As part of our series of blogs looking at the work of the project team, co-investigator David Carpenter talks about his research on Magna Carta.
In 1996, David Carpenter published his first piece of research on Magna Carta in his volume of collected essays, The Reign of Henry III. In ‘The Dating and Making of Magna Carta’, he argued that King John, in a canny move, issued the Charter on 15 June before his barons had chosen the 25 barons who would enforce the Charter, allowing John to keep the names of the 25 out of the official version.
1996 was a significant year for Magna Carta scholarship, with two other important articles published at the same time as David’s.
‘I think Nick Barratt’s article on the revenue of King John (EHR, 1996) is a pioneering article and the most important thing to have come out since Holt’s work (Magna Carta, 1st edn., 1965), furthering our understanding of Magna Carta and revealing for the first time the gigantic revenues which John generated in the second half of the reign. I also think the article by Katherine Faulkner about the knights in John’s reign (EHR, 1996) was very important, showing how many there were. Since then, there have also been two collections of essays on King John and Magna Carta (King John, New Interpretations (1999) and Magna Carta and the England of King John (2010)). Another important area of research has been on the thought world behind Magna Carta at the Paris schools, by John Baldwin and Philippe Buc, looking into the academic thought that fed into the ideas that created Magna Carta. I don’t think Stephen Langton (archbishop of Canterbury 1207-26) played a part in the development of baronial demands in 1215 but once negotiations started at Runnymede he was very involved. No one did more to fight for the Charter and its survival after Runnymede than Langton and the more you look at it the more courageous his activity was. That’s changed our view of things.’
Yet, despite the strength of research on Magna Carta, there are still some things about the Charter that are hidden from view.
‘We know a great deal about what happened at Runnymede but the gap in our knowledge is between the composition of the Unknown Charter (January-June 1215), which is basically the Coronation Charter of Henry I with some additional demands, and the Articles of the Barons (10 June 1215), because the transformation between those two documents in huge. Whereas the Articles of the Barons is basically Magna Carta and has got all the stuff about local government, the role of the knights and the security clause, the Unknown Charter hasn’t got any of those things, so there’s been a gigantic expansion in the whole programme of the opposition to the king. How that came about, we don’t know. And perhaps the most striking thing about Magna Carta is the security clause, with its 25 barons with power to coerce the king, and the origins of that, how it was put together, is something one would love to know more about. Maybe some document will be discovered – it’s amazing what has come to light as a result of the Magna Carta Project and allied work in the last few years – so it’s possible that something will appear to fill that gap between the Unknown Charter and the Articles of the Barons.’
David’s recent research has looked at the drafting of Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215.
‘I got into that almost by accident because I was interested in how Magna Carta was divided into chapters, and how those chapters were numbered. In the four original engrossments of 1215 there was no paragraph divisions or numbering, so I wondered when that first started. If you look at thirteenth century copies of Magna Carta, the division in chapters is much clearer than in the original engrossments, because they do have new paragraphs for what they conceived of as new chapters, and sometimes those are indicated with decoration. And so I got interested in looking at those thirteenth century copies of Magna Carta, and it was only then that I realised that some of them were variants and weren’t in accord with the authorised version. That raised the question of whether these preserved drafts of what happened at Runnymede. That’s been a really interesting part of what the project has discovered. I’ve been looking at lots of cartularies, along with Nick Vincent (the project’s Principal Investigator), and we’ve made several important discoveries there that will be revealed in due course. This has all helped with the book I’ve been writing on Magna Carta for Penguin, which will come out towards the end of 2014. That’s been a fascinating exercise in which I’ve made use of what the project’s done, particular Henry Summerson’s wonderful commentaries on the various clauses.
I wouldn’t say my ideas about King John have particularly changed, but I’ve enjoyed going over some of the wonderful primary sources for his rule again. It’s sometimes said that sources for John’s reign aren’t that good, or aren’t as good as those for Henry II’s reign. But when you look at the Anonymous of Béthune, the Life of William Marshal, the Magna Vita written on St Hugh and Ralph of Coggeshall’s chronicle, you can get very close to what John was like. I feel he was a much more formidable operator than he’s sometimes given creditor for, because he could be immensely courteous and charming and all the more dangerous for that: you had always to suspect the knife beneath the cloak. So he could smile and be a villain – on a superficial meeting you wouldn’t necessarily suspect what he really was – and that emerges very strongly in some of the accounts.’