The 15th of June 1215 is a historical date: John King of England signed the Magna Carta, a document that, although in the form of a concession, it would recognise some limitation to the absolute power of the sovereign. John went down in history with the reputation of the bad guy, as Robin Hood suggests, maybe a slightly over the top version, but not entirely. Even though it seems that the man had a awful and mean behaviour, as a sovereign he revealed himself to be an able administrator and commander.

It was him who, since the year of his coronation in 1190 started to keep copies of all the mails going out from the royal records office. This is not small matter for the historians of modern times, because those documents are often the “only means of access to the reality of power, land ownership and administration” as it’s written on the project of the Magna Carta.

John King of England

On the 26th of March the chancellor’s office of King John drew up a document which would allow new properties to 2 villages in the county of Durham. Nothing particularly important, a simple administrative act, preserved in the archives of the Residential Research Library (RRL) of Durham University. The document has been casually discovered by a medievalist from Bristol University,Dr. Benjamin Pohl, while he was conducting some research in the archives of the Ushaw College Library, psrt of the RRL.

Source: University of Bristol

The content of the document was known in advance, thanks to the “charter roll”, a register of all the documents issued by a single office or courthouse. No one though was waiting to find the original one as that was a rarity: of papers of such a kind, dating back to the 1st year of John’s Kingdom, only less than a dozen are known. Professor Pohl recognised it thanks to the peculiar calligraphy, called “Court Hands”, a cursive font used in legal and administrative documents, very different from the formal style used for literature of religious texts.

An even more significative proof of originality is the seal of King John, found along with the paper

Above: picture shared by University of Bristol

The document certifies the transfer of some properties to the county of Durham to Sir Walter of Caen and Robert Fitz Roger, both nephews of a chamberlain of Durham, named Simon. The man had received them as a gift from the bishop Hugh de Puiset 1183, as it comes across from another original document, kept still by the RRL.

The discovery of the original paper allows the comparison with the copy preserved in the “charter roll”, written in a quicker way compared to the official document:of the 9present witnesses during the compilation of the act, only 3 are mentioned. It turned out that in York, on the 26th of March 1200, beside the bishop of York, the sheriff of Yorkshire and Northumberland, the Chief Justiciar of England, there were many different important characters of the time who were present, some of whom being very close to the King. According to Pohl:

“Medieval charters are important not just because of the legal acts they contain, but also for what they can tell us about the society and political culture at the time.
Indeed, their issuing authorities, beneficiaries and witnesses provide a cross section of medieval England’s ruling elites. (…) a kind of ‘who’s who’ of Northern England at the turn of the 13th Century.”

After the recent and random discovery of some pages which date back to the 13th century, belonging to a manuscript on the legends of Merlin and King Arthur, Dr. Pohl’s discovery demonstrates, if it was still necessary to do so, how precious and painstaking is, the research in the archives of those safes of history in the libraries all around the world.

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