Festivals & Events at Edinburgh Napier University

Review #edbookfest: David Carpenter and Magna Carta

After 800 years there is indeed plenty left to be said about Magna Carta, just as the festival programme promised there would be. To a packed audience, the charismatic David Carpenter outlined his key findings about a document that has been revered, challenged and celebrated over its centuries of influence on Britain and places further afield.

Key among his messages were:

  • That Magna Carta be seen as a window onto the society in which it was drawn up. This was a hierarchical world, with the barons seeking to protect their own interests, the king signing up to a document that he didn’t think would be enforced, and a majority population whose interests were not served by the charter’s words or intentions.
  • Women were disadvantaged as a result of the document.
  • The role of London was key, with the wealth and power of the City having been lost to the king, and thus his ability to fight his wars compromised without some sort of arrangement to keep some money coming in.
  • Scotland’s relationship with England was also affected, with the charter of 1215 effectively overturning a 1209 treaty that had proclaimed English overlordship of Scotland.
  • Cathedrals were key to much of the document’s survival, dissemination and popularisation; or rather the documents’, for there were multiple drafts, copies and translations. Without the church having been included in the document this might not have been the case, yet there they were and able to protect the valuable parchments.

Did Magna Carta make a difference? Carpenter believes it did. Through its multiple versions and its frequent analysis it spread the word about the new relationship between the king and his country. And of course two chapters from it are still on the statute book.

David Carpenter’s event, chaired by Allan Little, brought together the academic rigour of a career’s worth of research, with an interested audience that were open to having their preconceptions challenged. The popular images of Magna Carta, much rehearsed in recent months around the 800 year anniversary, bely a story of power and politics. With an elite who spoke French, overseeing an English speaking majority, wrapped in a document written in Latin. The pope plays his part, but so too the illegitimate daughters of the Scottish king and the men they married.

At a time when heritage, antiquities and the people who understand and care for them are in no small peril in some parts of the world, it is vital that lessons continue to be learned about the formation of our modern societies. Carpenter brought his subject to life, showing how the remaining copies of Magna Carta are just the start of our understanding.

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