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Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The Cheshire Magna Carta

The Cheshire Magna Carta
‘Both by royal permission and the virtues of its earls’, wrote the monk of Chester abbey, Lucian, about 1195, Cheshire ‘is accustomed to answer in its assemblies more to the sword of its prince than the crown of the king’.[i] There has been much debate over how far the earl of Chester - described here as a ‘prince’ - enjoyed exceptional, autonomous, authority in Cheshire in the decades prior to its takeover by the crown in 1237 and the development thereafter of a ‘palatinate’ tradition by a county community keen to assert claims to special privileges. The first formal record that we have of Cheshire as a ‘county palatine’ does not come until the 1290s.[ii]

Be that as it may, Lucian’s statement is testimony to a perception of Cheshire, during the earldom of Ranulf III (1181-1232, though a minor until 1187) as separate from the rest of the kingdom. The issue by Earl Ranulf of a ‘Magna Carta’ for the county, almost certainly in 1215, as a local counterpart to the Runnymede Magna Carta granted by King John, is an example of that separatism in practice. It is fitting, therefore, that Cheshire Local History Association has chosen to mark the 800th anniversary by publishing The Magna Carta of Cheshire, a booklet of just over 100 pages which includes a new translation of Earl Ranulf’s charter, accompanied by a detailed commentary on its context and content. Some of the key features of the charter are also highlighted in the Feature of the Month for May.

In terms of number of words, Earl Ranulf’s charter was about one-third the length of King John’s Magna Carta. There were far fewer chapters or clauses, but among them were some which addressed issues familiar from Runnymede: safeguarding the interests of widows and minors, relaxing restrictions within the earl’s forests and limiting obligations to castle-guard. There was also a promise that concessions should extend beyond the immediate beneficiaries, the Cheshire barons, to their own knights and free tenants - seemingly a deliberate echo of Magna Carta cap. 60 and, if so, good evidence that those who framed the Cheshire charter intended that it would stand within the county in place of the king’s. Alongside these were concessions which had no parallel with those made at Runnymede, including two dealing with claims over ‘avowers’ - fugitives settling in the county - and a remarkable chapter in which the earl itemised those baronial petitions he had turned down. Among these, if the phraseology has been interpreted correctly, was a bid to have hare-coursing laid on whenever the barons were summoned to Chester! Even some of the chapters for which there were precedents at Runnymede incorporated distinctive Cheshire concerns. There was protection of the right to plead ‘thwertnic’ (‘I deny it all’) in the earl’s court, which appears to have had the effect of frustrating prosecutions, and a guarantee that military service would not be enforced beyond the Lyme, the sharply-defined area of wooded upland which delineated Cheshire’s eastern and south-eastern frontier with the rest of England.

It is fair to say that the Magna Carta of Cheshire, though twice published in scholarly editions during the twentieth century[iii] and duly mentioned in passing in several books on Magna Carta, has not until now received the attention it deserves. It offers us an insight into the hopes and fears of the landholding class in an under-populated frontier shire, away from the main centres of royal power in early thirteenth-century England.

[i] Liber Luciani de Laude Cestrie, ed. M.V. Taylor (Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire,  LXIV, 1912), p. 65.
[ii] See  e.g. G. Barraclough, ‘The Earldom and County Palatine of Chester’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, CIII (1951), pp. 23-57; J.W. Alexander,  ‘New Evidence on the Palatinate of Chester’, English Historical Review, LXXXV (1970), pp. 715-29 and Ranulf of Chester, a Relic of the Conquest (Athens, Georgia, 1983), esp. pp. 60-68; Victoria County History: Cheshire, II, pp. 1-8; D. Crouch, ‘The Administration of the Norman Earldom’ in A.T. Thacker, ed., The Earldom of Chester and its Charters (Journal of Chester Archaeological Society, LXXI, 1991), pp. 69-95.
[iii] Chartulary or Register of St Werburgh, Chester, ed. J. Tait (Chetham Society, new series, LXXIX, LXXXII, 1920, 1923), I, no. 60; Charters of the Anglo-Norman Earls of Chester, c.1071-1237, ed. G. Barraclough (Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, CXXVI, 1988), no. 394.

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