Magna Carta to get modern makeover for 800th birthday

LONDON Thu Mar 22, 2012 8:49pm IST

People look at a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta after it was sold at Sotheby's auction house for $21,321,000 in New York December 18, 2007. The Magna Carta is known as the basis of many parts of current law, most notably, the writ of habeas corpus, which allows appeal by prisoners against unlawful imprisonment by government. REUTERS/Chip East

People look at a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta after it was sold at Sotheby's auction house for $21,321,000 in New York December 18, 2007. The Magna Carta is known as the basis of many parts of current law, most notably, the writ of habeas corpus, which allows appeal by prisoners against unlawful imprisonment by government.

Credit: Reuters/Chip East

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LONDON (Reuters) - The Magna Carta, the English medieval document considered a cornerstone of modern democracy, is to get an overhaul and be brought back into the public spotlight in time for its 800th anniversary, academics said on Thursday.

A three-year research project will also attempt to discover whether King John, the monarch who signed the document in 1215, really was the villainous monster made popular by portrayals in the Robin Hood legend.

"We're hoping to gather together all of the evidence for this iconic document that hasn't previously been assembled," Professor Nicholas Vincent, the historian leading the project, told Reuters.

"Everyone's assumed that all the work on this thing had been done because it's so famous, it's so well known, somebody must have done it. But in fact since 1804 there has been no proper attempt to do that."

The Magna Carta, which translates from the Latin as "Great Charter", was signed by King John of England at Runnymede to the west of London following an uprising by his barons, establishing certain rights of the English people and curbing the powers of the monarch.

Not only does it form the bedrock of Britain's constitutional freedoms, it was the basis for both the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

WORLD'S MOST IMPORTANT DOCUMENT

Auction house Sotheby's described it as "the most important document in the world" when it sold an original copy from 1297 five years ago in New York for more than $21 million.

Vincent's team will sift through more than 300 archives in Britain, France and Ireland to try to track down who actually drafted the manuscript, what it meant, where the ideas came from, and look at its continued modern day significance.

"A large part of Magna Carta is just gathering together ideas, political systems that were already up and running," he said. "The intention here is to see what the roots of these individual clauses were."

The document was reissued regularly by or on behalf of succeeding English monarchs but only about 20 dating before 1297 are known to exist. Vincent said they hoped to track down any other lost originals.

The 910,000 pound ($1.5 million) project also hopes to "revolutionize" understanding of King John, portrayed as a weak, selfish, and cruel figure in numerous films about Robin Hood - the legendary English outlaw who many historians believe dated from about 100 years later, if he existed at all.

"I suspect we're going to find he's even nastier than he was made out to be by the chroniclers," said Vincent, adding there was an enormous amount of evidence about John which had not been previously examined. "Who knows, we may even find Robin Hood, though I'll give you a million quid (pounds) if we do."

The findings of Vincent's team, based at the University of East Anglia in eastern England, will form an online database and a complete commentary on the Magna Carta, as well as materials for a major exhibition at the British Library in London to be held to mark the 800th anniversary of the charter in 2015.

Ironically, Vincent said such longevity had never been the intention of the barons who foisted the document on John.

"It was intended as a peace treaty for particular circumstances in the summer of 1215," he said. "It's really only historical accident that means things have developed as they have." ($1 = 0.6310 British pounds)

(Reporting by Michael Holden, editing by Paul Casciato)

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