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Prof Nicholas Vincent on Magna Carta 12 Nov 2008

Must-hear lecture on the iconic document: an incisive, absorbing and often humorous account of Magna Carta's history and significance

Opening words of a 1215 Magna Carta

Detail of one of the four surviving copies of the original Magna Carta of 1215

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1215 and all that: a Bad King, and a Good Thing

In this fascinating lecture, Professor Nicholas Vincent – author and Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia, and one of the world's leading experts on the world of Magna Carta – talks about the great icon of liberty: its background, its significance, and its various physical incarnations.

We learn why restrictions on fish weirs were such an important part of its provisions, and how governments tried and failed to give away other people's copies of Magna Carta to the US to encourage them into World War II.

Prof Vincent also explains how the document would have been forgotten but for an eight-year-old boy called Henry; how it gained its modern status as an icon of liberty through a 17th-century lawyer; and how it didn't get given away to America thanks to an eccentric postwar spinster who liked dressing up in medieval clothes.

He also reveals some of the badness of King John which precipitated the drafting of Magna Carta in the first place. John was the archetypal 'Bad King': a man who divorced his first wife in favour of a girl who was at most 12 and possibly only eight; who starved to death the wife and children of a man who displeased him; who sided with or against Rome to suit the moment; who stole from the church; and who royally fleeced his barons to finance a failed land-grab in France. No wonder he was unpopular.

Prof Vincent also answers some interesting audience questions at the end, such as an enquiry about other countries with equivalents of Magna Carta (medieval Aragon, Castille and Hungary, but not too closely, is the gist of the answer). And he punctures a few misconceptions: Magna Carta did not, for instance, 'establish the right of habeas corpus' - that came in the 17th century.

Anyone interested in this frequently cited document of liberty and freedom will want to hear this in full. Superbly informed, enjoyably erudite, witty and engaging, this lecture should not be missed.

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