in the 1930s and 40s. And already we have collected several hundred charters of King John that are not generally known, that are not centrally gathered together in the publication by the records commission. Some of them are of great significance. This survives because it was recited in 1400 before the chancery of King Henry IV. It was issued very early on in the reign of King John for a period in 1199 for which there is no charter roll. That bit of the charter roll, the very earliest bit, got lost. But it already offers the men of London exemption from the problems caused by fish weirs on the River Thames and Medway. In other words, in the evolution of that particular clause of the Magna Carta, dealing with fish weirs we already see 16 years before Magna Carta the origins of that desire of the men of London to rid themselves of that particular nuisance. It’s a nuisance because fish weirs silt up the river and therefore navigation of trade to London is affected. This one appears in a particular obscure bit, a very late memoranda role in the exchequer of the reign of Edward III. It has no other trace. It seems on the face of it to be a straight forward grant for a manor in Devon to Geoffrey FitzPeter, the king’s justicar. A man that had been previously belonged to Henry the son of William de Tracey. Now the significance of that document is really considerable because Henry the son William de Tracey is Henry the hunchback, Lord of Brandninch, Devon, who was the son of the William de Tracey who was one of the four murderers of Thomas Becket. And this document with various others is one of the key indicators that the four murders and their families of Thomas Becket, after 1170 were indeed subjected to condign punishment in which in affect their entire estates were confiscated by the king or at least believed to be entirely at the king’s disposal. So this takes us back to Thomas Becket, the struggles of the 1170s, which in themselves can be seen as part of that evolution towards 1215 Magna Carta.

Others of these documents of deforestation. This is deforestation or a disaforestation of parts of Devon. Well this survives in a cartulary, in a copy of charters made for the monastery of Tours…which is today in Trinity Dublin. So Ireland as well as France come into our story. Sorry David, there’s another deforestation; this is the deforestation of Weaverdale in Yorkshire. But again that survives only because it was of interest to the monks of fountains. It survives for a year, 1204, for which it does not leave a proper charter roll and therefore our only evidence for this will appear in a local source that has to be gathered.

David Carpenter , whose showing signs of being asleep at this stage, I better wake him up, bought recently, at auction a charter of King John for the monks of Le Valasse here in Normandy. In July 1999, again, and that bit for the charter roll actually kicks in. What he perhaps doesn’t know is that there is a copy of that charter in the Le Valasse cartulary today in Rouen. and that it is a companion piece to another charter of king John issued to Le’ Valasse that survives as an original today in Rouen. And what one obviously wants to do is to compare the hands of his charter with the hands that wrote this charter and see whether the same chancery scribe was responsible for both. If the same scribe was responsible for both but can’t be identified as the chancery than it may well be a monk of that monastery who write the charter for the king.

The family of King John is illuminated by these charters that turn up in unlikely places. This is in a scrappy copy of in the Bibliotheque Nationale, but it’s an important part of the settlement between the king and his sister Joan, one time Queen of Sicily, later Countess of Toulouse over the debts owed to Joan by the late king Richard I. Those of you who’ve read John Gilingham’s biography of Richard I will know how chivalric Richard was in rescuing Joan from the hands, the clutches of that evil tyrant in Sicily in 1190. What John doesn’t point out is that all the financial promises that Richard made to Joan were broken. And that the actual financial terms of that document were left for the by and by.

So these charters can actually tell something personal about King John. This is the mystery charter, survives in the cartularies in Waltham Abbey in Essex. The charter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of King John, the mother of Richard I. And it’s witnessed by someone called Silvio Cognato Nostra, Silvio our kinsman. Now those of you familiar with the recent history of Europe with perhaps a kinship to the Berlusconi family probably wouldn’t in your documents today admit to your kinship to someone called Silvio but it does raise questions about how Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England, ruler of Aquitaine in Southern France, could be related to someone with a very Italian names. Silvio. Now I don’t have a precise answer to that, sorry I’m going backwards rather than forwards, but I do have this letter which turned up in the archives of Canterbury cathedral which is a letter of King John to the Archdeacon of Huntington asking him to restore to the king’s kinsman, Salvio, Silvio de Cresto rumoured to be a married knight, he actually turned out to be a clerk and was rightfully promoted to the church of Hemel Hampstead. A bit of further digging around is no doubt going to reveal who these Cresto family are, which part of Italy they come from and precisely how they could claim kinship with the English Royal Family. But as it were we discovered they were a lost cousin of the king. Here again from an obscure bit of the Memoranda Rolls of the 14th century, 26 Edward III, the horrible bit of the Memoranda Rolls, days and days spent digging in those ghastly things would have been…John….which should have been burnt long, long ago but weren’t. Here we have the charter of King John granting a substantial portion of the Isle of Sheppey, that forgotten off shore island of England’s past, don’t know if any of you know Sheppey but today it is, I suppose after the Falkland islands and Rockall, the most remote part of the United Kingdom. Granting a large part of the Isle of Sheppey to someone called Lambkin, the tutor of Geoffrey the king’s son. Now King John didn’t have a son called Geoffrey, but he did have a bastard son called King Geoffrey who clearly had a tutor called Lambkin which again rather like the Hawk, the king’s wife, Lambkin suggests a sort of personal element here. This is a very important piece of evidence for the king’s treatment of his bastard children. And his bastard children are a very significant indication of the kings relation with his baronage and in particular the wives and daughters of his baronage.

The history of his relations with France is revealed through these letters. This again occurs in a fairly late source from the charter rolls of Henry III but it is an important grant of the foreshore, one of those historic rights to which sovereigns entitled, the foreshore of a large part of Gascony, to an important figure in Gascon history. And because it doesn’t appear in a role that is scribed to King John it’s been ignored by the historians of Gascony itself.

This then turns up in a local Gascon source in the cartulary of St Severin at Bordeaux. But what’s remarkable about it is that although it looks like a charter of King John it’s full of the most inflated language. It’s got all sorts of references to the king’s sergeants, to rights and privileges to which the cannons of St Severin are entitled. All of which is entirely forged, and if you look if you look at the charters in that cartulary and compare them with the genuine charters of king John that survive on the rolls it’s clear that the majority of the evidence in that book were invented locally in Gascony and that’s led me on to look at a lot more Gascon evidences and to see the full extent of the forgery in southern France.

One of the consequences of the loss of authority by the kings of England over large parts of France, after 1204 when king John lost possession of Normandy, after Gascony from 1551 when Henry VI dies and lost possession of what remained of English Gascony, was the forgery of an industrial scale by local institutions of privileges that they could attribute to their previous plantation of the king. And that, amongst other things, has led me on to believe that the exploration of that Gascon evidence.

I’ll end more or less on this one. This is the charter of Bayone. Bayone, the most southerly, the most significant southerly ports attached to the English crown. In many ways perhaps the origins of the English Bayone avy because it was through imitation the galleys, the road vessels of the men of Bayone that king Richard I and then king John established their naval supremacy. The harbour at Portsmouth, which I read in the newspaper just yesterday, is shortly to be closed or sold off as a mega Tesco’s. The harbour at Portsmouth, itself originally in King John’s reign and that of his brother’s Richard as a means of looking after the galleys built for those two kings. Now what’s remarkable about this is it’s written in the horrible southern French Gascon , semi-Gascon, semi-French staff copied out as late as the 17th century but it does appear a genuine grant of privileges to the men of Bayone, issued at the New Temple at London on 19 April 1215. And the significance of that may not be apparent but 19 April 1215, which comes just before the seizure of London, by the barons, which is of all events the one that set king John on the road to Runnymede,19 April 1215 was Easter Sunday. And on Easter Sunday we find the king in so desperate a political plight that he was prepared to offer a major grant of the privileges of the men of that southern town which in their way serve as a model for the privileges granted to London, to the other English towns which in themselves serve as one of the evolutionary elements from which Magna Carta emerge from.

So we come back to Magna Carta itself. This isn’t Magna Carta itself, this is the so called rebel of the barons issued in 1215. These are the original points for debate were then carried to Runnymede and probably brought back to the archive of the Archbishop Canterbury, Stephen Langton

I end with this because as a way it brings us back to that sale in 2007. It brings us back to the mythological side of Magna Carta. About two days before Sotheby’s sold the document in 2007, we were phoned up in New York by someone who told us he owned Magna Carta and that if we came round to his very plush apartment on Central Park we would find Magna Carta there. So we went round and what he actually had was that, though he didn’t actually have that, that’s the articles of the barons that was probably looted from archbishop Lord’s archive in 17th century and by the circuitous loot it has ended up in the British Library. What he had was a free hand out on paper with a translation on the back that was given away with petrol from an English petrol station at the time of the Munich Olympics(!) – I don’t know if you can cast your mind that far back that far. But as an indication of the extraordinary totemic nature of Magna Carta the way it still commands, as evidence by the fact so many of you have bothered to turn up tonight still commands a popular audience. I’ll end on that.

Thank you very much.

Transcribed by Kyra Bains as part of a volunteer project, March 2015

  1. 13 July 2012
    11:12 pm

    Robert E Smith

    I am a 25th great-grandson of King (Prince) John Plantanet, who I beleive was required to sign the Magna Carta or, the Barons would have looked for a new King of England. Bob Smith of San Pedro,Los Angeles, California

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