The Origin and Context of the Salisbury Magna Carta
THE ORIGIN AND CONTEXT OF THE SALISBURY MAGNA CARTA
Elaine Treharne (Stanford University) and Andrew Prescott (University of Glasgow)
The 1215 Engrossments of Magna Carta
London, British Library, Cotton Charter xiii.31a (Ci), which Professor Carpenter has recently shown was in the archives of Canterbury Cathedral in the 1290s, is the only engrossment with a Great Seal of King John attached, although the document is badly damaged as a result of incompetent nineteenth-century restoration work following fire damage in 1731.
The seal in Ci is attached by a vellum tag, which an engraving by John Pine in 1733 suggests was originally in a different position and threaded through a fold at the foot of the document (Collins 1948: 270-1). Presumably the seal was reattached when Ci was ‘restored’ by a British Museum bookbinder named Hogarth in 1836 (Prescott 1997). This seal is now dark red/brown in colour, which suggests it is of white wax, varnished brown. Chaplais observes that by the early thirteenth century, charters 'were normally sealed with the great seal in green wax (cera viridis) appended on twisted or plaited cords of silk strands (usually of two colours, red and green being the most common combination)’ (1971: 15). Chaplais notes a few examples of charters sealed in white wax appended with a tag and adds ‘By the early part of the thirteenth century sealing in white wax was generally reserved for great-seal documents of ephemeral or temporary value’ (1971: 15). The sealing of this engrossment is anomalous, and the possibility cannot be ruled out that the seal was fixed or added to this document when it was acquired for Sir Robert Cotton, but in the present state of this document this is impossible to establish.
Cii was reported as still being bound up with all the other charters in Augustus ii in 1810 (Collins 1948: 272) and this huge volume was eventually disbound in 1834 to reduce the damage that was being caused to the documents contained in it (Prescott 1997: 4-6-7). It has been assumed that the three slits at the bottom of Cii were for seals (Breay and Harrison 2015: 67), but Collins (1948: 272) points out that the slits may have been made when the document was cropped and bound into a volume which seems the most likely explanation, a conclusion supported by Carpenter (2015:14). David Casley stated that Ci and Cii were in the same hand. Recent multispectral imaging of Ci may assist in verifying or otherwise Casley’s claim.
Despite misguided experiments with steam cleaning by Sir Hilary Jenkinson (Vincent 2010: 7), L preserves diplomatic features which accident and misguided conservation treatment have compromised in the other engrossments. Given that it is also the engrossment with the best attested provenance, it is surprising that it has usually been the 1215 engrossment which has been sent abroad, including a loss-making trip to Australia in 1988, which helped precipitate a major dispute within Lincoln cathedral. The catalogue to the current British Library exhibition describes how L became stuck in America during the Second World War when it was exhibited at the British Pavilion of the New York World Fair and attempts were made by the British government to give L to the American people to encourage the American public to support Britain during the war (Breay and Harrison 2015: 246-9). A suggestion that one of the British Museum copies be given to Lincoln Cathedral to make up for the loss prompted Arthur Jefferies Collins to threaten to resign from the British Museum (ex info M.A.F. Borrie).
The hand and palaeographical context of S
Registering Rules and Records
The assumption has been that Magna Carta would have been disseminated in French and not English, and that the use of English in proclaiming major political documents developed only from the middle of the thirteenth century. However, recent work emphasizing the vibrancy and continued vitality of English in the twelfth century would seem to point towards the possibility that Magna Carta and its thirteenth-century reissues were proclaimed in English as well as French. The process of preparing these translations for proclamation was evidently an informal and ad hoc one, and it was only the chance discovery of the Pont Audemer text in 1974 that documented the French translation. It is worth noting that Poole (1913: 450) was more open than Holt and Carpenter to the possibility that Magna Carta was proclaimed in English in 1215, suggesting that the procedure adopted was similar to that for the Provisions of Oxford. Although Magna Carta was a settlement between John and the nobility and a grant directed to freeman, its ramifications were wide-ranging and in matters such as fish weirs or weights and measures it would certainly have been necessary to convey information about Magna Carta in English. Further investigation of the language of Magna Carta, and linking this understanding to recent scholarship on the history of English during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, is a major area for future investigation; much of the discussion of this topic is still dependent on work done by Reginald Lane Poole and Faith Thompson over eighty years ago.
There is much more to learn, then, as demonstrated by the brilliant new work of the Magna Carta project team. Our work on the Salisbury origins of its own extant Magna Carta demonstrates that the process of textual dissemination for the 1215 Charter was indeed a complex and multi-faceted one, and that these diplomata were both produced and received in a variety of contexts. For King John’s subjects, it may have been how they heard Magna Carta that counted. For them the ephemeral and live text proclaimed in the towns and meeting places would have been as authentic a Magna Carta as the four original surviving instantiations from 1215 are for modern scholars. That this Great Charter can still generate such interest and debate is testimony to its continuing significance for all of its many successive audiences.