Thursday, June 11, 2015

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)




This short article, to be expanded for journal publication later this year, presents a discussion of all four surviving versions of the 1215 Magna Carta. It argues that the Salisbury Magna Carta (S) was written not by a centralised administration, but, rather, by a Salisbury scribe working in and for the institution. By analysing the hands in other certain Salisbury (or Old Sarum) manuscripts and documents, particularly The Register of St Osmund (c. 1220), we suggest that similarities between hands in that book and the hand of S show such distinctive shared characteristics as to intimate the Salisbury origin of the Magna Carta. This calls into question scholarly understanding of the methods of dissemination of major administrative texts in the High Middle Ages.


The 1215 Engrossments of Magna Carta

Among the highlights of the 800th anniversary celebrations of King John’s grant of Magna Carta was an event at the British Library from 2-4 February 2015 at which the four surviving 1215 engrossments of Magna Carta were brought together for the first time since 1215 (and perhaps the first time ever). This facilitated a detailed comparison of the documents as part of the major Magna Carta project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and directed by Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia and Professor David Carpenter of King’s College, London. The photographs of this ‘unification event’ illustrate how each of the 1215 engrossments differ in size and shape. One of the benefits of the ‘unification event’ is that good quality digital images of each of the 1215 engrossments have been placed in the public domain on the British Library website, facilitating closer study. They remind us how each engrossment has its own distinctive features. 

From top left: BL, Cotton Augustus ii.106; Salisbury Magna Carta; BL, Cotton Charter xiii.31a; Lincoln 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. 

BL, Cotton Charter xiii.31a (Cii)

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.

The 1215 engrossment which is now London, British Library, Cotton Augustus ii.106 (Cii), is the only one of these four documents in landscape format, but, as Collins emphasized, this document appears to have been heavily cropped when it was bound up for Sir Robert Cotton in a large volume of charters.  

BL, Cotton Augustus ii.106 (Cii)

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. 

Although the seal in the Lincoln engrossment (L) is now missing, the three holes in a triangular arrangement through a fold at the foot of L indicate that the sealing practice in the case of this document followed that described by Chaplais as normal for early thirteenth-century charters; namely, a seal appended on twisted or plaited cords of silk strands. Unlike Ci and Cii, the twelve-fold folding of the charter is still evident, and on two of the folds is an endorsement, ‘Lincolnia’, in a hand which is apparently the same as that of the text of the charter. L also bears thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Lincoln pressmarks and appears in the Lincoln Registrum of about 1330. As Collins (1948: 265) remarked, ‘There is hardly a peradventure about the pedigree of L’ and there seems little doubt that this is one of the two engrossments of Magna Carta recorded as being dispatched to the Bishop of Lincoln on 24 June 1215 (Rowlands 2009: 1426). 

Lincoln Magna Carta (L)

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).

Of the four 1215 engrossments of Magna Carta, however, the one whose appearance differs most obviously from the others is that in the Salisbury Cathedral archives (S), since it is the only one not in a documentary hand. As Sir James Holt comments: ‘The other three are plainly in a Chancery hand; S not so - not, at least, until the scribe of S is discovered at work in other Chancery documents. His hand is too “bookish”’ (Holt 2015: 374). Collins (1948: 270 n. 3) is even more trenchant: ‘Just as the text of S is inferior to that of the other exemplars, so its script is the least convincing. To my eye it rather suggests a date a decade or so later than 1215 and smacks of an ecclesiastical scriptorium. It seems to me to be similar in type (but earlier than) the hand of the charter of the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury of 1244 in the British Museum, Add. Ch. 7500’. However, Collins noted that Charles Johnson and Hilary Jenkinson, two leading authorities on documentary script, would not rule out the possibility that S was written in the royal chancery in 1215, and Collins emphasized the variability of scripts in later reissues of Magna Carta.

Salisbury's Magna Carta (S)

Nevertheless, doubt as to whether S was written in the royal chancery has constantly recurred. Claire Breay notes that 'The Salisbury Magna Carta does differ from the others in that it was not written in the hand of a scribe of the royal chancery. This may mean that it was produced by its recipient and presented for authorization under the Great Seal, but its text is as authentic as the other three (Breay 2002:37). In 1981, Daphne Stroud mounted a sustained criticism of the authenticity of S. She wrote that ‘Both in text and script S is the odd man out of the four manuscripts. It is written in the careful and dignified script employed at this period for copying books, not in the business hand normally used for Chancery documents in which Ci, Cii and L are written. It also has more textual variations than the other three’ (Stroud 1981: 51). Stroud noted that it had been assumed that tear at the foot of the document was thought to have been caused by a seal being ripped off but observed: ‘This is a reasonable assumption provided it can be established on other grounds that the document is in all probability genuine, but the M-gap does not by itself constitute proof that S once carried the Great Seal of King John’ (Stroud 1981: 52). Neither Wiltshire nor Salisbury were mentioned in the list on the dorse of patent rolls for the distribution of the writ for the publication of Magna Carta or in the schedule of charters issued. Stroud argued that the chancery never issued a writ or charter for Wiltshire and she proposed that S was not a chancery engrossment of Magna Carta, but a copy made by Elias Dereham, the steward of Stephen Langton who was later a resident canon of Salisbury. Elias took delivery of six engrossments of Magna Carta at Oxford on 22 July 1215 and had ample opportunity to make a copy of the document for his own use in order to preserve the terms of the original grant in the face of the more conservative reissues in 1216 and 1217. Although Stroud admitted that ‘we shall probably never know for certain how, when or why S came to Salisbury’, she suggested that one possibility was that ‘in later years, when the cause of the Charter was won and Elias himself was living quietly at Salisbury with the new cathedral rising under his direction, he still kept his copy of the Runnymede document as a tangible memorial to those few weeks in the summer of 1215 when he played a vital role in the most stirring political event of his time’ (Stroud 1981: 57).

Salisbury Magna Carta (S)
Daphne Stroud’s article prompted a magisterial review of the issues surrounding S in 1982 by Sir James Holt (1985: 259-64). Holt suggested that the clerical errors in S were within the limits acceptable for a scribe writing such a lengthy document. He felt that Collins’s suggestion that the document might date from the 1220s was over-optimistic about the precision with which scripts can be dated. On the other hand, he felt that Daphne Stroud was being excessively rigid in implying that there was a single business hand for chancery documents and that book hands were not used. Holt stressed the variability of scribal practice evident in royal instruments and noted that, in any case, special measures might have been taken in the unusual circumstances of the summer of 1215 and the royal chancery might have drafted in external scribal assistance. Holt pointed out that the tear at the foot of S was in just the right place if  it was the seal was attached by silk strands threaded through holes arranged in an inverted triangle or M-shape, a less common method of appending the seal than the arrangement in L, but nevertheless an arrangement occasionally used (although one might expect a fold here if this sealing practice was used; Collins 1948: 271 suggests the fold was trimmed off after the loss of the seal).

Above all, Holt examined the evidence of the dispatch list of writs and charters. Holt highlighted the distinction between the dispatch list for the writs, where the concern was to ensure that the sheriffs of every county were ordered to swear to the Twenty Five and that enquiries into abuses were begun, and the list of charters issued, which was less comprehensive. Holt argued that the list only notes those writs not sent to the sheriff by royal messengers and suggests that Wiltshire does not appear in the list because the writ been sent through normal channels, a conclusion subsequently endorsed by Ivor Rowlands (2009) in his detailed analysis. In the case of the list of charters on the dorse of the patent roll, the omission of Wiltshire is less surprising because only thirteen charters are listed (one for each of the dioceses with bishops in place, suggests Rowlands). Holt also noted that it would be unlikely that the university graduate Elias Dereham, if he was the scribe, would have made the mistake of preferring the future indicative to the more correct present subjunctive.

Emily Naish, the archivist of Salisbury Cathedral, has recently made the important discovery that there is a copy of the text of S on ff. 5v-7v of the Salisbury Cathedral cartulary, ‘Liber Evidentiarum C’, compiled before 1284 (Carpenter 2015b). This shows that S has been at Salisbury since the thirteenth century and probably explains the endorsement, read by Collins as ‘Dupplicata’ on S (see Carpenter 2015b, too), which also appears on a number of other Salisbury documents and doubtless indicated that they had been copied into the register. While there has been discussion of the dating of S, there has been no attempt to localize the hand, although Collins hinted that it might be a Salisbury hand in referring to London, British Library, Add. Ch. 7500. Further examination of known Salisbury hands in the first decades of the thirteenth century, though, does indeed seem to strongly indicate that S was written by a scribe from Salisbury Cathedral (or, rather, its pre-1220 institutional precursor at Old Sarum). Moreover, the Salisbury Magna Carta hand is both entirely commensurate with other hands datable to c.1215, and exemplifies that book-hand could be used alongside charter hand within a single institutional context.

The hand and palaeographical context of S

The hand of S can be compared, in the first instance, with other contemporary documents, including London, British Library, Additional MS. 4838, The Articles of the Barons, issued in 1215 (as well as with the three other 1215 Magna Carta engrossments, of course). Additional MS. 4838 is digitally available at the British Library website ( It is written in a legible, cursive charter hand, with its slightly backward-looking aspect; and a duct illustrating typical thicker ascenders and curvilinear strokes. Many ascenders are looped and descenders of p and q are tapered, curving slightly to the left. The final foot of m and h often extends below the line. Scribal characteristics include a single-compartment a, as well as double-compartment a with an enlarged bow; d is round-backed; the tongue of e is elongated in final position; g, notably, has a closed, or almost-closed, tail which extends in a loop from the right of the downstroke; the downstroke of r sits on, or descends slightly below, the line. Both long s and a loosely-formed round s, arguably akin to Derolez’s ‘trailing s’, occur. The latter, in particular is important. The lower left limb of x extends under the line and flicks to the right. Ligatures include the 2-shaped r in or combination; ct where the ligature is formed from the top of t’s shaft extending and curving down towards the c on the left. Biting letters include the common d+e, and p+p. Other noteworthy characteristics include the crossed Tironian nota; barred capitals (such as B, C, G, N, O, P, Q); the flat-topped form of suprascript a used to denote abbreviations like qua- or –ra-; and the dashed double i.
By contrast to this charter hand, and as noted by all scholars who have worked on the four 1215 Magna Carta versions, Salisbury’s charter is written in a mostly textura hand rather than a diplomatic hand. It is available in a rather odd yellowy digital simulacrum here: <>. There is far less currency than one might expect from a documentary text; its formality is demonstrated in its upright aspect and general restraint. The duct suggests a pen angle of about 30’, and letters are formed with significant consistency. Ascenders are usually tagged or slightly wedged to the left; descenders are short and occasionally finish with a small tick to the right. Significant scribal characteristics include the persistent use of double-compartment a, sometimes with an enlarged bow in final position (‘Carta’, line 5; ‘custodia’) or initial position (line 9 ‘aliquid’, line 14); d is round-backed with a curve to the right at the end of the ascender, or straight-backed with a finish of equal floreation; the tongue of e is very slightly elongated in final position. The letter g takes a variety of forms and is one of the most important characteristics of this hand: it is either relatively small with an equal sized closed tail and bowl (‘maritagium’, line 14—a typical book-hand type); or, also as in book-hand, it has a closed tail which is angular on the left (line 13, ‘exiget’); or, and most frequently and notably, the tail finishes with a flourish, which loops under the tail-end and sweeps up to the bowl (line 4, ‘Burgo’; line 7, ‘Regni’). The downstroke of r sits on the line, as in textura hands. Occasionally, and, again, interestingly, a small majuscule r occurs, most often in front of variant forms of ‘Rex’, but also in ‘Relevium’ (line 8). A slightly later manuscript, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, 275, a composite manuscript that has a thirteenth-century Life of Thomas Becket inserted between later texts (it is c. 1230, given that it’s written below top line), also shows this feature, such as at folio 233aR/11 and 12, ‘Regis’ (and elsewhere, including in medial position where it is ligatured with a [‘baRonia’, f. 233bV, line 25]). Of this form, Derolez (2003:91) comments ‘The majuscule r (R) occasionally present in Praegothica is found much more rarely in Textualis, except in a few early English manuscripts’. He gives an unillustrated example in his footnote 80 of a manuscript, dated pre-1201. It is likely, given the evidence presented here, that this feature is found rather later than Derolez suspects.

CCCC 275, f. 233aR/11, 12

Forms of R in Salisbury Magna Carta

In Salisbury’s Magna Carta, both long s and a loosely-formed round s (perhaps ‘trailing s’) occur. The latter, in particular is important, too, and occurs in many charter hands in this period. The lower left limb of x curves under the preceding letter. Ligatures include the 2-shaped r in or combination; a characteristic form of the crossed 2-shaped r, indicating –orum (line 5, ‘aliorum’); and ct where the ligature is formed from by a curved stroke extending from the top of c’s bow to the top of t. Biting letters include the common d+e, b+b, d+d, and p+p. Other noteworthy characteristics include the usually crossed Tironian nota, which sit on the line, together with the occasional uncrossed version (lines 5 and 6 ‘7 heredibus’ and ‘7 Barones’ demonstrate each respectively); barred capitals (such as B, C, F, G, H, M, N, O, P, Q); the open-topped form of suprascript a predominantly used to denote abbreviations like qua- or –ra (‘quam’, line 6; ‘libras’, line 8. This seems to be a consistently earlier practice than the flat-topped version of the mark.); the dashed double i; and a consistently curved abbreviation stroke. One final infrequent scribal practice in this text is the conjoining of enlarged a and round-backed d, where the back of d crosses through the bow of a, as in the image below. This is a feature most commonly witnessed in charter hands.

Conjoined 'ad' in Magna Carta S
There is far more one could say, but this collection of data, taken in toto, is sufficient to build a strong case for the production of S, the Salisbury Magna Carta, by a Salisbury scribe, as we shall demonstrate. A number of comparanda exist to support this claim, among them the existence of multiple Salisbury scribes writing in manuscripts and diplomata that are, and always have been, in situ in the archive that created them. Some of these are closely datable, but, of those I [ET] have examined quickly, most postdate the 1215 date postulated for the Magna Carta. Thus, for example, a small number of membrane slips containing the signed oaths of obedience to Salisbury’s bishop by abbots and abbesses provide approximately dateable writing associated with the institution. These illustrate hands confirming the obedience of Claricia, abbess of the Cistercian abbey of Tarrant in 1228; her successor, Emelina (before 1240); and Richard I of Reading in 1238, among others. Still, together with multiple charters, writs, and other diplomata extant from all aspects of the Salisbury chapter’s business, individual scribal characteristics can be discerned that permit a comprehensive description of script and textual production from the twelfth century to the Reformation (to be published in Treharne 2018). For the earlier thirteenth century, it is perhaps little surprise to learn that a wide variety of hands is exemplified in the corpus of diplomata from high grade book hands to those demonstrating the influence of court hand or evincing considerable currency or lack of calligraphic proficiency. In one remarkable volume, these variable scribal performances are gathered altogether as a witness to the diversity of scribal habits and competencies. More to the point here, these hands offer strong evidence supporting the localization and thus the origin of S to Salisbury itself.

Registering Rules and Records

Such a finding emerges from the evidence suggested by a comparison of palaeographical characteristics between S and certain scribes of The Register of St Osmund, now housed in Salisbury Cathedral Archive (see This Register, until recently deposited in the Wiltshire County Record Office, is generally dated to c. 1220, presumably because that is the date of the foundation of the new cathedral building at Salisbury. It may, of course, have been begun slightly earlier in readiness for the move from Old Sarum to the present site, since the volume contains the fullest extant text of Osmund’s Consuetudinary, including descriptions of the roles of the cathedral’s major officers and liturgical rites. It seems likely that the Register was compiled and maintained as both guide to the organizational practices of the cathedral and as a repository of the privileges, liberties and possessions of the institution. Following the Consuetudinary, the volume becomes, effectively, a cartulary with many documents added as the thirteenth century progressed. Taking stock in this way during the years of planning and implementing the move--a move initiated by Richard Poore, bishop of Salisbury 1217 to 1228, and granted in 1219 by papal indulgence--made absolute sense to ensure a secure record intended for the cathedral’s reference and archive.

The earliest scribe in the Register copied the opening folios containing the Statutes and Regulations of the cathedral. His is a book-hand of greater formality than that associated with Salisbury’s Magna Carta.

The Register of St Osmund, pp. ii-iii

Consistent with other textura of the period, the aspect is generally upright, though sometimes rather backward-tilting; the ascenders and descenders generally compact (and often lacking the flourish seen in S); the pen-angle about 30’. Two-compartment a predominates, and the occasional enlarged a makes a few appearances; straight-backed and round-backed d are used; the small 8-shaped g is most common. Like S, and many other examples, the left limb of x swoops under the preceding letter. There are frequent, but not ubiquitous barred majuscule forms. These increase in number as the manuscript’s earliest scribe works through his multiple stints. His biting letters include d+e and double p. As in S, there is the occasional use of a conjoined enlarged a and d in ‘ad’, where the ascender of round-backed d pierces the bow of a.

Register, p.1
Register, p. 73

In the early pages of the Register, the Tironian nota is not crossed; later hands illustrate varied usage that is sometimes crossed, and sometimes simply 7. The suprascript a with a flat, closed top is most common in the introductory pages, but there are instances, too, of the open a seen in S. The macron, like S’s, is curved. Confirming a date of the first third of the century (and somewhat earlier, indeed) is the ‘above top line’ format of the folio. While the hand is more laterally compressed than that of S, there are distinctive similarities, as one might expect.

The most notable preponderance of similarities between a scribe of the Register and Salisbury’s Magna Carta comes quite far into the Register in a sequence of texts copied some time after 1222. At pages 111-113, in a section on canonical behaviour, the scribe, whose hand is more cursive than that of S, nevertheless evinces similar forms of enlarged a, trailing s, majuscules, punctuation, and various other features, illustrated below in the conglomerate image. Of most significance, this scribe writes the very notable g with a tail that loops back upon itself to touch the bowl. Now this g is very distinctive, and certainly allies the scribal practice of the Magna Carta hand with that of the Register’s scribe at these pages. It is seen elsewhere too, but always in manuscripts or diplomata that are possibly slightly later than Magna Carta, including, obviously, the Register itself. It occurs in other diplomata associated with Salisbury, including this below--from a document issued to Salisbury by Archbishop Langton in c. 1220 or a little earlier.

Document of c. 1220, issued by Stephen Langton in Salisbury Cathedral Archive. Note form of g, S, and also final -s.

Other instances of this particular form of g include Duchy of Lancaster, Cartae Miscellaneae 36, dated to 1229-30, and included as Plate Va in Hector; London, British Library, Royal 14. C. vii, fol. 150, dated 1250-59, and included in Denholm-Young as Plate 12; and in the final lines of CCCC 275, fols. 233a-n, which is post-1230, where the g is part of a final flourish at the foot of the writing grid. Its use in the Magna Carta might, then, be among the earliest recorded instances.

Amalgamation of some of the interesting similar features in the (yellowy) Magna Carta S and the Register of St Osmund

What does emerge from this preliminary examination of Salisbury’s Register and some of the chapter’s documents and diplomata is how very varied scribal hands are in this period, as Holt indeed pointed out. This is particularly so when they are not consistently the highest grade of Gothic textura (quadrata, semi-quadrata, and so on). Not only is it quite difficult to categorize the preponderance of hands beyond the broadest categories, but also, there are dramatic changes in appearance and letter-formation within what are approximately contemporary stints in similar contexts of production. This reflects ‘the proliferation of documents’, as Clanchy says; the concomitant increase in numbers and levels of training of scribes; and the varieties of script commonly used for different kinds of writing (Clanchy 127-34), many manifested differently according to scribal proficiency and time. This is made abundantly clear by the rich diversity of evidence documented in the Salisbury Cathedral Archive. But then the consistent and significant number of similar forms between the Salisbury Magna Carta and other known contemporary Salisbury scribes becomes diagnostic of a shared writing environment. Thus, it is surely to this archival community that scholars should look to identify the common context for the Magna Carta’s production, if not the very scribe himself.

Textual Performance

In the face of the identification of the scribe of S as a member of the very institution which received and housed the charter, it would be tempting to leap to the conclusion that S is not an authentic Magna Carta and somehow did not deserve its place at the reunification event at the British Library in February. As both Claire Breay and Sir James Holt have previously emphasized, this is not the case. Salisbury, together with other cathedrals throughout England from the twelfth century onwards, had become increasingly meticulous about recording and curating significant diplomata, both within the cartulary or register, and in single sheet format. The identification of the scribe of S as from Salisbury tells us important things about how Magna Carta was disseminated and about forms of textual dissemination and preservation in the Middle Ages. It is indeed salutary, as Nicholas Vincent states, to acknowledge that a solid, if not preponderant, proportion of diplomata produced were written by scribes attached to the beneficiary rather than to the king (Vincent 2004: 31). Moreover, Holt (2015: 374) comments that the use of a book hand in S does not make it any less authentic: ‘In the circumstances at Runnymede and Windsor the Chancery could have impressed extra scribes to help with the lengthy exemplifications which the settlement required (although, if so, none of their work is apparent otherwise): more probably S could have been the work of one of the recipients, a messenger or agent of one of the counties, presented for authorization by the great seal - an acceptable though by now unusual procedure’. We can now suggest that consistently present palaeographical comparanda between some of the scribes of the Register and the scribe of S indeed indicates that S was written by a scribe from the cathedral which retains that version of the Great Charter to this day. The evidence of the tear together with its long attested history at Salisbury suggest that S was produced and then presented for sealing with the Great Seal. It would be an unlikely coincidence that a scribe who had been impressed to help out the royal chancery just happened to write out a copy which is now in his home institution. It is far more likely that recipients were able to present their own copies of Magna Carta for sealing by the Chancery.

The practice of ecclesiastical scriptoria preparing charters recording grants in their favour was a long-standing one, dating back to the earliest days of the appearance of the charter in England. It might be assumed that with the growth and professionalization of the royal administration in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries that this practice died out, but the variety of scribal forms on royal acta, which persisted on reissues of Magna Carta well into the thirteenth century, suggest that the sealing of documents prepared by the recipient was a more commonplace practice than has been assumed. If S was prepared by a Salisbury scribe, this may explain some of its textual idiosyncrasies, since the Salisbury scribe may have been working from a draft or intermediary copy in preparing his text. The textual relationships between drafts and final version is complex, and one of the great achievements of the Magna Carta project will be to help piece together these relationships.

We have tended to see the distribution of texts like Magna Carta as a one-to-many relationship, with a single approved text (the letters testimonial) being handed down and disseminated. But there were a number of earlier drafts of Magna Carta, the text of which is preserved in statute collections. This was first pointed out by Galbraith (1967), and David Carpenter (2015a: 19-21) has recently identified many more examples of texts derived from drafts incorporated into statute collections. The dissemination of Magna Carta was many-to-many, with drafts circulating and institutions presenting texts of the charter for sealing. Indeed, analogously, the process of dissemination of this political text reflects the way in which literary scholars have come to appreciate the complex cross-currents and intersections in the spread of literary texts, which do not follow simple hierarchies of descent. In this context, prescriptive ideas of authenticity are not helpful, and it is worth remembering Galbraith’s dictum that for contemporaries, for whom it was the act of making the grant which counted, the documents recording Magna Carta ‘would have meant no more than a carbon copy, or a printed copy of, say, a modern treaty means to-day’ (Galbraith 1948: 123). This outlook was still evident in 1731 when Speaker Onslow’s reaction to the damage to Ci was simply to have a certified copy made in a modern hand, as if it was a property deed which had been damaged. (This vera copia is now shares a pressmark with Ci, as Cotton Ch. Xiii.31b.)

Moreover, for many people in thirteenth-century England, it was how they heard Magna Carta which counted. Holt drew attention in 1974 to a French text of Magna Carta made shortly after 1215 in the Cartulary of Pont Audemer which also contains a French version of the writ of 24 June 1215 (Holt 1985: 239-57). Holt (1985: 242) proposes that the Magna Carta of 1215 was ‘the first document of political importance known to have been issued in the vernacular’. This is a problematic claim at a number of levels: it assumes that pre-conquest vernacular texts such as lawcodes were not of political importance; and it ignores suggestions that the content of Henry I’s coronation charter must have been made known in French and English, since it was addressed ‘all his barons and faithful men, as well French as English born’ (Poole 1913: 444-5). It is also worth noting Poole’s hint that the second charter of Stephen of 1136 might also have been promulgated in the vernacular: ‘It looks as though a scribe familiar with the style of French charters had attempted to produce a diploma in the Old English form’ (Poole 1913: 447).

French translations of reissues of Magna Carta also survive in other statute collections, such as Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth 329a (Holt 1985: 243 n. 2). The fact that the Pont Audemer copy of the 1215 also includes a translation of the writ ordering the sheriff to proclaim the terms of the Charter indicate that the translation was made for use in a proclamation. Holt reviews evidence for the use of vernacular languages in proclamations for the thirteenth century. The re-issues of the Charter of 1216, 1217 and 1225, the Provisions of Merton, were also proclaimed in the shire courts. Holt assumes that these proclamations would have been in French and not English, a conclusion supported by Carpenter (2015a: 431): ‘We do not know the language of these readings, but they were probably in French as well as Latin’. In Holt’s view, the use of English for such proclamations began with the 1255 order concerning the excommunication of the infringers of Magna Carta which was to be ‘published clearly and lucidly both in the English and French tongue whenever and wherever it may seem expedient’ (Holt 1985: 242). Holt also notes the well-known royal letters of October 1258 confirming the Provisions of Oxford and promulgating ordinances for the reform of local government, issued in both French and English ‘so that they might be read by the sheriffs and understood and observed intact by all men in the future’ (Holt 1985: 242). In 1300, Edward I ordered Magna Carta to be proclaimed in Westminster Hall both ‘literally’ and ‘in the language of the country’ (lingua patria) (Carpenter 2015a: 431).

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.  



Elaine Treharne should like to thank the Dean--the Very Reverend June Osborne--and the Chapter of Salisbury Cathedral for their permission to work in the Library and Archive. In particular, I should like to thank the Canon Chancellor, Reverend Canon Edward Probert, and the Archivist, Mrs Emily Naish. I owe enormous gratitude to Mrs Naish for many helpful conversations, for her knowledge of the archive, her kindness and her time.

References and Further Reading

Breay, Claire. 2002. Magna Carta: Manuscripts and Myths. London: The British Library. 
Breay, Claire, and Harrison, Julian, eds. 2015. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. London: The British Library.
Carpenter, David. 2015a. Magna Carta. London: Penguin Classics.
Carpenter, David. 2015b. The Cartulary Copies at Lincoln and Salisbury of the Lincoln and Salisbury Engrossments of the 1215 Magna Carta:
Chaplais, Pierre. 1971. English Royal Documents, King John-Henry VI (1199-1461). Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
Clanchy, M. T. 2013. From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Collins, Arthur Jeffries. 1948. The Documents of the Great Charter of 1215. Proceedings of the British Academy 34: 233-79.
Denholm-Young, N. 1954. Handwriting in England and Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Derolez, Albert. 2003. The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books from the Twelfth to the Early Sixteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Galbraith, V. H. 1967. A Draft of Magna Carta (1215). Proceedings of the British Academy 53: 345-60.
Grieve, Hilda E. P. 1954. Examples of English Handwriting, 1150-1750. Colchester: Essex Record Office Publications.
Hector, L. C. 1966. The Handwriting of English Documents. Dorking: Kohler and Coombs Ltd.
Holt, J. C. 1985. Magna Carta and Medieval Government. London and Ronceverte: Hambledon Press.
Holt, J. C. 2015. Magna Carta, 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Parkes, M. B. 1969. English Cursive Book Hands, 1250-1500. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
Prescott, Andrew. 1997. ‘Their Present Miserable State of Cremation’: the Restoration of the Cotton Library in C. J. Wright ed., Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Lawyer and his Legacy. London: The British Library, pp. 391-454
Rich Jones, W. H., ed. 1883. Register of S. Osmund (London: Longman & Co.), 2 vols.
Rowlands, I. W. The Text and Distribution of the Writ for the Publication of Magna Carta, 1215. English Historical Review, 124: 1422-31.
Stroud, Daphne. 1981. Salisbury’s Magna Carta: Was It Issued by the Chancery? The Hatcham Review 2:12: 51-8.
Treharne, Elaine. 2018. Collective Memories in Salisbury Cathedral Library and Archives, 1200 to 1600.
Vincent, Nicholas. 2004. ‘Why 1199? Bureaucracy and Enrolment under John and his Contemporaries’, in Adrian Jobson, ed. English Government in the Thirteenth Century. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer. pp. 17-48.
Vincent, Nicholas. 2010. Australia’s Magna Carta. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
Vincent, Nicholas. 2012. Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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