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Magna Carta Conference Offers New Insights Into The 800-year-old Document

British Library's Magna Carta, photo credit Joseph Turp
British Library's Magna Carta, photo credit Joseph Turp
British Library’s Magna Carta, photo credit Joseph Turp

Magna Carta just celebrated its 800th birthday this past Monday. In honour of this incredible milestone, King’s College London, and the Magna Carta Project, hosted a 3 day conference dedicated to this historic document.

The conference opened with Professor Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia) discussing, ‘What Happened in 1215?’. Vincent touched on some of the more important moments leading up to the June anniversary, like the discovery of a document from Lambeth Palace, residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, that listed the 25 names of all the rebel barons showing ‘that they were politically proactive in enforcing the charter’ well after 1215. He also spoke about the discovery of a badly damaged version of the Magna Carta from Sandwich, found in a Victorian scrapbook alongside a Charter of the Forest from 1300. Even though this copy of the magna Carta was in poor condition, it was a huge discovery, and has been estimated to be worth £10 million  ($19.4m CAD/$15.8m USD). This suggested that the document was dispersed around the kingdom more than initially thought by scholars. Vincent then spoke about the Magna Carta Project Online and his work on the King John’s Diary and Itinerary portal; a day-by-day narrative of King John’s progress to Runnymede between June 1214-June 1215.

Professor Nicholas Vincent kicking off the 3 day Magna Carta Conference at King's College London.
Professor Nicholas Vincent kicking off the 3 day Magna Carta Conference at King’s College London.

He concluded by speaking about what he hoped to see at the conference, ‘We know an awful lot about the King but sadly, not very much about the barons.’ Vincent indicated that he would like to make up for the, ‘lack of that baronial context’. He was also interested in the origins and context from a European perspective and said that in spite of the hectic pace leading up to this anniversary, he had, “Tremendous fun the past 3 years.”

On that note, I’d like to say that the past 3 days were tremendous fun. I wasn’t able to attend all of the papers due to other work constraints, but I took in as much as I could while I was there and enjoyed every minute of it. Here are some of my favourite pieces and moments from the Magna Carta conference.

King's College London - Magna Carta Conference 2015
King’s College London – Magna Carta Conference 2015

On day 1, we reached back well before the Magna Carta and kicked off the morning with 2 papers from the early Middle Ages on the discussion of Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon charters.

Professor, Dame Jinty Nelson (King’s College London) gave us,‘ Politics with Charters in Early Medieval Europe’ which looked at how charters inform us about the politics of social power and an individual’s legal status. Professor Nelson’s paper also touched on changes to Carolingian charters.  In 786, after crushing a serious rebellion, Charlemagne (743-814) decided that ‘loyalty’ and ‘faithfulness’ had to be added to oaths and all documentation. An oath of fidelity was required of abbots, counts, and all people. This was a new development that remained in Carolingian charters after Charlemagne’s reign.

Dr. Levi Roach (University of Exeter), then spoke about ‘The Privilege of Liberty in Later Anglo-Saxon England’, which traced the granting of monastic liberties in charters and also took a look at some clever charter forgeries.

In the afternoon, we heard from Professor Björn Weiler (Aberystwyth University), on ‘Good Kings and Bad Kings in Medieval Reality’. What makes a good medieval king? This paper looked at the King John’s Coronation oath of 1199 in comparison to the oath made by Hugh Capet (941-996) in 987.

Professor Martin Aurell (Université de Poitiers), ‘Good Kings and Bad Kings in Medieval Fiction: The Case of Arthur’ tried to answer the same question but through the literature of the period. What can literature tell us about medieval expectations of good kingship? Courtly romances were well known in aristocratic circles and the examples of kingship from Arthurian Legend and other texts like Erec and Enide set out some of the baronial expectations of the king.

The final two papers of the first day touched on ecclesiastical perspectives with Professor Janet Burton (University of Wales: Trinity Saint David – Lampeter Campus) talking to us about, ‘King John and the Cistercians’, which outlined King John’s ongoing financial struggles with the Cistercians. John kept demanding money and the Cistercians kept thwarting him! Finally, our conference host, Dr. Sophie Ambler (University of East Anglia) closed the day with, ‘The Church in Politics 1200-1300’. ‘Churchmen were at the heart of policies, they were tenants in chief, annointers of Kings, and protectors of the weak, and these roles were based on their spiritual authority.’Ambler launched into a discussion about the role of the church, and in particular, Archbishop Stephen Langton’s (1150-1228) role in enforcing Magna Carta and ensuring its permanent place in history.

Professor Sophie Ambler and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg presenting the J.C. Holt Undergraduate Essay Prize at the Maughan Library.
Professor Sophie Ambler and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg presenting the J.C. Holt Undergraduate Essay Prize at the Maughan Library.

In the evening, there was a lovely reception at the Maughan Library for the J.C. Holt Undergraduate Essay Prize, with renowned broadcaster, Melvyn Bragg presenting the award to the winners for their brilliant papers on Magna Carta.

Day 2 of the conference kicked off with pamphlets and forgeries – how were letters used to communicate news in the 13th century? How were forgeries used to cause dissent and further propaganda? Then, we moved onto the scribes of the Magna Carta. What were the different writing styles employed at the time? Afterwards, a look at the French and the Magna Carta – why were French soldiers were coming to fight for King John? Keeping on the topic of John, why hasn’t his reputation been redeemable? If there were circumstances beyond his control, why is John never considered a tragic hero? In the afternoon, we took a look at how John used the forests for financial gain and also at some of the lesser known clauses of the Magna Carta. There were also papers about the development of the King’s Bench and a look at Magna Carta 100 years on during the reigns of Edward I (1239-1307) and Edward II (1284-1327). Lastly, we closed the day with the question: Was there such a thing as “English liberty”?

My favourite paper from the second day of the conference was Andrew Payne’s (The National Archives), ‘Teaching Magna Carta Online’. I’m always interested in how to capture the general public’s interest in the Middle Ages, and even more so, how to hook them in while they’re young! Speaking from personal experience, we entirely skipped over the Middle Ages when I was in grade school. That’s a lot of missing history. I can’t speak about the current curriculum, but I’m hoping it has changed to include more pre-1600 material. So, suffice it to say, I’m overjoyed to see a project like this tackling the Magna Carta for school age children. How do you “sell” and make sense of a dusty, old medieval document 11 and 12 year olds? Payne’s answer: “When you’re studying this period, you really got to get into the correspondence; what the king was saying, what the baron was saying…”. Since the archives doesn’t have the elegant, visually appealing documents, like the ones found at the British Library, they decided to use actors posing as King John, or other notable figures of the period to explain in a first person narrative what the Magna Carta was about, and what their role was in its development. He showed us a video of King John lamenting about his rebel barons and what he believed was ‘the real reason’ they hated him. It was brilliant, and the clips were funny. It was easily relatable for kids and explained the Magna Carta in terms they could understand. The website also has interactive features that engage students in learning more about this document. It was fantastic!

Unfortunately, day 3 was a short day for me. I could only attend the morning sessions but what I did get to listen to was excellent. Professor Marc Morris started us off with ‘The Seizure of Rochester Castle in 1215’. He looked at King John’s itinerary and how accurate various chroniclers, like Roger of Wendover (d. 1236) and Ralph pf Coggeshall (d.1227), were in regards to John’s actual itinerary and movements during the time of the siege.

Professor John Gillingham and Marc Morris take questions after presenting their papers at the British Library for the final day of the Magna Carta Conference
Professor John Gillingham and Marc Morris take questions after presenting their papers at the British Library for the final day of the Magna Carta Conference

Professor John Gillingham then tried to answer, ‘How King John Lost All His Wars’. How did John go from confident king in 1199, to by 1205, having lost nearly everything? Gillingham stated that historians focus wrongly on 1215 being the crucial year for John when it was really 1204 after he lost Normandy. He also countered some of the usual arguments used to absolve John of wrong doing, like the inflation excuse. Historians often argue that John was a victim of inflation and had to pay twice as much as Henry II to hire and maintain an army. However, Gillingham pointed out that financial obligations could not have been the reason for John’s issues since Philip Augustus paid as much as John, if not more. So if it wasn’t financial, what was it? Gillingham suggests it was his conduct at Château Gaillard and John’s refusal to engage in conflict – he cited numerous occasions where John backed off and avoided confrontation. He wasn’t willing to confront the King of France or do battle like Henry II and that might be a better answer to why John lost all his wars.

William Chester Jordan giving his paper, ''Magna Carta and the Mise of Amiens'
William Chester Jordan giving his paper, ”Magna Carta and the Mise of Amiens’

Next, we had Professor William Chester Jordan speak on, ‘Magna Carta and the Mise of Amiens’. He is an incredible speaker, and his paper was my favourite of the day. Jordan explored Louis IX’s (1214-1270) attitude toward the Magna Carta and how his grandfather, Philip Augustus’(1165-1223) dealings with King John may have shaped his views of the role of a king and ultimately, his fateful decision in the Mise of Amiens – an attempt by him to arbitrate the dispute between Henry III of England and his rebellious barons, in which he would side with the English King and would ultimately lead to the Baron’s War in 1264. Did Louis really hate the Magna Carta? What was he told about John and the document by his father and grandfather? Given the interest in history in Louis’ household, and the fact that he had some of the Exchequer rolls from the final years of John’s reign meant he probably knew quite a lot about the Magna Carta and what it entailed before making his decision in favour of Henry III at Amiens.

The final paper of the day was by Professor John Maddicott, ‘From Magna Carta to the Parliamentary State’. It examined King John’s savage collection of £60,000 in tax in 1207 and how Magna Carta stymied this type of attempt by future English Kings. John was an aggressive tax collector, so when Henry III attempted to regain the lands lost by his father by raising taxes, he was checked by the Magna Carta. Maddicott also touched on the development from tenants in chief to knightly representation in parliament. Requests for taxation from 1225 came more often due to Henry’s ambitions up until 1259 to regain the lost territories. This raised the profile of parliament, and showed the disadvantage of calling up the lesser tenants in chief, every time a decision on taxation was made. Lesser tenants came to be replaced by another group. They had a longer future than the lesser tenants – these were knightly representatives who were first asked to parliament in 1254. This was done again in the parliaments of 1261, 1264, and 1265 when Simon de Montfort (1208-1265) summoned knights to parliament. From the mid 1250s onwards, we hear nothing more about the lesser tenants being called to parliament. They seem to have passed into history, but were still seen in the records when they were called to fight. Lesser tenants were quickly and permanently replaced by elected knights. ‘Smaller landholders were still present in parliament but in a different guise’. This representation system wasn’t abolished for hundreds of yearsBy the time Henry came of age in 1227, the charter came to be regarded as a fundamental law of the constitution. Magna Carta had successfully linked taxation with consent.

I’d like to thank Dr. Sophie Ambler for inviting me to participate in the conference. Thank you to all of you who stopped to chat and say hello. I will be attending the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibit in the coming weeks so stay tuned for a report on that here! Lastly, I’m wrapping up my conference season this year with my next adventure in a few weeks in Leeds!

~Sandra Alvarez

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