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New Book Explores History of Magna Carta in New Zealand

New Book Explores the Vibrant History of Magna Carta in New Zealand

How does an 800-year-old English document affect modern Aotearoa New Zealand? A new book, edited by a University of Canterbury historian, is the first to explore the history of Magna Carta in our legal, political and popular culture.

Magna Carta and New Zealand: History, Politics and Law in Aotearoa (Palgrave Macmillan) is edited by Dr Chris Jones, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Canterbury (UC) and Dr Stephen Winter, University of Auckland.

“This book looks at the history and influence of Magna Carta in Aotearoa, considers what the Charter has meant to both Māori and the settler population and explores how it has shaped our modern democracy. It asks challenging questions: Is there any real value in retaining a medieval relic as part of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangement? Does the Great Charter still add value in a modern, bicultural society or should we just tear it up?” Dr Jones says.

This research goes to the heart of current constitutional debates in New Zealand, he says.

“It is all about the core values that define us as a society and the ways in which we choose to govern ourselves. The book’s aim is to help New Zealanders move beyond facile referendums on the design of the flag or the question of what should be included in parliamentary prayers by stimulating discussion around more significant questions about rights and the nature of our democratic institutions. The contributors to this project set out to use a discussion of the Charter to think about what makes the New Zealand constitution tick.”

The Chief Justice of New Zealand, Dame Sian Elias GNZM, will speak at the book launch at UC’s Arts Centre campus on Saturday, 16 December, with UC Chancellor Dr John Wood also attending.

“Why does it matter to us in New Zealand what happened at Runnymede 800 years ago? This book is essential reading for those who want to know. The mythology that has grown around Magna Carta obscures its achievements and the influence it continues to exert. Its example is invoked in our own great Charter, the Treaty of Waitangi. This account of the continuing pull of Magna Carta in our society stimulates thinking about what matters,” Dame Sian says in her review of the book.

The new book offers a unique perspective on Magna Carta's relation to constitutional theory and practice, and includes the work of UC academics, including Professor of Law Jeremy Finn and Director of UC’s Ngāi Tahu Research Centre (NTRC) Associate Professor Te Maire Tau, as well as UC students in law, history and the NTRC.

UC’s historic copy of the Magna Carta, which is the oldest in New Zealand, will be on display at the book launch event. The 485-year-old UC Magna Carta was owned by the man who prosecuted Anne Boleyn for Henry VIII – essentially his divorce lawyer.

The book launch is part of the Australian and New Zealand Law and History Society conference, which is taking place in Christchurch for the first time in 20 years, 14-16 December.

Henry VIII's divorce lawyer's Magna Carta at UC

The University of Canterbury owns the oldest known copy of Magna Carta in Aotearoa New Zealand. Dating to 1531-32, it is an edition printed by Thomas Berthelet. Appointed by Henry VIII to the office of King’s Printer, Berthelet was known for the exceptional quality of his work. An important part of his role was publishing official texts.

A remarkable feature of the UC Magna Carta is that the identity of its original owner is known. A note on the title page indicates that the book was the possession of the noted Tudor legal scholar, Bishop Richard Sampson (d. 1554). Today, Sampson is best known as the King’s proctor responsible for prosecuting Henry’s case for divorce against Anne Boleyn in 1536. He was also an advisor and diplomat, and worked tirelessly to defend Henry’s claims to supremacy over the English Church in the 1530s.

Sampson’s copy of the Charter was sent to New Zealand in the 1850s by the Canterbury Association.


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