‘Magna Carta’ is an iconic document. At root, however, it is merely one amongst several thousand such 'charters' issued by King John, albeit a particularly large (‘magna’) example of the genre. The word 'charter' covers a multitude of possibilities, but in essence defines a single sheet of parchment on which were recorded commands, requests or most often grants by one party to another. Written on sheepskin, such charters survive in their hundreds of thousands for the period of the Middle Ages. In the absence of other evidence, they are often our best, and sometimes our only means of access to the realities of power, of landholding and of administration. King John's reign (1199-1216) marks a watershed in the survival of such documents. From 1199, the King's writing office (or 'chancery') began to keep copies of much of its outgoing correspondence. However, these 'enrolments' are incomplete. The rolls for several years are missing, or perhaps were never compiled. As a result, one key strand of our project has been to reassemble the charters for these missing years, or that fill gaps in the series elsewhere. These 'newly discovered' charters of King John represent a major resource, and can be accessed here (see the sidebar to the left).
Just as significantly, even for those years of John's reign covered by the surviving rolls, historians have relied almost entirely upon these enrolments, preserved centrally in the royal archives (now in PRO/TNA, housed in Kew, originally established in Chancery Lane, between the city of London and the administrative capital at Westminster). However, if we search the archives of the Church and of private landowners, we soon find ourselves stumbling upon many dozens of original charters sent by King John. Unlike the chancery rolls, these surviving charters, including the four famous examples of Magna Carta preserved in Lincoln, Salisbury and the British Library, rank as 'originals', written for practical use, in scripts and formats that were intended to broadcast the King's majesty and authority. To hunt down these original charters is not always easy. They are today scattered across nearly three hundred archives in the United Kingdom, France and elsewhere. They can in most cases only be traced by laborious local searches, often in collections that are poorly catalogued or for which no item by item catalogue exists. Even so, assembled here they have much to teach us. They supply the authentic and official version of texts that were not always accurately copied into the chancery rolls. They have a physical reality that was intentionally impressive. Above all, they were written by particular scribes, often using distinctively personalized handwriting. By analysis of these scripts, we can answer a series of significant questions. How large was King John's administration? How many scribes were employed at court at any particular time? Which scribes wrote which particular documents? Did the writers of charters also write the chancery rolls? Above all, in the present context and towards the celebration of Magna Carta's 800th anniversary in 2015, which particular royal scribes wrote the four surviving original Magna Cartas now in London, Lincoln and Salisbury? These and other questions our project intends to answer.