Magna Carta: charter of liberties

on Wednesday, 22 July 2015. 1 Posted in Abbey

Magna Carta: Words resounding in Great Britain and the world as symbols of liberty, justice and law. An 800 year old document preciously protected and revered, given pride of place in new exhibitions, taught in every school and used in political speeches but also studied by historians discovering exiting new facts about it.

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As you stand in front of this parchment, it is a powerful tangible contact with a moment in history when an English king accepted to seal a list of demands made by his barons, taking away for the first time some of his royal power and obliging him to respect these clauses.

However this charter could have been completely forgotten had it not been thanks to a few fortuitous circumstances...So let us go back in time:

What made King John’s barons rebel against their sovereign? A culmination of years of revolt brought on by the king ruling like a tyrant while failing as a war leader; during his reign (1199-1216), John lost most of the English territories acquired in France by his father, King Henry II and brother Richard I (Anjou, Maine, Touraine, Gascony, Normandy) and spent most of his time trying to regain them. To do so, he had to raise enormous sums of money in taxes and demand his barons and knights to go to war. Hostages were taken when a knight refused to fight or pay his debts. Territories were not re-conquered as battles were lost, such as at Bouvines in Northern France in 1214, and King John’s reputation as commander was crushed. Other grievances went from arbitrary fines and dispossessions, to taking hostages, to ruthless financial demands. King John’s barons felt at the same time rejected from the king’s ruling and crushed by him.

By 1214, discontent grew in England and Northern Barons met and began to draw up a list of grievances against John. In January 1215, they hoped to discuss these with the king. But the latter didn’t show any sign of good will, failing to meet them. They rose in rebellion against him in the spring, renouncing their feudal loyalty and forming their own army named “army of God”, whose leader was Robert FitzWalter, who was involved in a plot to murder John in 1212. They captured London in May, forcing the reluctant king to negotiate with the rebels.

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In a meadow, between the royal castle of Windsor and the baronial camp at Staines, 25 miles from London, on the 10th June, negotiations began between the two parties on “neutral territory”, helped by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton and William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. A document, called “the Articles of the Barons” was drafted; it contained 49 heads of agreements, which formed the basis of the charter of Runnymede (only named Magna Carta from February 1218 to differentiate it from the smaller separate “Charter of the Forest”). Then legal draftsmen wrote the charter, adding and expanding the list to 63 clauses; the parchment, ending with the words “given by our hand in the meadow which is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign”, was finally sealed (not signed) by King John and a “firm and reformed peace” was restored. Then a number of engrossments (an original text compared to a copy which has no authority) of the charter of liberties, complete with a seal each, were sent out the following day to bishops in the land. The Salisbury and Lincoln charters have been recently identified as having been written by church scribes in their respective cathedral scriptoria.

Four engrossments survive of the 1215 charter, all written by hand by different scribes (it took about eight hours to do so!), in Latin but also quickly translated into French, which was spoken by King John and his barons at Court. The King’s seal was attached to each charter with a sealing apparatus operated by the Bearer of the seal.

Peace didn’t last long at all! As soon as July 1215, John wrote to Pope Innocent III requesting the annulment of the charter, which was accepted the following month, the pontiff declaring it “null and void of all validity for ever”. Civil war broke out again. The barons asked Prince Louis, son of Philip Augustus, King of France, to take the English crown. The French prince landed in May 1216. However, fate intervened as King John fell ill with dysentery and died at Newark in Nottinghamshire, on 19th October 1216. His nine year old son, Henry was crowned at Gloucester, leaving the governing of the land in the hands of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, who reissued the charter, together with the papal legate, in the name of the young king in November 1216; and again in November 1217 (with the charter of the forest), both with variations from the original text. But the most important reissue was to come when Henry III turned eighteen.

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Ten years after his father sealed his charter, the young king reissued it on 11th February 1225, this time with the important mention “Spontanea et bona voluntate nostra” (of our own spontaneous goodwill), giving the clear indication of his intention. However it was still written as a political “bargain” to obtain tax revenue; Henry needed to raise money to prepare for the defence of his continental lands (Gascony) as king Louis of France was threatening them. The charter was granted to “omnes”, everyone, meaning all people, free or not.

This 1225 charter became the definitive version. It is shorter than the 1215 one (37 clauses instead of 63), and it has a new preamble and conclusion. The text was never modified thereafter: further reissues were all confirmations of it. It is also the definite text which entered the statute books; the text of the Magna Carta was officially copied into the Statute Roll on behalf on King John’s grandson, Edward I. The “security clause” of 1215, enforcing the King’s compliance to the charter, is absent, but there is a threat of excommunication to anyone violating the charter.

One figure from the time is of particular interest to Wiltshire: William Longespee (1167-1226): Henry II’s illegitimate son, half-brother to King Richard I and King John, and Earl of Salisbury after his marriage to Ela, Countess of Salisbury. As adviser to King John, his name was mentioned in the preamble of the 1215 charter of Runnymede, as well as in the conclusion of the 1225 one. He remained on King John’s side as a diplomat and warrior except for a brief “defection” to the baronial side when Prince Louis of France invaded. After John’s death, he played a prominent role in the minority government of King John’s son, Henry III and as Sheriff of Wiltshire (1213 to 1226), he received an exemplification of 1225 charter, inscribed on the back “Ex d[e]posito militu[m] Wiltsir” (by deposit of the knights of Wilshire). Ela, Countess of Salisbury, his wife, became Sheriff of Wiltshire herself after William’s death and the parchment went from Salisbury to Lacock Abbey in the nunnery she founded in 1232. She was first a nun and later abbess there from 1239 to 1257. The precious document was preserved in the abbey until the 20th century by its successive occupants, miraculously surviving the dissolution of the monasteries, the transformation of the abbey into William Sharington’s residence, the Civil War and two world wars! The last owner of Lacock Abbey, Matilda Talbot, hid the precious Lacock Magna Carta, burying it carefully wrapped and boxed underneath the floor of one of the monastic rooms off the cloisters. In 1945, she gifted the charter to the British Museum for the nation. Before leaving the abbey, its home for 730 years, it was exhibited there for six weeks “so that Wiltshire neighbours and friends might see it”. In 1946 it went to the United States, on loan for two years to the Congress Library in Washington. Today, everyone can see it, as Matilda Talbot wished, in the British Library in London.

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Why is Magna Carta still holding such a special place today considering that only three of the original clauses remain on the statute books? Although the original participants of the rebellion in the thirteenth century couldn’t possibly envisage the impact of their actions and the consequences of the charter of liberties they obtained from their king, the principles defended through their grievances remain fundamental to us. The freedom we enjoy cannot be taken for granted and can be still threatened as it was 800 years ago.

Further reading:

Magna Carta: the foundation of freedom 1215-2015 (Nicholas Vincent) 
Magna Carta, David Carpenter (Penguin Classics)
Magna Carta: law, liberty, legacy (British Library)
Magna Carta, (Dan Jones)
Magna Carta, the charter that changed the world (David Starkey)

M. Bennett, Lacock Unlocked volunteer. With thanks to the staff at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre for their help.