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Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Henry III's Confirmation of Magna Carta in 1237

Image from teh Bayeux Tapestry of the old Westminster Abbey, built by Edward the Confessor
On 28 January 1237, Henry III confirmed Magna Carta in a great assembly at Westminster. This was the first confirmation of the 1225 issue of Magna Carta – the version that was to endure throughout the thirteenth century and parts of which remain on the statue books today.
By the end of 1236, Henry was in desperate need of cash. His marriage to Eleanor of Provence in January 1236 had been expensive and he had promised £20,000 to Emperor Frederick II as the marriage portion of his sister, Isabel. In line with clause 12 and clause 14 of Magna Carta 1215, the only way to secure a tax was by the consent of his prelates and magnates. Accordingly, Henry fixed a date of January 1237 for an assembly (or, rather, a ‘parliament’, for this was the first meeting described as such in official records).
According to the St Albans chronicler Matthew Paris, ‘an infinite multitude of nobles’ attended the parliament, which took place at the palace of Westminster. When they were all seated, William Ralegh (the king’s most senior judge) rose and, ‘as if a mediator between the king and the magnates of the kingdom’, set out Henry’s request. As with other taxes of this period, the king didn't have a specific sum in mind but a proportion (that is, a proportion of the value of people’s moveable goods). The sum requested was a thirtieth.
The king’s demand was met with an angry response from bishops and barons. They complained ‘indignantly’ about the various taxes they had been made to pay in recent years, as well as Henry’s neglect of their interests. Disturbed by this outburst, Henry promised that in future he would abide by the counsel of his native magnates. He fervently denied rumours of any attempt to procure an annulment of Magna Carta from the pope and promised, there and then, to observe the Charter.
Henry did acknowledge, though, that his behaviour over the previous few years had not been spotless. In fact, his tendency to listen to bad counsel might well have caused him to fall under the general sentence of excommunication that had been pronounced in 1225 by the then archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, against all who violated Magna Carta. Accordingly, Henry arranged for the sentence to be renewed by the current archbishop, Edmund of Abingdon. This was done in a solemn ritual held in St. Katherine’s chapel in Westminster abbey (this was the old building, founded by Edward the Confessor - Henry didn’t start work on his new abbey until 1245). The king stood with his right hand on the Gospels and his left hand clutching a lighted candle and swore to observe Magna Carta from that day onwards. The archbishop and prelates proclaimed ‘Let it be done’ and threw down their own candles to extinguish them. This caused a great amount of smoke and an unpleasant smell that irritated the eyes and nostrils of the audience. The archbishop, though, recognised this as a teachable moment and declared: ‘Thus let the condemned souls of those who violate the Charter, or who interpret it improperly, be extinguished, and let them likewise smoke and stink.’
Henry was to confirm the 1225 issue of Magna Carta again in 1253 and 1265, both times enforced by a sentence of excommunication.

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