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Thursday, 26 June 2014

King John's Diary and Itinerary: June 1214

King John attacks a castle, BL Royal MS 16 G VI f.373v
We begin this account of the year leading up to the issue of Magna Carta, with King John riding high in June 1214.  Having waited nearly eight years to launch a campaign to reconquer his ancestral lands in France, John had at last assembled the requisite army and, in February 1214, crossed from England to La Rochelle.  His campaign went well.  In March and April, he had reimposed his authority over the region between the rivers Loire and Garonne, asserting his lordship over the lands of his wife (Isabella of Angoulême) on the Charente, and his late mother (Eleanor of Aquitaine) in Limoges and the high country of the Creuse.  In April, he had gone south, to Saintes and the Saintonge, reaching as far south as La Réole on the Garonne.  His priority thereafter was to reassert his authority over the regions east of La Rochelle.  This was a traditional centre of Plantagenet revenue collection and demesne estates.  It was also a region where John's long-term rivals, the Lusignan family, had stepped in to the vacuum created by John's expulsion from France after 1204. Looking eastwards from La Rochelle towards Poitou, Poitiers was the only major city that remained under French control.  The Lusignans themselves harbored grievances that stretched back to John's earliest years as King, to his marriage to Isabella of Angoulême (once promised as a Lusignan bride) and to the capture and imprisonment of members of the Lusignan clan following John's defeat of his rebellious nephew, Arthur of Brittany, at the siege of Mirebeau in 1202.  Here again, all went well.  Lusignan castles in the Vendée, at Mervent and Vouvant, were besieged and captured in May 1214.  By early June, the King was ready to press home his attack against the real centres of French royal influence, north of the Loire.  In early June, he lay siege to the strategic fortress of Nantes, on the estuary of the Loire.  Although Nantes itself remained impregnable, he took valuable prisoners, and by 17 June, exactly 800 years ago this week, had taken repossession of the city of Angers, further up the Loire, the ancestral home of his family, the Angevin/Plantagenet dynasty.  From Angers, on 19 June, he set out to besiege the fortress of La Roche-aux-Moins.  It is there that we join him at the start of one of the most significant years in English history.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Magna Carta Project at Downing Street

Nicholas Vincent and Claire Breay with Prime Minister David Cameron
Nicholas Vincent and Claire Breay of the Magna Carta Project attended a party at 10 Downing Street hosted by Prime Minister David Cameron, on 16 June 2014. The party brought together people involved in celebrating the 800th anniversary, in 2015, of the Charter's first issue. The Prime Minister was keen to hear how plans for the celebrations next year are developing. To see what's in store for next year, see the Magna Carta Trust website

Friday, 20 June 2014

Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015 (Third Millennium Publishing)

Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015
 (Third Millennium Publishing, forthcoming)
In August 2014, Third Millennium Publishing will release Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015, a richly illustrated commentary on the Charter and its subsequent history, for which Magna Carta Project Principal Investigator Nicholas Vincent is the leading author. 

Nick contributes four of the book's nine chapters, which address the origin and context of Magna Carta, the Charter's life in the thirteenth century, and Magna Carta as an artifact. The book's contents list can be found here

Sample pages from Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom, can be viewed here. They include splendid colour images of thirteenth-century manuscripts, coins, seals, castles and tombs (and much else) .

The book is available to pre-order now. A proportion of the revenue from every copy sold will go to the Magna Carta Trust

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Stephen Langton and Magna Carta

19th C bronze showing Langton overseeing King John's
issue of Magna Carta
In an article for English Historical Review in 2011, David Carpenter (co-investigator of the Magna Carta Project) set out to reassess the role played by Stephen Langton (archbishop of Canterbury 1207-1226) in the drafting of Magna Carta in 1215, as well as in the Charter's subsequent survival. 

'After King John’s settlement with the pope in 1213, his archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, was at last able to enter England. That he then played a major part in national affairs is undisputed. What is disputed is his precise contribution to Magna Carta. At one extreme, historians have ascribed to Langton all that was best in the charter: the way it asserts the fundamental principle that the ruler is subject to the law, and the way too it reaches out to a wide constituency and is not just a selfish baronial document. At the other extreme, led by J.C. Holt, they have argued that Langton contributed little to the charter’s fundamentals, and was a mediator and moderator rather than an originator. These divergent views reflect contemporary testimony. In the (often challenged) account of the St Albans abbey chronicler, Roger of Wendover, Langton seems very much the fons et origo of Magna Carta. In the accounts of Ralph of Coggeshall and the Barnwell chronicle, in contrast, he is far less prominent and appears essentially as an intermediary between the sides. This article will seek to reveal a Langtonian role in the shaping and survival of the charter very different from that found in previous accounts; it will relate that role to the archbishop’s doubts about the validity of the 1215 charter, doubts only removed in the final and definitive version of 1225; and, lastly, using evidence hitherto ignored, it will expose the seeming hypocrisy of Langton’s conduct when set against the principles of the charter and the canons of his own academic thought.'

Sunday, 15 June 2014

799 Years On

Pine's engraving of Magna Carta 1215
‘King John was trying to suffocate Magna Carta at birth and he had good reasons for doing so. One, perhaps, only impinged slightly on the fringes of his thought. Hitherto, if civil wars had been fought for any positive end, they had been fought on behalf of an individual, a Robert Curthose or a young King Henry, or in the interests of the participants in seeking land, office, and power. Now a civil war was being fought for a cause, a programme, not for one individual or even several, but for a document, a simple piece of parchment. The rebellion which King John faced was thus quite novel. It was the first of a long line which led through the Provisions of 1258-9 and the Ordinance of 1311 down to the Grand Remonstrance of 1641. Of all these Magna Carta was the ancestor and was so recognized by its progeny...

The men who were responsible for the Great Charter of 1215 asserted one great principle. In their view the realm was more than a geographic or administrative unit. It was a community. As such, it was capable of possessing rights and liberties. Magna Carta was indeed a statement of these rights and liberties, which could be asserted against any member of the community, even and especially against the King. The durability of Magna Carta is to be explained by the general utility of this central concept. Once it was established, the rights it subsumed could be expanded, amended, and further defined. Judgement by peers could become trial by jury. Per legem terrae could become due process of law. That the constitutional history of England has been in Stubb’s words ‘a commentary on this charter’, was a result of the Promethean quality of the Act of 1215.’ (J. C. Holt, The Northerners (1961))

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Translating Magna Carta

Back in 2012, members of the Magna Carta Project team met to produce a new translation of Magna Carta and, along the way, got an insight into how the drafters of the Charter set about their task in 1215. Soon you'll be able to listen to the discussion clause by clause but, for now, here's a preview.