Team of experts aim to "transform academic and public understanding of Magna Carta"

By Culture24 Reporter | 26 March 2012
A photo of a man looking at a large square charter inside a museum case
Dr Hugh Doherty will be part of a team searching for more truths behind the Magna Carta in a new three-year project
© Bodleian Library
In one of the most ambitious Magna Carta projects ever embarked upon, researchers will work through more than 300 archives in France, Ireland and the UK in a bid to track down lost originals of the constitutional tome and deduce whether King John deserved the villainous reputation of his Robin Hood billing.

The University of East Anglia will weave the most comprehensive online record of the bible of English law, adding commentary, images, translations and new revelations about the revered book in time for its 800th anniversary in 2015.

“There have been studies devoted to particular aspects of Magna Carta’s history, but there has been no attempt since 1914 to bring together all of the strands of our understanding,” says Professor Nicholas Vincent, a Historian who is leading the initiative at the University of East Anglia.

“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 we will 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.

“This work will transform academic and public understanding of Magna Carta and King John.”

Professor Vincent, who was responsible for uncovering two original Magna Cartas in 2007, is joined by a team who seem well positioned to carry out their somewhat daunting mission.

They include Jesus College Oxford’s Dr Hugh Doherty (see our interview) – one of the country’s most knowledgeable Magna Carta investigators – and Dr Claire Breay (see our interview), of the British Library.

Political historian Professor David Carpenter will pursue matters relating to the church, local government and enforcement, and Medieval women researcher Dr Louise Wilkinson will focus on inheritance, woman and the family. Leading legal historian Professor Paul Brand will also look at the legal elements.

“This will be the first ever comprehensive survey of all the surviving originals,” says Vincent.

“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.”

The cost of the project, totalling £910,000, will be largely met by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
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