There are a number of people who are fundamental to our judicial system: Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence; John Jay, first Supreme Court Justice; William of Wilton, canon and scribe at Salisbury Cathedral…..wait, William of Wilton?
Yes, William of Wilton has recently been identified as one the scribes who is responsible for one of four original copies of the Magna Carta. As a scribe, William of Wilton would have been educated in the arts of writing and copying manuscripts, an important job to have before the invention of printing. He may not have understood the significance of the document, but perhaps his employer, the English bishop of Salisbury Cathedral, Herbert Poer, did. New research indicates that it was the Church that was largely responsible for circulating copies of the Magna Carta shortly after it was signed by King John of England.
The Magna Carta, the “great charter”, was a peace treaty agreement made when King John was forced to give into a large rebellion led by barons. They were in revolt because of heavy taxation that came as a result of unsuccessful foreign policies.
According to History.com on June 15, 1215, “John met the barons at Runnymede on the Thames and set his seal to the Articles of the Barons, which after minor revision was formally issued as the Magna Carta.” Months later, King John, supported by the Church, nullified the agreement. Despite negation, the document and its provisions survived.
There is a great deal of attention being paid to the Magna Carta as it celebrates its 800th birthday, and The British Library is currently displaying two original copies of the Magna Carta. Their website lists a number of interesting facts about the Magna Carta including:
- the documents are written on sheepskin parchment;
- One of the British Library’s 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts was damaged in a fire in the 18th century, the other was found in a London tailor’s shop in the 17th century;
- Magna Carta was annulled by the Pope just 10 weeks after it had been issued, being described as “shameful, demeaning, illegal and unjust” and declared “null and void of all validity for ever”.
As part of the publicity for this celebration, The British newpaper The Independent featured interviews with Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia and Professor David Carpenter of King’s College London who are making the claim that the Church, not the royal government, was largely responsible for seeing that copies of the charter were circulated.
According to the article, Magna Carta: New Research Sheds Light on the Church’s Role in Publishing World-famous Charter,(6/14/15) a careful comparison of different handwriting led to the discovery of William of Wilton using royal documents still surviving in English and French archives and ecclesiastical documents surviving in English cathedrals and in the National Archives.
They are confident that it was William of Wilton’s pen that copied the document, including the sentence that became the foundation of our judicial system:
“No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned save by the lawful judgment of their equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.”
There were many other scribes who also copied the manuscript in 1215, but is the copy that contains the DNA of William of Wilton that survived. It is his handiwork that is is enshrined in a place of honor in the British Library today.
So what is history?
We do not know much about William of Wilton, but we can share this story of the Magna Carta with our students to show them how one man’s story makes history real. Here is the story of a man who reproduced documents for a living. He is responsible for the copy of a document that is the foundation of our legal system.
His story is a part of our history as well.