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Scholar Nicholas Vincent Delivers Final Magna Carta Lecture

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The Law Library recently welcomed Magna Carta expert Nicholas Vincent for its final program in the Magna Carta Lecture Series. Vincent, professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia, gave a lively and visual presentation titled “Magna Carta: From Runnymede to Washington: Old Laws, New Discoveries.”

Professor Nicholas Vincent (left) and Deputy Librarian of Congress David S. Mao take in the view of the Thomas Jefferson Building on April 6, 2015.

In his lecture, Vincent illustrated Magna Carta’s history and meaning while connecting it to U.S. history.

Magna Carta’s Impact on America

Weaving between the myth and reality of Magna Carta, Vincent started by pointing out the iconic stature of Magna Carta in the United States as presented in various examples of artwork and architecture. Various scenes from the events at Runnymede, the field in which King John was coerced by his barons into sealing Magna Carta, can be seen in courthouses and capitol buildings throughout U.S. states. Vincent stated, “these representations should serve as reminder that Magna Carta, in many ways, is totemized and has been turned into an icon for American audiences to an even greater extent than in England.”

Turning his attention to the differences in legal status of Magna Carta in England and America, Vincent stated “Today only three and a half of the clauses of the 1215 Magna Carta are still operative in English law [ . . . ] and they operate, not through the 1215 Charter, but through later reissues.” By contrast, 17 states have incorporated the entire text of Magna Carta into their statute books, beginning with South Carolina in 1836 and most recently in North Dakota in 1943.

In terms of geography, Vincent noted the physical connection America has to Runnymede, which “is memorialized by two American ventures, namely the memorial to John F. Kennedy and the American Bar Association Magna Carta Memorial . . . there is far more of America at Runnymede than England.”

The Well-Traveled Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta

The Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, one of four existing copies from 1215, was displayed at the Library of Congress for the exhibition, “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor,” that ran from November 6, 2014 through January 19, 2015. Vincent explained that this particular copy has been traveling back and forth across the Atlantic for many years, its first voyage for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Vincent argued that the Lincoln copy was brought to the U.S. as part of a deliberate campaign “to involve America in the affairs of Europe at a very dark moment with Europe poised on the cusp of a new World War and a desire to ensure American aide for liberties and freedoms threatened by Nazi Germany.”

The World’s Fair of the early 20th Century was a celebration of the world of tomorrow and this bright new American future that was opening up in the 1930s, while “Magna Carta’s display was an attempt to unite the old world and the new.”

Magna Carta and Tension in British History

Turning to the British history of Magna Carta, Vincent highlighted the harsh realities of its legacy rather than “totemization” of it in America. While displaying a slide of the British Library’s burnt copy of Magna Carta, one of the four surviving copies from 1215, Vincent said, “I think as an icon in itself it is very significant because it should remind us of the fragility of law and liberty.”

Vincent focused the audience back in time to King John, pointing out that the drafting of this document was the result of the misdeeds of one man.

As a result of his cruelty, tyrannical behavior and military incompetence, in May 1215 the discontented barons, determined no longer to pay taxation to an unsuccessful King, had seized the city of London, which was “the King’s capital city and the source of his power and revenue.” King John had no choice but to come to a compromise with his barons, and the agreement took place at the meadow of Runnymede.

Magna Carta and Modern Times

Vincent showed how chapters 39 and 40 of Magna Carta have enshrined the principle of due process. From the text we have these famous words – “No free man will be taken or imprisoned or disseised (i.e. deprived of property) or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor shall we go or send against him, save by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land” and “to no one shall we sell, to no one shall we deny or delay right or justice.”

What is remarkable about these clauses and the reason why those clauses are still applicable today, according to Vincent, is “they are magnificently vague. What is the law of the land? Magna Carta does not set it out. What is judgment by your peers? Does that mean your equals? Who are your peers and what is the law? Magna Carta does not tell you any of that. What it does say in the very most general terms is that the King is under the law. And that principle, the principle of due process, is the principle that lived on long after this settlement at Runnymede.”

So, what does Magna Carta say about democracy? As Vincent states, “absolutely nothing, it is a negotiation between King and barons. It was a peace treaty.”

Wrapping Up: Magna Carta and New Discoveries

To close the presentation, Vincent shared insights and information he discovered while doing research for the Sotheby’s sale of the 1297 Magna Carta bought by David Rubenstein in 2007 and more recently while working with The Magna Carta Project.

Highlights of some of Vincent’s recent research include: the discovery of evidence of Winston Churchill’s attempt to give the Lincoln Magna Carta to the United States in 1941; the unearthing of the publication schedule of Magna Carta in the summer of 1215; the recent discovery of the Sandwich Magna Carta dating from 1300; and lastly, the ongoing analysis of charters from over 94 archives across England that will help answer the question, “who actually wrote out Magna Carta.”

The audience was captivated by Vincent’s lively, informative and witty lecture. The new discoveries Vincent cited are bringing additional interest in revealing new stories about this epic document. The enduring history of Magna Carta is important to all who celebrate it as a symbol of political liberty and honor its role in the establishment of the rule of law.

The Library of Congress commemorated the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta with an exhibition – Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor, a symposium, and a series of talks. From November 6, 2014 through January 19, 2015, the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, one of four remaining originals from 1215 was on display along with other rare materials from the Library’s rich collections to tell the story of 800 years of its influence on the history of political liberty.

We thank the American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress for their support and co-sponsorship of the Magna Carta lecture series, and encourage you to learn about the traveling exhibition, Magna Carta: Enduring Legacy 1215-2015.


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