Scholar Vincent Discusses Origins, Implications of Magna Carta

By Samantha Greenfield  II  Staff Writer

This past week’s Common Hour speaker was Nicholas Vincent, professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia and renowned scholar on European medieval history. He has published numerous books and hundreds of academic articles on English and European 12th and 13th century history. Currently, he is leading a major research project financed by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council on the background of the Magna Carta, the topic he focused on during his Common Hour lecture.

King John of England is responsible for the Magna Carta, Latin for the Great Charter, in 1215. It was established as a treaty between the very unpopular King John and the rebelling barons. Its purpose was to protect the church and the barons, promote justice, and limit taxes. Over the centuries, monarchs have renewed and updated it.

He notes that as “a physical artifact”, the Magna Carta has played a rather significant role in American history. The Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta has frequently crossed the Atlantic. It first came to the U.S. in 1939. It was later brought over to be kept in the Library of Congress as a part of a propaganda campaign to encourage Americans to join the British against the Germans in World War II. It was displayed in the British Pavilion in the New York World’s Fair that year where it was presented as “the older world versus the new”. Fifteen million Americans came to see the Magna Carta.

In 2007, David Rubenstein bought the only copy of the Magna Carta that survives in North America.  It was sold for 21.3 million dollars.

“Why pay 21 million dollars for something that looks, not particularly beautiful?” Vincent asked.

King John is remembered as the worst of the English Kingdom’s kings. He failed as a king in two respects; first, he lost a lot of land in 1204 which caused the collapse of his empire in northern France, and second, once King John lost much of his land, he raised an army to retrieve it. When he failed at his attempt to reclaim it, his barons revolted against him.

Vincent noted that the barons raised an army against the king not just because he was a failure in battle and lost their land, but also because he was “a very bad piece of work.” King John murdered his own nephew, if that can attest to his character. His nephew Arthur claimed that he had the right to the throne, and King John captured him and killed him. Vincent mentions that this was a very bad family to begin with; “they often blinded, castrated, locked away members of their own family” but they never killed. King John actually murdering his nephew shows that he was “unjust and would not do justice,” according to Vincent.

The barons eventually took control of London and the king was forced to make compromises with them. King John and the barons agreed to the Magna Carta peace treaty; however, neither King John nor the barons complied to its terms. The Magna Carta introduced the ideas of habeas corpus, parliament, and democracy.

The two surviving clauses of the Magna Carta are essentially the origins of due process and the idea that the state and the sovereign are also placed under the rule of law. And these clauses are also “immensely vague”. It says that the King should only act in “lawful judgment of the peers of whomever is being accused and the law of the land”.

Vincent points out two important questions. First, “What is the law of the land,” and second, “who are your peers?” The king was the one who decided the law of the land. Due process is also extremely vague. Vincent points out that even North Korea believes in due process, but it all depends on how due process is defined.  He says, “Where we expect the Magna Carta to be specific it is often most vague,” thus leaving many of its finer points up to interpretation.

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