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 Apart from any other reason the Charter was repealed by the Pope by September 1215 and the rebel barons were excommunicated.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.

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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

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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.

Medieval Quotes Advent Calendar 13th of December

A letter from Henry III to the people of Ireland regarding the institution of the Magna Carta. It was unlikely to have been written by him, as it was still during William Marshal’s regency.

“The King to all archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, knights, free tenants and all our faithful subjects settled throughout Ireland, greetings.

With out hearty commendation of your fidelity in the Lord, which you have ever exhibited to our lord father and to us in these our days are to exhibit our pleasure is, that in token of this your famous and notable fidelity, the liberties granted by our father and by us, of our grace and gift to the realm of England shall in our kingdom of Ireland be enjoyed by you and your heirs forever.

Which liberties distinctly reduced to writing by the general council of all our liege subjects we transmit to you sealed with the seals of our Lord Gualon, legate of the apostolical see and our trusty earl William Marshal, our governor and governor of our kingdom because as yet we have no seal. And the same shall in the proceeds of time and on fuller council  receive the signature of our seal.

Given in Gloucester on the 6th day of February.”

Dr Thomas Leland, History of Ireland from the Invasion of Henry II, London, 1773, p. 203.

 

An Easy to Evil Medieval British Quiz.

The way this quiz works.

It’s pretty simple. You see the question with a photo underneath and underneath the photo you’ll find the answer. There’s twenty five questions so keep track of how many you get right and how many you get wrong and see how you do at the end. There’s also a poll at the end so you can see how you compare to everyone else if you’re interested.

As the title suggests, it starts off easy and gets much more complicated. There are five sections: Easy, Medium, Hard, Difficult and Evil.

Enjoy.

Easy

1. What year was the Magna Carta sealed?

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Answer: 1215.

Photo: Part of Runnymede the water meadow where Magna Carta was signed.

2. What year was the Battle of Hastings?

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Answer: 1066

Photo: The Battle of Hasting in the Bayeux Tapestry.

3. Henry II fought with which Archbishop of Canterbury?

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Answer: Thomas Becket.

Photo: Henry II at Fontevraud Abbey.

4.  Eleanor of Aquitaine was the mother of which Kings of England?

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Answer: Richard I and John I. You get a bonus point if you said Henry the Young King as well.

Photo: Eleanor of Aquitaine Fontevraud Abbey.

5. William the Conquerer commissioned which survey in 1086?

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Answer: Domesday Book

Photo: A recreation of the Domesday Book from in the National Archives.

Medium

 6. Which crusade did Richard the Lionheart fight in?

Richard I

Answer: Third Crusade

Photo: Richard the Lionheart and Isabel of Angouleme. 

7. King John married his daughter Joan to which Welsh Prince?

llew coffin 1

Answer: Llywelyn Fawr or Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. Either is correct

And I wouldn’t be deducting points if you spelt either wrong.

Photo: Llywelyn’s coffin.

8. William Marshal married which heiress, the daughter of Richard Strongbow?

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Answer: Isabel de Clare.

Photo: William Marshal’s effigy.

9. King John lost his baggage train in which inlet?

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Answer: The Wash

Photo: Part of The Wash as it looks now.

10. Empress Maud purportedly escaped through King Stephen’s army and the snow from which Castle?

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Answer: Oxford Castle.

Photo: 1800s drawing from Cardiff Castle of the escape.

Hard

11. William the Conquerer is buried in which town?

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Answer: Caen.

Photo: William the Conquerer’s tomb.

12. Which King was born in Winchester Castle?

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Answer: Henry III.

Photo: Great Hall of Winchester Castle.

13. How did the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle famously describe the Period of Anarchy 1136-1154?

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Answer: It was a time “that Christ and His saints slept.”

Michael Swanton, (ed) & trans, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Phoenix Press, 2000, p. 265. You get the point if you got a variant of this, there’s different translations.

Photo: The current tomb of Empress Maud, one of the antagonists of the Period of Anarchy.

14. Name the children of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

henry and eleanor

Answer: William, Henry, Matilda, Richard, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joanna, John.

If you got all of them but not in order have a point, but you get a bonus point if you got them in order.

Photo: Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

15. What year did Henry the Young King die?

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Answer: 1183.

Photo: Henry’s non contemporary tomb at Rouen Cathedral.

Difficult

16. Name the three places which hold the only four existing copies of the original Magna Carta.
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Answer: Lincoln, Salisbury Cathedral and The British Library (the British Library has 2).

Photo: Part of Lincoln Castle.

17. Ida de Tosny, the wife of Roger Earl of Norfolk, had a son out of wedlock before she married the Earl who was he?

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Answer: William Longsword Earl of Salisbury and bastard son of Henry II.

Photo: His tomb.

18. Which castle did William Marshal, according to the Brut y Tywysogion, subdue with a “vast army” in 1204?

The Rev. John Williams, (ed), Brut y Tywysogion, London: Longman, Green, Longman & Roberts, 1860, p. 261

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Answer: Cilgerran Castle.

Photo: Recent wicker statue of Marshal at Cilgerran

19. How much was King Richard’s ransom?

riveaux

Answer: 100,000 silver marks and 200 hostages. You get the point if you got the monetary amount.

Photo: Riveaux Abbey, a Cistercian foundation. Cistercian foundations had to contribute part of their wool clips to the ransom.

20. Canterbury Cathedral was begun in which decade?

Canterbury Cathedral

Answer: 1070s

Photo: Canterbury Cathedral

Evil

21. Which illustrious figure ‘processed’ through the Temple Church in London for its consecration in 1185.

temple church

Answer: Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem.

Photo: Temple Church in London.

22. According to the History of William Marshal what three things did King Stephen threaten to do to the young William Marshal while he was the King’s hostage?

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Answer: Hang him, catapult him at the walls of his father’s castle and crush him with a millstone.

A.J Holden & David Crouch (eds) S. Gregory, trans, History of William Marshal, Volume I, London: Anglo-Norman Text Society, 2002, p. 31.

You can have the point if you got these in any order but you have to have all three to get the point.

Photo: William Marshal

23. The Bayeux Tapestry is how many metres long?

Bayeux Tapestry 16

Answer: 70.34m, but you can have the point if you said 70.

Photo: My favourite scene in the Bayeux Tapestry with the Hand of God coming out of the sky.

24. Which papal legate played a significant role in the Magna Carta negotiations and in the Regency of Henry III?

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Answer: Guala Bicchieri. You can have the point if you only got Guala, or said Gualo. It is a variation of the spelling and often only Guala or Gualo is written.

Photo: Facsimile of Salisbury’s Magna Carta in the Temple Church.

25. Who did Geoffrey of Monmouth describe as “an accomplished scholar and philosopher, as well as a brave soldier and expert commander”?

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Answer: Robert Earl of Gloucester and oldest illegitimate son of Henry I. The passage is from Geoffrey’s dedication of his work History of the Kings of Britain.

http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/geoffrey_thompson.pdf pg 2.

Photo: Monmouth Castle. Geoffrey was born somewhere in the region of Monmouth

The End

So that’s it. How did you do?

1-5: Well you’ve got some basics down pat. Good start.

6-10: You know more than basics, well on your way.

11-15: Good work, beginning to build a wealth of obscure facts.

16-20: Impressive. You know you stuff.

21-25: Incredible effort. You may know more about this period than is sensible 🙂

26-27  remember the two bonus points: Speechless. Incredible. You definitely know more than you need to about this specific period and area.

27: If you got them all… Sure you didn’t write the quiz?

Now if you feel like it put your results in the poll below.

The photos are all mine.

Bury St Edmunds

The abbey at Bury St Edmunds is only ruins today, but it was once one of the largest and most powerful abbeys in England. It was home of the Chronicle of Bury St Edmund’s and was one of the places that the Magna Carta was planned. It was a casualty of the dissolution of the monasteries, handed over to the king in 1539.

There isn’t a lot left now, but what remains is majestic and  poignant. It allows a glimpse of how spectacular the abbey would have been in all its glory.

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The tallest pillar you can see to the left of the picture is near where the Magna Carta barons met to swear on the altar of St Edmund that they would obtain ratification of the Magna Carta from King John.  The plaque below is affixed to it.

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St Edmund’s is also the abbey that Eustace, the wildly unpopular son of King Stephen, plundered right before he died unexpectedly, possibly from choking to death. Many felt that his death was divine wrath, similar to the death of Henry the Young King.

The Chronicle of Bury St Edmunds was also written at the abbey. The Chronicle was written by Jocelin de Brakelond who was the chaplain of Abbot Samson. Samson was  one of the Abbots who had the most structural influence on the abbey. Samson completed the great western front of the abbey.  More of the west front survives today than any other part of the abbey, but it is largely houses. You can still see the remains of Samson’s great arches.bury st8

bury st door

Samson also had an almost competition with Geoffrey Ridel who was Bishop of Ely. Geoffrey requested that Samson let him have oaks from Elmsett for his own building operations at Ely and Geoffrey had secretly gone through and marked the trees he wanted. Samson felt he had to agree, but he immediately felled the best oaks in Elmsett for his own works.  This is an excellent illustration of the competition between the large religious institutions. You can see Ely Cathedral below.

ely

Samson’s works on the abbey and general life at the abbey over this period , 1173-1202, are the main subjects of the Chronicle. It also provides an intriguing picture of Samson himself.

“ABBOT SAMSON was below the average height, almost bald; his face was neither round nor oblong ; his nose was prominent and his lips thick; his eyes were clear and his glance penetrating; his hearing was excellent; his eyebrows arched, and frequently shaved; and a little cold soon made him hoarse. On the day of his election he was forty­ seven, and had been a monk for seventeen years. In his ruddy beard there were a few grey hairs, and still fewer in his black and curling hair. But in the course of the first fourteen years after his election all his hair became white as snow.

He was an exceedingly temperate man ; he possessed great energy and a strong constitution, and was fond both of riding and walking, until old age prevailed upon him and moderated his ardour in these respects. When he heard the news of the capture of the cross and the fall of Jerusalem, he began to wear under garments made of horse hair, and a horse­ hair shirt, and gave up the use of flesh and meat. None the less, he willed that flesh should be placed before him as he sat at table, that the alms might be increased. He ate sweet milk, honey, and similar sweet things, far more readily than any other food.

He hated liars, drunkards, and talkative persons; for virtue ever loves itself and spurns that which is contrary to it. He blamed those who grumbled about their meat and drink, and especially monks who so grumbled, and personally kept to the same manners which he had observed when he was a cloistered monk. Moreover, he had this virtue in himself that he never desired to change the dish which was placed before him. When I was a novice, I wished to prove whether this was really true, and as I happened to serve in the refectory, I thought to place before him food which would have offended any other man, in a very dirty and broken dish. But when he saw this, he was as it were blind to it. Then, as there was some delay, I repented of what I had done, and straightway seized the dish, changed the food and dish for better, and carried it to him. He, however, was angry at the change, and disturbed.

He was an eloquent man, speaking both French and Latin, but rather careful of the good sense of that which he had to say than of the style of his words. He could read books written in English very well, and was wont to preach to the people in English, but in the dialect of Norfolk where he was born and bred. It was for this reason that he ordered a pulpit to be placed in the church, for the sake of those who heard him and for purposes of ornament.”

This excerpt offers an intriguing glimpse into the world of Bury St Edmund’s.

To read more go to http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/jocelin.asp

The remains of St Edmund’s Abbey are like the bones of a giant, you can see the greatness that was once there.  The first photo below shows the remains of what would once have been a beautiful window and the second shows that bases of pillars that held up part of the church.

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One of the pieces that has survived the destruction of the abbey is the Norman Tower. It was built 1120-1148 and was designed to be both a gateway to the abbey church and a belfry for the church of St James next door, it still serves as a bell tower. It was funded by Abbot Anselm instead of a pilgrimage to St James De Compostella. The carved stone work that survives is truly beautiful.

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Bury St Edmond’s was once one of England’s most important and majestic abbeys, you can see from the model below just how large it was, there might not be much left now but there are at least still echoes of the past.

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