17.05.15, Vincent, Magna Carta

Main Article Content

Ralph V. Turner

The Medieval Review 17.05.15

Vincent, Nicholas. Magna Carta: Origins and Legacy. Oxford: Bodleian Library Publishing, 2015. pp. 294. ISBN: 978-1-85124-363-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Ralph V. Turner
Florida State University

This Bodleian Library publication is another of the numerous books commemorating the eight-hundredth anniversary of Magna Carta, England's great charter of liberties granted by King John in 1215. It has the appearance of a coffee-table book, printed on slick paper with 165 color illustrations, many of them full-page or double-page. Its author, Nicholas Vincent, has made other contributions to anniversary celebrations, acting as a consultant on Magna Carta to the National Archives in Washington, an adviser to the British Library for its 1215 Magna Carta exhibition and to the Bodleian Library for its exhibition. He also edited and wrote several chapters for another book, Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015. [1] Vincent's Bodleian Library book consists of two parts, the first a brief history of the Great Charter in 124 pages. Throughout his narrative, he notes Magna Carta's "totemic status as a touchstone of communal liberties" that was understood by "the country at large" as early as the 1220s (76).

Vincent's account largely mirrors his 2012 book Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction. [2] He gives attention to the impact of twelfth-century and early thirteenth-century legal thinking, both among English churchmen and the baronage. He is somewhat kinder to Stephen Langton than is David Carpenter, author of another, larger book on the Great Charter. [3] Unlike his earlier Very Short Introduction, in this book Vincent surveys the later history of the Charter, noting that John Wycliffe in the late fourteenth century cited Magna Carta several times and that the Lords Appellant seeking to restrain Richard III found support for their cause in the original 1215 Charter and its security clause. Vincent does not overlook the seventeenth-century revival of Magna Carta by Sir Edward Coke, although he and his followers did not see the Charter as a thirteenth-century innovation but as a key document of an "ancient constitution."

When Vincent turns to the Charter's arrival in the New World with the American colonists, his hand is not quite so steady. He notes that Magna Carta "was a far from easy pill to swallow" for colonists fleeing Stuart oppression of religious dissenters (101). While they had ambiguous feelings about Magna Carta, nonetheless, Massachusetts officials as early as 1647 ordered copies of Edward Coke's writings on the Charter from England. William Penn had sought vainly the Charter's protection while in England, and in 1687 he published the first text of Magna Carta to appear in the thirteen American colonies. Vincent does acknowledge that the colonists came to see Magna Carta as in accord with the contract theory of government, a binding compact between the king and the people that was fundamental law above statute law. His historical section concludes with an account of the sojourn of Lincoln Cathedral's 1215 exemplar of Magna Carta in the United States during World War II and Winston Churchill's failed attempt to make a gift of it to the American people in 1941.

The second part of the book treats the archival and documentary evidence for Magna Carta down to 1300, examining the distribution of official copies of each reissue to the English counties to be read to the public. He estimates that all issues of the Charter from 1215 to 1300 would have produced 180 to 200 single-sheet copies. About one in ten of them still survives, "proof of the veneration in which Magna Carta was held, both in the Middle Ages and thereafter" (181). By the late Middle Ages hundreds of copies existed in books of statutes and registers of writs produced for lawyers and law students. Periodic public readings of the Charter in the county courts were common, not only following a new issue, and the English Church also attempted to publicize the Charter with a "totemic insistence," calling for public readings and display of it in major churches (185). The first section of the book concludes with a chapter, "Scribes and sealing," surveying operations of King John's chancery. Vincent finds that not all copies of Magna Carta were chancery products, but some were copied by episcopal scribes, not surprising if one considers how many copies had to be produced quickly. All were authenticated by the royal seal. By the thirteenth century, double-sided royal seals required an elaborate seal-press that King John himself could not possibly have operated.

The final section of Vincent's book, a census of all extant "original" exemplars of Magna Carta surviving from its first hundred years, is its most significant feature. The catalogue printed in this book began as a listing of all existing copies from 1215 to 1300 that Vincent assembled for Sotheby's in 2007, and the auction house published it as the sale catalogue for a 1297 exemplar of Magna Carta. Since 2007 a new copy of the 1300 Charter has surfaced, and four new Charters of the Forest have been discovered. Vincent's new catalogue includes color photographs and descriptions in a single volume of every surviving copy of the Great Charter for the first time. It records twenty-three or twenty-four--depending on how they are counted--single sheet originals issued by the royal chancery. No single sheet original of the March 1265 Charter, issued in a time of baronial rule during Henry III's reign, survives. Vincent, however, lists five charters of inspeximus, recording royal acknowledgment of the 1265 Charter.

Most of these exemplars were originally housed in cathedrals or religious houses. In only a few instances were any preserved by lay entities, one by the City of London, and two by Cinque Ports towns, Faversham and Maidstone, Kent. Two of the 1297 Charters are now located in lands far beyond the imagination of Edward I and his subjects. One was purchased by David Rubenstein in 2007 and presented to the National Archives in Washington DC for display alongside the two other fundamental documents of the United States government, the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution. Another, rediscovered around 1938 at a school in Somerset, was purchased by the Australian government and is now in the Parliament House in Canberra.

Following the Magna Carta originals are twenty-four "Related Texts," five with photographs. Among them are documents preceding Magna Carta, such as the Articles of the Barons. A few are now found in the Archives nationales in Paris, notably the Unknown Charter of Liberties, a copy of Henry I's coronation charter with baronial suggestions added. Another is a bifolium of copies of earlier English royal charters with Anglo-Norman French translations, perhaps prepared for Stephen Langton's use in meetings with rebel barons. Also in Paris are two copies of the 1216 Magna Carta, probably brought by Prince Louis, later King Louis VIII, when he left England after failing to win the English crown. Other documents include two copies of the first Charter of the Forest from 1217 and four copies of the 1225 Forest Charter and two others from Edward I's reign dated 1297 and 1300. Other documents from Edward's time include the 1297 Confirmatio Chartorum. A final chapter consists of the Latin text and Vincent's English translation of the 1225 Magna Carta based on Bodleian Library manuscript Ch.London.I.

Nicholas Vincent is doubtless correct when he estimates that his work is "the fullest census of Magna Carta manuscripts published since the unreliable and outdated list in the first volume of the official Statutes of the Realm (1810)" (204). It is a noteworthy contribution to the 2015 commemoration of the eight-hundredth anniversary of Magna Carta. It is also a considerable contribution to Magna Carta scholarship, and it will no doubt become the standard listing for students of the various versions of the Great Charter from 1215 to 1300.



1. Third Millennium Publishing Ltd, a subsidiary of Third Millennium Information Ltd, in association with the Magna Carta Trust 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee, 2014.

2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

3. David Carpenter, Magna Carta (London: Penguin Books, 2015); for his view of Langton, see also Carpenter, "Archbishop Langton and Magna Carta: His Contribution, His Doubts and His Hypocrisy," English Historical Review 125 (2011): 1041-1065.

Article Details