Parliament Week: Dr Hugh Doherty on the Magna Carta at the Bodleian Library

Dr Hugh Doherty interviewed by Ben Miller | 14 October 2011
A photo of a man looking at a large square charter inside a museum case
© Bodleian Library
In his own Words: Dr Hugh Doherty is an expert on Medieval manuscripts at the University of Oxford, where the Bodleian Library holds four copies of Magna Carta. He lets us in on a few of the stories behind the famous charter...

On finding Magna Carta
"In 2007, Ross Perot – the chap who ran for president against George Bush Snr and Bill Clinton in 1992– decided to sell a Magna Carta from 1297 which he had bought in the early 1980s.

Sotheby's New York contacted perhaps the leading scholar on 13th century England, Professor Nicholas Vincent at the University of East Anglia, and he asked me to help him compile the sale catalogue.

It was 95% Nick's work, but I was basically running around pursuing Magna Cartas and examining them. There are about 17 originals – not all of them are in this country, so I didn't see the ones overseas, but I saw many of the others.

It was hectic – the sale was in early December, they told us in late September, and the sale catalogue had to be at least a month in advance. I was also trying to complete my thesis on the King John Survey of 1212 and the county of Cumberland, which was an absolute monster.

I was going to Durham, Northallerton, Lincoln, Faversham and London. The one that Ross Perot owns was in the National Archives in Washington DC on public display. There's one in Australia as well, but that's it, basically."

A photo of a grand marble hall inside a stone senate building with people milling around
The National Archives building in Washington DC is one home of the Magna Carta
On a much-copied charter
"Magna Carta was reissued in 1216, 1217, 1225 and then periodically throughout the 13th century.

There was one copy for every county, usually placed in the county archive.

At least 33 were issued, and with so many re-issues the question really is why so few survived.

The Bodleian Library has three copies of the 1217 and one from 1225. The three from 1217 are in pretty good shape. Each looks to be written in a different hand, and we need to work out if the hands belong to royal scribes who can be identified through other work.

Of the two held at the British Library, one was damaged in the cotton fire at Ashburnham House on October 23 1731. One of the great tragedies of British and European history is the loss of these manuscripts."

A black and white photo of a large country mansion
Ashburnham House in Westminster, where one Magna Carta was badly damaged in a cotton fire in 1732
On King John
"There was a degree to which John was very capable. He was ruthless and energetic, and could work very much within the law – harass them, pursue them, break them within the framework of what was considered right and lawful.

We don't know why John issued the Magna Carta – did he lose his nerve? That may be implied by his movements in late May and early June 1215.

He looked like he was thinking about continuing his struggle with the barons, but then he engaged in negotiations. It may be that he knew an opportunity when he saw one – that he had to change the nature of his rule.

There was an attempt on his life in 1212, and he responded very vigorously – the way he changed his government and administration impressed his contemporaries. So he knew that change worked.

He must also have known that presenting himself as a reformer would buy him time and divide his enemies.

The best thing that King John did for his cause was to drop dead. That left a little boy King. It was much easier to fight for his Kingdom and inheritance rather than a King who had crossed too many people."

An image of a painting of a king
A 13th century painting of King John
On the rebel revolution
"We don't have the rebels' side of the argument from the major rebellions of the 12th century, for instance in 1173-4 and 1194; we very much have the rhetoric of the King. So we may dismiss their rebellions as self-centred, but these earlier rebellions may have had programmes of their own, now lost to us."

On the barons' quest
"The barons varied in wealth and territory and followings. Everyone who holds land of the King is essentially a baron. You might hold a very small parcel of land and still be subject to the King. You might have had knights who held more property than barons, but they did not hold their land of the King.

But they are a significant part of the political community and they wanted their voice to be heard. This was a serious issue – how do you control a King?

There's a common perception that it was just the barons feathering their own nests. That’s because the barons had fallen squarely within the sights of the king. To some extent he’s more interested in exploiting them than, say, minor knights.

That's why Magna Carta is so detailed – because they knew what Angevin Kings could do. They weren’t simply seeking to control the power of Kings, they were trying to demand that Kings behave in very precise ways within the context of custom and law."

A black and white illustration of a Medieval King signing a charter in a packed court
An illustration of King John signing the Magna Carta, published in the Century Edition of Cassell's History of England in 1902
On the initial impact
"In many ways you could say it was a complete and utter failure. It was sealed and published in June, and by October war had broken out.

Everyone was just gearing up for war. But because of the war it took on a new resonance.

John was prowling around the country waging war in the shires and making men who surrendered to him forswear the charter, so clearly it had taken root. I think that's very interesting.

In the following two years there was the outbreak of war, the vehemence of John, the summoning of Flemish mercenaries, the death of the King and the republication of Magna Carta by those around the small boy King.

Those who were looking after his little son said 'the first thing we've got to do is republish Magna Carta, make it our own'. They changed it in little ways that you wouldn't necessarily think.

There were some very contentious issues and some of them were just fudged and left until they could be renegotiated in times of peace. Some of the more divisive clauses were dropped or put on ice."

An illustration of a Medieval King
King John's successor, Henry III, was an infant when his father died
On a lasting influence
"I think it's important and interesting because it determined the nature of relations between the King and his great men and the community for the next 300 years.

It became a weapon that you could always demand from the King, a model of a means of reforming government.

It has a very, very powerful appeal.

I think it represents some of the difficulties and solutions which have confronted our political communities in the British archipelago.

It asks what you can do with a government which ignores the demands and aspirations of its citizens and those it's seeking to protect."

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