The Magna Carta

To write about the Magna Carta is to tread already very well trodden ground. For a document that had little immediate impact, its mythology has echoed down the centuries.

I am not intending to write anything ground breaking or revelatory about the Magna Carta. This post is going to draw together my experiences with people and sites that hold together the thread of the history of the Magna Carta and explore the outline and background of the document’s story.

My interest in the Magna Carta began in year eleven at high school. As an Australian I didn’t get much of a chance to write about medieval history within the curriculum, but in year eleven we got to chose our own research project and I picked the Magna Carta. It was the first time I got to seriously research the medieval period and I still remember the pride with which I produced my 2000 word report. It only covered the basics, but it was a first step on a path that in many ways has ultimately led to this blog.

I’ve always found the Magna Carta interesting, because despite the reality of its actual contents it has come to be a symbol of Western style democracy. The Magna Carta was sealed (not signed) on June 15th 1215. It didn’t come out of nowhere, it was based on other charters from both England and the continent, but its legacy has been peculiarly enduring. The Rights of Man from the French Revolution are based on it, as is the American Bill of Rights and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It is held up as a bastion of freedom against tyranny. All of this, I discovered when I began to research as a seventeen year old, has very little basis in the reality of the document.

The Magna Carta contains 63 clauses. Covering everything from fish weirs in the Thames and the Medway, to how heirs should be handled, to how specific people are to be treated. The two clauses that give the Magna Carta its formidable reputation at 39 and 40.

(39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

(40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

These are proud words, but at the time (like the rest of the Charter) they had little to no effect. Apart from any other reason the Charter was repealed by the Pope by September 1215 and the rebel barons were excommunicated. It wasn’t until the Magna Carta was reissued in 1217 and 1225, under Henry III,  and when it first came into the King’s Statute Books, in the reign of  Edward I in 1297, that it began to have any real impact. Even so you only have to look at the rest of English history (the War of the Roses and  the Tudors for example) to show much effect it had on the power of kings to summarily imprison their subjects.

The Magna Carta was by the Barons for the Barons. It is an excellent reflection of what was concerning the nobility in 1215. It is worth remembering that none of the the clauses are given more importance than any other: fish weirs are just as important as not delaying justice. The Magna Carta was extracted from John under duress in an attempt to shore up their own authority. It was never intended to be catch all for every person and it is important to remember that it is a document born of war.

The conflict between King John and his barons was not one that was singular to John. His brother and father before him had all dealt with rebellious barons. It was under John however that it all came to a head in a perfect storm. A lot, but not all, of which was John’s fault. He took the throne in 1199 and it began badly as there was dispute over whether the throne should have gone to Arthur Duke of Brittany, the son of John’s dead elder brother Geoffrey. This was mainly important on the continent as Arthur was seen as a French puppet by many of the English.

Many of John’s failings in kingship were personal. He was inconsistent and could be very vindictive. Additionally after he lost the majority of the Plantagenet lands on the continent he had time to focus squarely on England, which the barons didn’t appreciate. It also didn’t help that he succeeded in having the whole country placed under interdict because he wouldn’t accept the Pope’s candidate as Archbishop of Canterbury. He was essentially bad at managing people and extremely suspicious. Even taking into account chronicler’s bias most contemporary accounts are reasonably consistent on John’s failings.

This led to revolt and ultimately in the Barons offering Prince Louis of France the English throne.

The role of the king and his lordship over the Barons was the core of the revolt. In 1214 in Bury St Emdunds 25 barons swore on the altar of St Edmund that they would try to force King John to accept the charter of liberties of Henry I, which was the precursor to the Magna Carta. The rough spot and the commemorative plaque can be seen in the photos below.

Bury St Edmondsbury plaque 2bury plaque

Ultimately, with help from the French the barons backed John into a corner. The Magna Carta was agreed to by King John on June 15th 1215 at Runnymede. Runnymede was neutral ground as it is located half way between London (which had gone over to the barons) and John’s castle at Windsor. Also being a water meadow it was a naturally occurring in-between liminal space.

runneymede2runneymede

The photos above are from the water meadows at Runnymede. Finding them was a bit of an ordeal. We got the train to the nearest station expecting there to be signs. This is a mistake I have made too many times before in relation to medieval sites. After getting sent in the wrong direction twice and accidentally dragging my mother through a swamp on her birthday we found the meadows (though we still missed the physical monument to the Magna Carta). I had very wet feet, but it was worth it. Apart from anything else it is a gorgeous example of an English water meadow. There are plaques in the town to some of the barons involved in the Magna Carta. You can see the one to William Marshal below.

marshal gate

The Charter wasn’t an end though and as an attempt to abate civil war it was less than useful. It took King John’s death in 1216 to mark the beginning of the end of the conflict. He died, probably of dysentery, at Newark after losing his entire baggage train in the Wash (A tidal inlet in Norfolk and somewhere else I got my feet very wet walking to). You can see a copy of John’s effigy below (the original is in Worcester Cathedral) and a photo of the Wash as it looked in 2012, significant land has been reclaimed for farming.

King JohnThe wash2

John’s death did not mean the immediate end of the civil war. His son Henry III took the throne, but he was only nine and the formidable William Marshal was appointed Regent of England.

Henry III effigy

A copy of Henry III’s effigy (the original is in Westminster Abbey

Marshal

marshal2

William Marshal’s effigy in the Temple Church in London (arguably)

marshal the youngermarshal the younger closeWilliam Marshal the Younger’s effigy (arguably) in the Temple Church in London.

Marshal is a man I’ve written about a lot before (I wrote my honours thesis on him) and you can find out more about him here. Marshal was an elder statesman by the time he became Regent in 1216. He was probably in his very late 60s. He had stayed loyal to King John at personal cost, and his son William Marshal the Younger had fought on the Barons’ side. It has been argued that this family divide was intentional to make sure there was a Marshal foot in either camp. Regardless, with John dead, barons started coming back into the royal fold, including  eventually John’s half brother William Earl of Salisbury, who had jumped ship in the dying days of John’s reign. Ultimately more than 115 defected back, but it took some longer than others.

william longspeeThe effigy of William Earl of Salisbury in Salisbury Cathedral.

By the time John died Prince Louis was very much in England and not willing to give up his claim to the crown. Ultimately it took the Battle of Lincoln, which was so successful for the royalist forces that it was known at the Fair of Lincoln, winning the Battle of Sandwich (despite Louis’ ships being led by the pirate Eustace the Monk) and Marshal ultimately bribing the Prince to get him to go back to France. By the time Marshal died in May 1219 he left behind a, comparatively, stable England.

But where did all this turmoil leave the Magna Carta? Today there are four surviving copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta. One belongs to Lincoln Cathedral because Hugh of Wells the Bishop of Lincoln was present when the Magna Carta was sealed and made sure a copy was brought back to the cathedral

Lincoln cathedral

This copy is currently held in Lincoln Castle along with the 1217 Charter of the Forest which (in the name of Henry III, but under Marshal’s seal) was separated from the Magna Carta into its own individual document.

Lincoln castle2LincolnLincoln Castle.

Another copy is held at Salisbury Cathedral. It was probably brought by Elias Dereham, a priest of the Archbishop of Canterbury and has remained there ever since.

SalisburySalisbury Cathedral.

The final two copies are housed in the British Museum. One most likely originally came from Canterbury, the other is known as the ‘London Magna Carta’ and exactly how it ended up in London by the 17th century is unknown. Sadly the Canterbury copy is illegible. It did suffer some fire damage in 1731, but most of the damage was done in a failed attempt to restore the Charter in the 1830s. Sadly this copy is the only surviving 1215 copy that still has the original seal of King John attached, though it was severely melted in the 1731 fire.

british libraryBritish Library.

After the reign of Henry III the next key re-issue of the Magna Carta was by Edward I. In 1297 he issued (a revised version) officially into the English statutes. Interestingly enough I have actually seen one of the only surviving 1297 copies in Australia. It is held at Parliament House in Canberra. It is one of only four surviving copies and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere. It was bought by Australia’s Chief Librarian for 12 500 pounds in 1951.parliament house canberra

Parliament House Canberra Australia.

Regardless of how little immediate effect the Magna Carta had, it is a document that has come to symbolise the core of Western Democracy. It has become mythology in its own right and its reality has got quite lost in the monumental legacy. A legacy that (right or wrong) Rudyard Kipling summed up best.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
What say the reeds at Runnymede?
The lissom reeds that give and take,
That bend so far, but never break,
They keep the sleepy Thames awake
With tales of John at Runnymede.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Oh, hear the reeds at Runnymede:
‘You musn’t sell, delay, deny,
A freeman’s right or liberty.
It wakes the stubborn Englishry,
We saw ’em roused at Runnymede!

When through our ranks the Barons came,
With little thought of praise or blame,
But resolute to play the game,
They lumbered up to Runnymede;
And there they launched in solid line
The first attack on Right Divine,
The curt uncompromising “Sign!’
They settled John at Runnymede.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Your rights were won at Runnymede!
No freeman shall be fined or bound,
Or dispossessed of freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgment found
And passed upon him by his peers.
Forget not, after all these years,
The Charter signed at Runnymede.’

And still when mob or Monarch lays
Too rude a hand on English ways,
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays,
Across the reeds at Runnymede.
And Thames, that knows the moods of kings,
And crowds and priests and suchlike things,
Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings
Their warning down from Runnymede!

 

References:

Site visits in 2012, 2015 and 2017.

Magna Carta: Law, liberty, legacy by the British Library ISBN: 9780712357630

Blood Cries Afar: The forgotten invasion of England 1216 by Sean McGlynn ISBN: 9780752488318

https://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-an-introduction

https://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-english-translation

https://www.visitlincoln.com/magnacarta

https://magnacarta800th.com/events/st-edmundsbury/

https://www.salisburycathedral.org.uk/magna-carta

https://www.aph.gov.au/Visit_Parliament/Art/Top_5_Treasures/Magna_Carta

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-05/australia-magna-carta/6072830

http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/kipling.html

The photos are all mine.

Advent Calendar of Castles: December 2nd Lincoln Castle.

lincoln-1

lincoln-3

lincoln-2

Lincoln Castle was begun by William the Conqueror in c.1068 making it one of the first Norman castles built. It was part of the Conqueror’s plan of the domination of England through a network of castles. It was through castles like Lincoln that he administered and controlled his new territory. Lincoln Castle stands on the site of an old roman fort and when it was built 166 Saxon houses were demolished to make way for it.

In the early medieval period Lincoln castle was the site of two decisive battles. The first was in 1141 during the time period known as the Period of Anarchy (1136-1154). King Stephen and the Empress Matilda were fighting for control of the country. It was a time which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described as “people openly said that Christ slept, and his saints.” In 1141 the Earl of Chester and his brother William of Roumare had rebelled against King Stephen and taken Lincoln Castle by deceit. Oderic Vitalis’ version says that they sent their wives in on the pretext of a friendly visit and the Earl arrived to collect the women with only three knights and then, “Once inside the castle they suddenly snatched crowbars and weapons which lay to hand and violently expelled the king’s guards. Then William burst in with a force of armed knights, according to a pre‑arranged plan, and in this way the two brothers took control of the castle and the whole city.”

Regardless of how they took the castle they held it and King Stephen arrived to besiege the castle. The Earl of Chester escaped and alerted Robert of Gloucester, Empress Matilda’s brother and the head of her campaign for the crown. Gloucester arrived in Lincoln with an army and there was a pitched and bloody battle, unusual in a war that was mainly looting and skirmishes, Gloucester’s forces were victorious and King Stephen was captured.

The other key battle at Lincoln was in 1217. It was so bloodless that it was soon known as the Fair of Lincoln. William Marshal headed forces fighting for the newly crowned Henry III. Marshal was the young Henry’s regent. They were fighting the remains of the barons who had forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. The majority of barons had returned to the royal fold after King John’s death, but there were a few hold outs who were still supporting Prince Louis of France as their candidate for king. Prince Louis’ forces were besieging Lincoln which was held by the remarkable Nicola de la Haye (who I hope to write more about later), Marshal’s forces came to relieve the siege. They had help from the inside the castle and the battle was a route. Prince Louis’ forces were demolished and the battle was pretty much the end of the baronial revolt, though it was the Battle of Sandwich and paying off Louis that got rid of him completely.

Outside of these two key battles Lincoln continued to be both a prison and court for centuries to come. It is also the location of one of the only four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta as well as a copy of the 1217 Charter of the Forest.

References

Site visit 2012

Lincoln castle information leaflets.

https://www.lincolncastle.com/content/history

Anglo Saxon Chronicle: http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/1137.html

Battle of Lincoln 1141: http://deremilitari.org/2014/03/the-battle-of-lincoln-1141-from-five-sources/

The Fair of Lincoln 1217: Tout, T.F, ‘The Fair of Lincoln in the ‘Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal’, The English Historical Review, 18, 1903, pp. 240-265.

The photos are all mine.

 

Medieval Quotes Advent Calendar 24th of December

So this is the last one. It’s been fun. I hope these quotes have been enjoyed. I’ve had fun ransacking my books and lots of other sources.

I thought I’d finish with one more William Marshal quote. This is the description an incident during the siege of the castle of Milli in 1197 under Richard I when the almost fifty-three year old Marshal ran up a scaling ladder in full armour.

“At this point many of those involved in the attack began to retreat, for they were much dismayed and in fear. Left behind on one of the ladders was Sir Guy de la Bruyere, a knight from Flanders who did his all, with intense vigour, to perform great deeds. Those defending the town had caught him with their spiked pikes between his chin and his chest, so overpowering him that he could in no way help himself with either hand. The Marshal, fully armed, was on the moat, and he was filled with pity and anger about the plight of that knight, whom he saw in such torment, so, fully armed as he was, he jumped down into the bottom of the ditch and climbed, I assure you, sword in hand up the other side, and kept his footing until he reached the ladder on which the knight was held by those who sought to kill him. He dealt such blows with his sword as to fully repay each of them individually for the harm they had done to the knight. He dealt so many blows right and left with the sword that he held in his right hand that those inside fell back and left him the sole occupant of the battlements. Those men, who had no taste for the games he played, left him in sole charge of the field as they all went on their way. The Marshal did not care who witnessed it. And when the King saw him leap forward to climb the wall and mount an attack, he was very angry and wanted to do likewise, without delay, but the high ranking men present advised against this course and prevented it. Once the Marshal had entered the castle by force, our men were so filled with glee that they all shouted as one man: ‘The castle is taken, let’s help him!’ Those in the castle took fright as out men leapt onto the battlements. This did not appear to be a laughing matter to Sir William de Monceaux, the constable of the castle. He would not stand still anywhere, but ran straight at the Marshal with the intention of doing all within his power to do him harm and injury, but he was unable to do so, the Marshal proving too much for him now that he had freed himself from the others as a result of the blows he had dealt them, blows which had cost him so much effort that he was somewhat out of breath. The constable came at him with his sword. The Marshal dealt such a blow at him that he cut right through his hauberk and piercing his flesh so that all he could do was come to a halt. He fell down quite unconscious, battered and stunned by the blow he received from the Marshal, and he stayed motionless on the ground. The Marshal, now weary, and who had done more than enough, sat on him to hold him firm.”

From History of William Marshal Volume II. pgs 61-63. ISBN: 0905474457

Medieval Quotes Advent Calendar 20th of December

The Battle of Stamford Bridge and the Battle of Hastings from a Welsh perspective from the Welsh chronicle

Brut y Tywysogion

“1066. And then a year after that, Harold, king of Denmark, meditated the subjection of the Saxons ; whom another Harold, the son of earl Godwin, who was then king in England, surprised, unwarned and unarmed, and by sudden attack, aided by national treachery, struck to the ground, and caused his death. That Harold who, at fìrst earl, through cruelty after the death of king Edward unduly acquired the sovereignty of the kingdom of England, was despoiled of his kingdom and life by William the Bastard, duke of Normandy, though previously vauntingly victorious. And that William defended the kingdom of England in a great battle, with an invincible hand, and his most noble army.”

From: Brut y Tywysogion pgs 45-47

https://ia601904.us.archive.org/32/items/brutytywysogiono00cara/brutytywysogiono00cara_bw.pdf

Medieval Quotes Advent Calendar 5th of December

Death of the outlaw Eustache the Monk at the Battle of Sandwich in 1217. A battle in which the “enemy” for Eustache was the English forces who were fighting to the rid the country of the forces of Prince Louis of France. It’s much more complicated than that, but that is an outline. The English forces were led by William Marshal

“The enemy set out in small boats and attacked the ships [of Eustache’s fleet] with longbows and crossbows. The Monk’s men guarded themselves against everything thrown at them in the chase by firing missiles and shooting arrows. They killed many Englishmen and defended themselves nobly. Eustache himself toppled many of them with the oar he wielded, breaking arms and smashing heads with every swing. This one he killed, another one he threw overboard. This one he knocked down, another one he trampled underfoot, and a third one had his windpipe crushed. But Eustache was assailed from all directions with no let up. Battle axes struck his ship on all sides. On the first wave the defenders were able to ward off the attack, preventing the enemy from coming on board. Then the English started hurling pots of finely ground lime, smashing them to pieces on the ship railings, with the result that great clouds of dust covered the decks. That was what caused the most damage, against which Eustache’s men could not defend themselves. To their misfortune the wind was against them, causing even further torment, for their eyes became filled with ash. In the confusion the English leaped in to Eustache’s ship and mistreated his men badly, taking all the nobles prisoner. As for Eustache the Monk, he was slain, his head cut off. With that the battle was over.

Epilogue

No man who spends his days doing evil can live a long life.

 

From Thomas E. Kelly  editor and translator Eustache the Monk. In A Book of Medieval outlaws edited by Thomas H. Ohlgren. ISBN9780750924931