Wiltshire and the Magna Carta

on Monday, 15 June 2015. Posted in Archives

2015 is a year for historical anniversaries such as the anniversary of Gallipolli, the Battle of Waterloo and the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. Through its assertion of justice and the rule of law over the power of the monarchy, Magna Carta (which is Latin for ‘Great Charter’) has become a powerful symbol of human rights, referenced by the Founding Fathers of the United States in the 19th century and by Nelson Mandela in his defence at his trial in 1964.

So what was the Magna Carta? “Magna Carta, issued in June 1215, was an attempt to prevent an immediate civil war. It was the result of negotiations between the king’s party and a group of rebellious barons, negotiations facilitated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. These took place on ‘neutral’ territory at Runnymede, near the royal castle at Windsor. By this agreement the king guaranteed many rights which he or his officials had disputed, and these included such things as the freedom of the Church, the rights of towns, and that justice could not be bought or sold. The proof of these royally granted or acknowledged rights was the great charter, copies of which were sent around the country. In an age before mass communication, documents bearing the king’s great seal were the evidence of royal policy.” (Source: http://www.salisburycathedral.org.uk/magna-carta/why-was-it-written)  

It is of course important to remember that Magna Carta was a product of its time – many of its clauses were only applicable to free men or women, a minority in 1215. (About 2/3 of the population were villeins or bondsmen, who had to perform services laid down by custom for their local lord of the manor, such as working on the lord’s land free of charge.) It also contains two clauses relating to Jewish money-lending which appear anti-semitic to modern sensibilities, sadly reflecting English society of the time. However, despite this, the overall effect of the charter has been to promote human rights. The 39th clause (which gives all free men the right to justice and a fair trial) inspired the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which in turn helped to create the UK Human Rights Act, 1998.

The Magna Carta is of particular interest to us in Wiltshire because we have several local connections to this famous document.

Firstly, Salisbury Cathedral is home to one of only four surviving copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta. Elias of Dereham, priest and steward of the archbishop of Canterbury, is thought to have brought the copy to Old Sarum in the days following the events at Runnymede and it has remained in the Cathedral’s care ever since. A new exhibition has been created by the Cathedral to tell the story of Magna Carta and the Cathedral has organized many events to celebrate the anniversary. Please see: http://www.salisburycathedral.org.uk/magna-carta for further details. Wiltshire Council is helping the Cathedral to celebrate through a community pageant on 15 June – please see: http://www.wiltshire.gov.uk/news/articles/eight-centuries-of-magna-carta-celebrated-at-community-pageant-20-may-2015 for more details.

Secondly, Trowbridge is home to one of the Barons, Henry de Bohun, who was present at the sealing of the Magna Carta by King John. In the 1200s Henry de Bohun expanded Trowbridge, laying out a market place and plots for traders and obtaining a royal charter for the market in 1200. Henry made Trowbridge so valuable that it was claimed by King John’s half-brother, William Longspee. The loss of Trowbridge and King John’s failure to consult his barons over taxation rises encouraged Henry to join the group of 25 Barons who forced King John to seal the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. This enabled Henry de Bohun to regain the manor of Trowbridge. For this reason Trowbridge are also celebrating the anniversary of Magna Carta with various events including an exhibition at Trowbridge Museum (still running till 25 July) and a Medieval Fair the weekend of 24-26 July – for more information please see: http://www.trowbridge.gov.uk/magna+carta+800

Last, but not least, Lacock was home to another version of the Magna Carta. Unlike the Salisbury Cathedral copy of Magna Carta, dated 1215, Lacock Abbey’s version was dated 1225 and was a confirmation of the original charter by Henry III. It is the version which became part of statute law in 1297. The link between the 1225 charter and Lacock was through Ela, founder of Lacock Abbey. Her husband William Longspée, earl of Salisbury, was sheriff of Wiltshire and as the king’s officer in the county he was issued with the charter to publicise and circulate. On his death in 1226, Ela became sheriff, and retained the charter which passed into the abbey’s archives. The Lacock version of the 1225 Magna Carta was given to the nation by Matilda Talbot in 1944; the same year in which she gave Lacock Abbey and the village of Lacock to the National Trust. The original can be viewed at the British Library in London. 

From 13 June – 31 August Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre is loaning a small collection of priceless archives concerning ‘Lacock and the Magna Carta’ to the National Trust, for display at Lacock Abbey. The display will include two rare 14th century copies of the 1225 edition of Magna Carta (one from Marlborough, one from the Ailesbury estate of Savernake), as well as a facsimile of the Magna Carta given to Matilda by the British Museum in return for her generous gift of the original. It will also include fascinating correspondence kept by Matilda showing how she hid the Lacock Magna Carta during the Second World War and how she saved it for the nation in 1944. Cataloguing by the Devizes U3A group and other Lacock volunteers, and research carried out by volunteer Monique Bennett, has been vital in the creation of the display. The small display of originals takes place inside Lacock Abbey, but it is accompanied by a printed display panel explaining the history of the Magna Carta and its connections to Wiltshire, which will be in the cloisters. Please note that Lacock Abbey is owned by the National Trust and entrance fees will apply. See: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lacock/ for details.

Many of the archives which will be on display are returning to the Abbey for the first time since the purchase of the Lacock Abbey archives by Wiltshire Council in 2012, with generous assistance from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The archives are being catalogued, indexed, conserved and made accessible for research through the HLF-funded Lacock Unlocked project. (Please note this website is still in the process of being developed.)

Our printed display panel about Wiltshire and the Magna Carta will also go on display free of charge in the foyer of Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre for the whole of October 2015, and in due course will travel around the county to local libraries and other public buildings. We hope that you get the opportunity to join in with one or more of these exciting anniversary events and to find out more about the Magna Carta and Wiltshire.

Claire Skinner, Principal Archivist


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