Acta of the Plantagenets
Chair: Professor David Bates
Project Director: Professor Nicholas Vincent FBA
Honorary Secretary: Dr Judith Everard
The ‘Acta of the Plantagenets’ project was launched in 1971 by the late Professor Sir James Holt at the University of Reading. The project is currently based at the University of East Anglia where the Director, Nicholas Vincent, is Professor of Medieval History.
The aim of the project is to collect, edit and publish all of the surviving letters, charters and assizes of the early Plantagenet kings of England, 1154–1199: Henry II, Henry the Young King, and Richard I, as well as the acts of Richard as count of Poitou and of Henry II’s youngest son, John, as lord of Ireland and count of Mortain, and of Eleanor of Aquitaine as duchess, queen consort, regent and queen mother.
The texts survive in archives and libraries across the United Kingdom, Ireland and France, as well as further afield. They have never before been collected in one place and many have never been edited. The texts of original charters, writs, letters and other documents, as well as copies and transcripts or mentions of them made between the 12th century and the present, have been collected – although exciting new discoveries still occasionally come to light – and are being edited for publication. The largest corpus, the acta of Henry II, is in the course of production by Oxford University Press. The forthcoming eight-volume set will include an introduction offering thorough analysis of palaeography and diplomatic, as well as an itinerary of Henry II and indexes of person and places and subjects. Publication is scheduled for 2019.
In addition to those of Henry, the project has also collected the acts of other members of the Plantagenet family. Those of Henry II’s son Geoffrey, duke of Brittany and earl of Richmond, and his family have been published as The Charters of Duchess Constance of Brittany and Her Family, ed. Judith Everard and Michael Jones (Woodbridge, 2000).
The project files presently hold nearly 5,000 separate acts, of which around 3,000 are acts of Henry II. They are arranged by beneficiary, and may be searched by individual witnesses to acts, and the place of issue. Starting in the 1970s, files were created for each act accessioned, to which were attached reproductions (photographs, photocopies) of the original parchment (if in existence) as well as every known manuscript or printed copy as far as possible. These paper files are deposited at the University of Reading Special Collections / Museum of English Rural Life where the archives may be consulted by booking a space in the reading room in advance. Most research questions, however, can be answered from the now fully edited texts (in MS Word).
The project’s resources are widely consulted by historians working on all aspects of British, French and European history in the 12th and 13th centuries. When published, the editions of the charters are likely to be used by all scholars and students working on the political, legal, ecclesiastical, genealogical, economic and cultural histories of this period.
The Director writes:
“Henry II and his family traditionally enjoy high ‘public’ profile, remaining an abiding topic of interest (Becket, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard I’s Crusade, John’s ‘tyranny’) amongst the general public not only in the English-speaking world but across western Europe. So far, then, this is a project essential to both scholarly and popular understanding of England and English kingship. From here, however, the trail extends in interesting directions. Because charters remain our chief access to 12th-century law, and since the greatest of all English medieval laws (Magna Carta) was itself issued in charter form, the project has come to play a significant role in the scholarly and popular understanding of Magna Carta, and hence to exert influence in fields adjacent to those of scholarship, but extending here to politics, law and public policy. Magna Carta, both as a manifesto of good government and as a totemic relic of the medieval past, retains a very high profile. The project, through its role in interpreting and contextualising Magna Carta, has therefore garnered publicity and influence in ways that might not have been anticipated. … Impact in this context is defined by the public response (new understanding, new depth of appreciation, new discoveries) to Vincent’s work in 2015, including the publication of at least three books generally acknowledged as definitive statements on the meaning and implications of Magna Carta and hence of English medieval law. As a result, the project’s advice has been sought by governments, the royal family, commerce (Sothebys, but also those seeking to publicise or display Magna Carta) and public bodies (British Library, Library of Congress, Australian Senate) etc. This in ways that may surprise those who believe medieval charters to be far distant from the world of relevant or impactful modernity.”
- Professor Nicholas Vincent delivered the Stenton Lecture at the University of Reading, on 22 November 2018, on The Letters of England's Kings and Queens 1154–1215: A Vast New Resource?
- At the accompanying symposium, members of the Acta project committee and others spoke on the past, present and future of the project, and on wider research on royal charters of the 11th and 12th centuries. Speakers paid tribute to the late Professor Sir James Holt and congratulated Professor Nicholas Vincent on his achievement.
- Professor Nicholas Vincent has been awarded a Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowship for 2018–2020 to fund his work to complete the edition of the acta of Richard I.