Visit The Magna Carta Project website for more on Magna Carta and King John.

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Magna Carta on BBC Radio 4's Beyond Belief

A depiction of Stephen Langton forcing Magna Carta on King John
Magna Carta Project Co-investigator David Carpenter appeared this week on BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Belief, to discuss the Church’s involvement with Magna Carta. David discussed the Interdict and Stephen Langton’s role in drawing up and upholding the Charter with the Dean of Salisbury, the Very Reverend June Osborne, and Simon Barrow, a Co-director of Ekklesias (a Christian think tank). You can listen to a podcast of the programme on the Radio 4 website.

Friday 17 October 2014

Magna Carta Essay Competition

Professor Sir James Holt (1922-2014)
The Magna Carta Project has established an essay prize in memory of the late Professor Sir James Holt, the great expert on Magna Carta, who died earlier this year. Professor Holt's work on the Charter, including two magisterial books (The Northerners and Magna Carta) has formed an important part of undergraduate syllabuses for decades and continues to inspire students. 

The J.C. Holt Essay Prize will be awarded for the best essay by an undergraduate student answering one of the competition's designated questions on Magna Carta. The prize will be £250, to be presented at the Magna Carta Project conference at King's College London/British Library between 17 and 19 June 2015. The deadline for submissions is 1 March 2015.

The list of questions and full details of how to enter are available on the Magna Carta Project website.

'The men who were responsible for the Great Charter of 1215 asserted one great principle. In their view the realm was more than a geographic or administrative unit. It was a community. As such, it was capable of possessing rights and liberties. Magna Carta was indeed a statement of these rights and liberties, which could be asserted against any member of the community, even and especially against the King. The durability of Magna Carta is to be explained by the general utility of this central concept.' (J.C. Holt, The Northerners)

Sunday 12 October 2014

Henry III and Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor, 
 BL Royal 20 A II f.5
13 October is the feast of the translation of Edward the Confessor, spiritual patron of Henry III. In 1245, Henry began to rebuild Westminster Abbey in the Confessor’s honour and, from around the same time, made every effort to be present at Westminster on both of his patron’s feastdays (the other being the anniversary of the Confessor’s death, 5 January).  

How and why did Henry become attached to the Confessor? In an article for English Historical Review of 2007 David Carpenter argued that, in the mid-1230s, Henry began to look to the Confessor for a model of consensual kingship. This followed the fall of Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, who had exercised a malign influence upon the king between 1232 and 1234. ‘Imperious and impervious... he had boasted of “the plenitude of royal power”, ridiculed the principle of “judgement by peers” and hurried Henry into a series of disseisins per voluntatem regis . During his regime, the very future of Magna Carta had seemed at stake. It was on this form of rule that Henry turned his back.’
‘The spiritual life of King Henry III revolved around his veneration for Edward the Confessor. The abiding testimony to that, of course, is Westminster Abbey which Henry rebuilt in Edward’s honour, and where he still lies entombed beside the battered remnants of the jewelled and tessellated shrine to which he translated Edward’s body. The pre-eminence of the cult in Henry’s mind can be gauged from the number of paupers he fed each day, as revealed by the household roll for the regnal year 1259 – 60. On 5 January 1260, the anniversary of Edward’s death in 1066, the number was 1,500; on 12 and 13 October 1260, the vigil and anniversary of the saint’s translation in 1163 (always the more important feast), it was 5,016. The next largest total during the year was the 464 fed on the vigil and feast of Pentecost.
Many scholars have written about Henry’s devotion to the Confessor, none more brilliantly than Paul Binski in his book, Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets: Kingship and the Representation of Power 1200 – 1400. But there exists no detailed consideration of exactly when and why Henry became attached to the saint. Binski himself assigns the process to the 1220s and 1230s, without being more precise. He observes that "why Edward suddenly came to prominence early in the reign of Henry III is unknown". This paper will argue that Henry’s devotion to the Confessor was established in a very few years in the 1230s, to be exact between 1233 and 1238. It was the result of the peculiar circumstances of those years, circumstances which made Westminster Abbey redouble its efforts to attach Henry to the saint, and rendered Henry desperate for the support of a spiritual patron. A particular Westminster monk, Richard le Gras, the disastrous regime of Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, and Henry’s marriage to Eleanor of Provence are also part of the story.’

Thursday 9 October 2014

The realities of King John's rule revealed

Clause 39 of Magna Carta 1215 is perhaps the most famous of the Charter’s 60-odd clauses: ‘No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.’

Setting out the principle that the government should be bound by the law – that the ruler could not simply attack his subjects as and when he pleased – it has long been held up as a shield against arbitrary government in those countries where the Charter’s principles have informed the relationship between ruler and ruled.

Injustices committed under King John, as depicted by Matthew Paris
But what was the context for this demand in 1215? Anyone with a passing familiarity with the period might cite the tyrannical government of ‘Bad King John’. Famous examples easily come to mind: John’s harrying of the Briouze family, and his imprisonment and starvation of Matilda de Briouze and her eldest son, being one of the most notorious.

But the reality of John’s rule was, in fact, more brutal than even cases such as this would suggest. In preparing his commentary on clause 39 for the Magna Carta Project, Henry Summerson has undertaken a thorough investigation of how John ruled on a day-to-day basis. The result is a picture of a government that was systematically aggressive, violent and arbitrary.

The ability and willingness to provide justice to those who sought it was, as far as the king was concerned, a tool for exercising his power: 
‘What mattered... was his ability to variously advance the men he trusted, fend off those he did not, and play upon the hopes and fears of both in such a way as enabled him to retain their loyalty, or at any rate frustrate their disloyalty.’
The king’s court might follow sound procedure and provide justice to those who sought it, although not if it was the king himself who had inflicted an injustice upon one of his subjects – which was all too often the case. But Angevin kingship was as much personal as it was procedural. The king’s good will (benevolentia) and his ill will (malevolentia) were fundamental to the operation of royal rule: 
‘The world of the Angevin court and government was one of violent, almost black-and-white, antitheses, in which benevolence and malevolence were polar opposites, with little neutral ground between them – anybody who lost the one stood in immediate danger of incurring the other, and of seeing his affairs go to ruin in consequence, exposed to the caprices of an administration which was always heavy-handed and often downright violent as well.’
The effects of the king’s anger could be devastating. Henry II and Richard I demanded vast sums of money from their greater subjects to buy back the king’s good will, often for unspecified offences or in the pursuit of their grudges. But King John pushed these arbitrary methods of government much further.

One of John’s favoured tools was dissesin – the repossession of a subject’s lands. This was a severe blow to the subject’s prestige and social status but the financial consequences were also severe: 
‘anyone disseised on the king’s orders faced the loss of all his or her movable assets... [and potentially] the complete devastation of the property.  Thus in 1215 the houses on the land of Henry of Braybrooke were to be completely demolished, while a year later order was given that all the lands of William of Hastings were to be wasted, his demesnes destroyed and his castle pulled down.’ 
It was not only earls and barons who suffered at John’s hands: 
‘What sets John’s kingship apart from that of his two predecessors is the number of lesser men who were similarly targeted... almost any offence, whether real or not, could result in dispossession, carried out on orders whose arbitrariness was if anything underlined by the frequency with which they were said either to have originated in the king’s malevolence’
Henry has uncovered a catalogue of examples that reveal how ‘disseisin had become a well-nigh automatic reaction on the part of the king and his agents to any misdeed or suspicious act which came to their attention.’ 

Imprisonment and physical violence, and the threat thereof, were also tools readily used by the king. When the kingdom was placed under an interdict, in 1208, John 
'encouraged, or at least countenanced, assaults on the clergy (the Barnwell Chronicle referred to clerks suffering through swords and gibbets), and then he forbade such attacks, with the hardly less intemperate declaration that if he could lay hands on anyone responsible, "we will have him hanged on the nearest oak".'
In 1215, John was able to capture Belvoir Castle 'by threatening to have its lord (and his prisoner), William d’Aubigné, starved to death if his men did not surrender.’

But the king’s threat of violence had also become a normal tool of administration, threatened as punishment for relatively trivial offences that merely inconvenienced the kings’ household: 
‘In 1201 the men of Gloucester had to pay forty marks to recover the king’s good will, lost because they did not provide him with the lampreys he had ordered for his visit in late October.’ 
In 1205, the king ordered Reginald of Cornhill to buy wine for him and send it to Nottingham, warning him to "know that if the wines are not good we will betake ourselves against you for it". Clearly 'John’s government seems to have expected, or even wanted, to arouse fear.’

The extent to which the government deployed violent and aggressive methods actually led to confusion, as the king and his officials struggled to keep track of whom they had attacked and why. In fact John seems to have encouraged a policy of ‘disseise first and ask questions later’ in his officials, as when 
‘he ordered Falkes de Bréauté to restore his wife’s inheritance to Roger Corbet, apparently a Gloucestershire landowner, but concluded by commending Falkes’s prudence "in that you disseised him and notified us of it".’
Although chroniclers decried John’s rule in general terms, 
‘it is in the records of that government that the evidence for its activities... is mostly to be found.  Those records are full of gaps, and in any case the personal character of John’s government means that many of its actions were not formally recorded.  But despite these difficulties, which make quantification impossible, it seems likely that the level of demands and penalties, reinforced by threats, rose markedly in the later years of John’s reign.’
Henry’s commentary reveals, perhaps for the first time, not only the sheer scale of John’s arbitrary treatment of his subjects but also its routinisation. For this reason clause 39 was of fundamental importance, for it 
‘aimed to subject intrusions of policy and personality to the constraints of due process.  By doing so it proclaimed, and helped to install, regularity, routine and impartiality as qualities fundamental to the administration of justice, while in the longer term it set in motion developments which resulted in law ceasing to be no more than an agency of government.’

Read Henry's commentary in full on the Magna Carta Project website. To find out how Henry goes about researching the commentaries, see his earlier feature on the Project blog

Tuesday 7 October 2014

The Four 1215 Magna Cartas at the British Library

King John hunting, from British Library MS Cotton Claudius D II
1,215 members of the public will be able to view the four surviving original Magna Cartas of 1215, which will be brought together at the British Library on 3 February 2015 to mark the 800th anniversary of the Charter’s endorsement. The British Library holds two engrossments of the 1215 Charter; a third is preserved at Lincoln Cathedral and a fourth at Salisbury Cathedral. This will be the first time that all four originals have been brought together. Members of the public can apply for the chance to attend the event via a ballot, which opened this week.

The British Library will also be holding a major exhibition to commemorate the 800th anniversary (Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy), which will open on 13 March 2015. Members of the Magna Carta Project are advising on the exhibition and will provide chapters for its catalogue. Further information can be found on the Medieval Manuscripts blog.

In preparation for events next year, conservators at the British Library have been subjecting one of their Magna Cartas to multispectral analysis. The document was badly damaged in the Cotton Library fire of 1731, making much of its contents impossible to read with the naked eye. As a result of the images produced by this analysis the text can now be read once more. Further details of the conservation work can be found on the Collection Care blog

Thursday 11 September 2014

Conference: ‘Manu propria. Vom eigenhändigen Schreiben der Mächtigen'

Principal Investigator Professor Nicholas Vincent will be speaking at a conference in Vienna on 18 September 12014: ‘Manu propria. Vom eigenhändigen Schreiben der Mächtigen'. The conference brings together scholars working on the palaeographic, administrative and cultural history of communication in order to examine the role of writing in the exercise of power by popes, cardinals, monarchs and magnates across Europe from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. Professor Vincent’s talk is titled ‘How Kingly were the King’s Letters? Personal Intervention in the Writing of Royal Documents in England from the Beginnings to 1350.’ The full conference programme can be found here. 

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Magna Carta: the Bury St Edmunds Connection, 20 September 2014

Ruins of Bury St Edmunds Abbey
Members of the Magna Carta Project will be speaking at an upcoming conference at Bury St Edmunds: ‘Magna Carta: The Bury St Edmunds Connection’, on Saturday 20 September 2014.

Project Co-investigator Professor David Carpenter will speak about the meeting of King John’s barons that took place at Bury St Edmunds in the autumn of 1214. The meeting is of great importance in the story of Magna Carta, for it was there that the barons swore that, if King John would not agree to rule justly, they would press their demands by force. David will re-examine the evidence for this meeting and, indeed, ask whether or not it actually took place.

Professor Nicholas Vincent, Principal Investigator of the project, will speak about the place of Magna Carta in the wider world. What continental influences went into the making of the Charter? How has it, in turn, influenced the law and government of the USA or other parts of the world? Why does it enjoy iconic status not just in England, but across four continents?

Co-investigator Professor Paul Brand will talk about Magna Carta in the courts: its enforcement and interpretation 1215-1300. Magna Carta was, of course, a major constitutional document but its individual clauses were also invoked by litigants and the royal justices in the course of individual cases heard in the courts.

The event will take place on 20 September at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, from 10.00. Tickets can be purchased via the venue’s website

Friday 8 August 2014

Life in the Medieval Courtroom: podcast

Professor Paul Brand, Co-Investigator
In June 2014, Professor Paul Brand, co-investigator on The Magna Carta Project, delivered the annual Pipe Roll Society lecture at the National Archives. Paul spoke about the records that survive for English royal courts in the 13th and 14th centuries and what we can learn from them about the realities of life in the courtroom. 

Sunday 27 July 2014

The Battle of Bouvines, 27 July 1214

The Battle of Bouvines, in BL Royal  MS. 16 G VI f.379
The Battle of Bouvines, fought on 27 July 1214, was one of the most influential battles in European history, directing the fate of the kingdom of France, the Holy Roman Empire and the Angevin dominions. In England, it was to lead to Magna Carta. Since 1204, when Philip Augustus had won Normandy from King John, the English king had worked relentlessly to raise the funds needed to reverse his losses. His demands pushed his subjects to the brink of rebellion. Defeat at Bouvines sealed King Philip’s hold on Normandy and fuelled opposition to John’s rule in England. In Sir James Holt’s words, ‘the road from Bouvines to Runnymede was direct, short, and unavoidable.’

Defeat at French hands in 1214 was far from inevitable. John sailed for Poitou in February, dispatching a force commanded by his half-brother, William Longespée earl of Salisbury, to Flanders. Within weeks of his arrival, John could write to William Marshal that ‘Hardly had I appeared when twenty-six castles and fortified places opened their gates to me.’ He took Nantes and then Angers, which submitted without a fight on 17 June.

Battle of Roche-aux-Moins, and Louis on the march,
BL Royal MS. 16 G VI f.385
Understandably confident, John prepared to face French forces. King Philip had headed north to Flanders to deal with John’s allies but had left his son, Louis, in the south. Louis advanced toward Roche-aux-Moins, where John was besieging the castle.  It was then that the rug was pulled from beneath John’s feet. On seeing Louis’ forces, the Poitevin barons refused to follow John into battle. Abandoning his baggage and siege engines, John retreated hastily to La Rochelle. From there, on 9 July, he composed a letter to his barons in England pleading for reinforcements. His appeal was in vain.

Yet the alliance formed by John remained formidable. Outside the village of Bouvines, the combined forces of William Longespée, Otto of Brunswick (Holy Roman Emperor and John’s nephew), and the counts of Flanders and Boulogne prepared to meet King Philip. The allied commanders, after some debate, chose a Sunday to attack. As this was a day when knights would not normally bear arms, they hoped to take Philip by surprise. The French king was sheltering from the heat of the sun in the shade of an ash tree when he was brought the news that his enemies were arrayed for battle. Quickly raising himself, he entered the nearby church of St Peter to offer a prayer (‘Lord, I am but a man, but I am king’) before arming himself.

The two sides drew up an arrow’s shot apart. Both were formed of three divisions. The French right was commanded by the duke of Burgundy, its left by the bishop of Beauvais, and its centre by King Philip himself. The count of Flanders led the allied left, the Emperor Otto its centre, the earl of Salisbury its right. The fighting began, with each contingent shouting its own battle-cry (‘Montjoie!’, ‘Boulogne!’, ‘Rome!’, ‘Regales!’).

A cavalry encounter at Bouvines,
BL Royal MS. 16 G VI f.380v
Combatants did not set out to kill but rather capture noble enemies, in accordance with chivalric principles (indeed, the account of the Anonymous of Béthune describes the battle as if it were a tournament, enacted through a series of mêlées). Thus knights targeted the horses of opponents. King Philip was unhorsed by Renaud, count of Boulogne, his erstwhile friend and now vehement enemy. Set upon by Renaud’s men, Philip was saved by his household knight, Peter Tristan, who shielded the king and offered him his horse. Meanwhile, three of Otto’s mounts were killed beneath him, the last after it was stabbed in the eye by Gerard La Truie, in a fearsome attack sanctioned by King Philip. Many horses were to fall at Bouvines, as the eye-witness account of William the Breton reveals:
‘You could see horses here and there lying in the meadow and letting out their last breath; others, wounded in the stomach, were vomiting their entrails while others were lying down with their hocks severed; still others wandered here and there without their masters and freely offered themselves to whomever wanted to be transported by them: there was scarce a spot where one did not find corpses or dying horses stretched out.’
(It is, perhaps, telling that accounts of the battle make much of the killing and wounding of horses under knights, but little of the death of foot soldiers, who must have died in great numbers).

Flight of the imperial army at Bouvines,
BL Royal MS. 16 G VI f.381v
The decisive moment in the battle came when the allies’ right division, under the earl of Salisbury, advanced at an angle toward King Philip’s central force. The French left, headed by Philip of Dreux, the bishop of Beauvais, confronted the attack. The bishop was an old enemy of the Angevins. He had been captured by John in 1197, leading a sortie from his city to meet John’s forces, and brought bound before Richard the Lionheart. According to the History of William Marshal, the sight had gladdened the English king, who hated Philip of Dreux almost more than any other. Richard declared him: ‘a robber, a tyrant and an arsonist, who so loved waging war that he devastated the whole of my land and pillaged it night and day.’ It was forbidden for clerics to shed blood, a ban the bishop of Beauvais defied; as Richard complained, ‘it was not as a bishop that he was taken captive but as a knight of great reputation, fully armed and with his helmet laced.’ Now, at Bouvines, he faced the English contingent wielding his mace. Launching himself at William Longespée, he dealt such a blow that he shattered the earl’s helmet. Thrown to the ground, the earl was captured. So too were the counts of Flanders and Boulogne and a host of allied knights. Otto fled the field, having been provided with a horse by Guy d’Avesne to replace his dying mount.

After three hours of brutal fighting in the blazing July sun, Philip’s forces had triumphed. For the allies it was, in the words of the History of William Marshal, an ‘ignominious rout’. 400 miles away in Bouteville, south-east of La Rochelle, John was yet to know that his dreams of recovering Normandy had been crushed.  

Note on sources: the Battle of Bouvines is described in several sources, including the eye-witness (though partisan) account of William the Breton. Many of these were translated into French by George Duby for the appendices of his Le Dimanche de Bouvines (Paris, 1973), and translated into English from the French in the English edition of Duby’s work, The Legend of Bouvines (Cambridge, 1990). The battle is also outlined in History of William Marshal, ed. A. J. Holden and trans. S. Gregory (London, 2004), II, lines 14787-14839. The various accounts are synthesised in the narrative of the battle provided by Jim Bradbury in his Philip Augustus: King of France 1180-1223 (London, 1998). John’s capture of the bishop of Beauvais in 1197 is described by Roger of Howden (The Annals of Roger de Hoveden, trans. H. T. Riley (London, 1852), II,396 – a reference I owe to Marc Morris), and Richard I’s enmity for the bishop is stressed in the History of William Marshal, lines 11267-11286, and 11579-11626 (drawn to my attention by Elizabeth Chadwick).  

Thursday 24 July 2014

Tournaments and Chivalry: Hugh Doherty on 'Making History'

Tournament scene from BL Add. MS. 12228 ff.214v-215
Hugh Doherty, of the Magna Carta Project, made an appearance this week on BBC Radio 4's Making History (22/07/14). The programme, presented by Helen Castor, featured a discussion of medieval tournaments and their modern recreation. Hugh explained how tournaments evolved through the Middle Ages and how they were connected with the ideals of chivalry. 

Monday 21 July 2014

Magna Carta mansion on sale for £3.95 million

The 17th century mansion that might mark the spot
where Magna Carta was sealed, in 1215
Magna Carta Project Principal Investigator Nicholas Vincent was quoted in the Wall Street Journal last week (17 July), about a private island on the Thames that has recently come up for sale. The island, Nick verifies, is one candidate for the spot where the first issue of Magna Carta was sealed by King John, in 1215. The island is now the site of a seventeenth-century mansion, which features a ‘Magna Carta Memorial Room’. At the heart of the room is a stone upon which, a former owner claimed, King John sealed the Charter. The mansion will be listed at £3.95 million.
Read  the full Wall Street Journal article here.
The property details can be viewed via Sotheby's International Realty UK here.

Project Co-investigator Louise Wilkinson has since been quoted, on the claim that it was this island that hosted the sealing of Magna Carta, in an article in The Independent (22 July), here

Wednesday 16 July 2014

The Penitent King: John submits to archbishop Langton, July 1213

King David submits to the reprimand of the prophet Nathan
(BL Royal MS. 2 B VII f.58)
On 16 July 1213, Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, returned to England. This was a momentous occasion. King John had refused to accept Langton’s appointment as archbishop of Canterbury, precipitating an angry dispute between pope and king and provoking Innocent III to impose an interdict on England. For the past five years, most of the senior clergy had been in exile, while in England the sacraments were forbidden. Langton’s arrival in England didn't signal the beginning of a new era but, rather, the hope that one might be on the horizon. The archbishop had come to make peace.

Langton, together with the bishops of London, Ely, Lincoln and Hereford, met King John at Winchester on 20 July. The choice of time and place was significant. Langton had chosen to cross the Channel on a Tuesday – a special day for anyone who, like Langton, was devoted to St Thomas Becket, because it was that day that famously hosted so many of the important events of Becket’s life. To those watching in 1213, Langton’s return might have looked like an ultimatum to King John: choose the path of your father, Henry II, and let this conflict degenerate or choose the path of peace. It was also important that the meeting took place at Winchester. The feast-day of the city’s patron, St Swithun, fell on 15 July, meaning that the city would still be celebrating. Winchester Cathedral was also the coronation church of the Anglo-Saxon kings, and it was St Edward the Confessor who was held up as the model of good kingship for his Angevin successors.   

The scene, as the bishops met the king, was a dramatic one. King John fell down at the feet of the bishops, weeping profusely, and implored them to have mercy on him and the kingdom of England. The bishops lifted him from the ground and led him into the cathedral. In the chapter house, they sung the fiftieth psalm:
‘Have mercy on me, O God, [and] blot out my iniquity... For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me... Deliver me from blood, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall extol thy justice.’
John swore, with his hand on the Holy Gospels, to defend the Church and her clergy, to destroy iniquitous laws and revive the good laws of his ancestors, especially those of King Edward, and to provide justice for all his people. He also promised to restore Church property that he had seized during the interdict, and offered fealty to Pope Innocent and his successors. The bishops absolved him and then, after Mass had been celebrated, they all sat down with the assembled magnates to enjoy a feast.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that John hadn't been reformed in spirit as the bishops had hoped, and that his relationship with his subjects was to deteriorate to the point of civil war.  So it's easy to question John’s sincerity in 1213: was he really sorry for his actions? were his tears genuine? But his meeting with the bishops has to be seen in the context of two, related, traditions. The first was an ancient and widely-used practice that allowed warring groups to make peace through ritual submission, by which one party would publicly humble himself and beg for forgiveness.  The second was a long-held custom that allowed archbishops of Canterbury and their colleagues to reprimand the king when he behaved immorally or illegally. This special power was drawn from the Old Testament prophets, like Samuel and Nathan, who had chastised kings for their wayward behaviour. By such an act, it was hoped, just and equitable rule could be restored to the kingdom and civil war could be prevented.

In this respect, the bishops’ actions in 1213 ultimately failed. But reconciliation with the Church was a vital step towards any future settlement. It allowed Langton and his colleagues to act as peacemakers in 1215, and to help negotiate the terms of peace between the king and his subjects that were embodied in the Charter of Runnymede. Thus the penitence of a king not otherwise known for his humility has a pivotal place in the story of Magna Carta

Thursday 26 June 2014

King John's Diary and Itinerary: June 1214

King John attacks a castle, BL Royal MS 16 G VI f.373v
We begin this account of the year leading up to the issue of Magna Carta, with King John riding high in June 1214.  Having waited nearly eight years to launch a campaign to reconquer his ancestral lands in France, John had at last assembled the requisite army and, in February 1214, crossed from England to La Rochelle.  His campaign went well.  In March and April, he had reimposed his authority over the region between the rivers Loire and Garonne, asserting his lordship over the lands of his wife (Isabella of Angoulême) on the Charente, and his late mother (Eleanor of Aquitaine) in Limoges and the high country of the Creuse.  In April, he had gone south, to Saintes and the Saintonge, reaching as far south as La Réole on the Garonne.  His priority thereafter was to reassert his authority over the regions east of La Rochelle.  This was a traditional centre of Plantagenet revenue collection and demesne estates.  It was also a region where John's long-term rivals, the Lusignan family, had stepped in to the vacuum created by John's expulsion from France after 1204. Looking eastwards from La Rochelle towards Poitou, Poitiers was the only major city that remained under French control.  The Lusignans themselves harbored grievances that stretched back to John's earliest years as King, to his marriage to Isabella of Angoulême (once promised as a Lusignan bride) and to the capture and imprisonment of members of the Lusignan clan following John's defeat of his rebellious nephew, Arthur of Brittany, at the siege of Mirebeau in 1202.  Here again, all went well.  Lusignan castles in the Vendée, at Mervent and Vouvant, were besieged and captured in May 1214.  By early June, the King was ready to press home his attack against the real centres of French royal influence, north of the Loire.  In early June, he lay siege to the strategic fortress of Nantes, on the estuary of the Loire.  Although Nantes itself remained impregnable, he took valuable prisoners, and by 17 June, exactly 800 years ago this week, had taken repossession of the city of Angers, further up the Loire, the ancestral home of his family, the Angevin/Plantagenet dynasty.  From Angers, on 19 June, he set out to besiege the fortress of La Roche-aux-Moins.  It is there that we join him at the start of one of the most significant years in English history.

Saturday 21 June 2014

Magna Carta Project at Downing Street

Nicholas Vincent and Claire Breay with Prime Minister David Cameron
Nicholas Vincent and Claire Breay of the Magna Carta Project attended a party at 10 Downing Street hosted by Prime Minister David Cameron, on 16 June 2014. The party brought together people involved in celebrating the 800th anniversary, in 2015, of the Charter's first issue. The Prime Minister was keen to hear how plans for the celebrations next year are developing. To see what's in store for next year, see the Magna Carta Trust website

Friday 20 June 2014

Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015 (Third Millennium Publishing)

Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015
 (Third Millennium Publishing, forthcoming)
In August 2014, Third Millennium Publishing will release Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015, a richly illustrated commentary on the Charter and its subsequent history, for which Magna Carta Project Principal Investigator Nicholas Vincent is the leading author. 

Nick contributes four of the book's nine chapters, which address the origin and context of Magna Carta, the Charter's life in the thirteenth century, and Magna Carta as an artifact. The book's contents list can be found here

Sample pages from Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom, can be viewed here. They include splendid colour images of thirteenth-century manuscripts, coins, seals, castles and tombs (and much else) .

The book is available to pre-order now. A proportion of the revenue from every copy sold will go to the Magna Carta Trust

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Stephen Langton and Magna Carta

19th C bronze showing Langton overseeing King John's
issue of Magna Carta
In an article for English Historical Review in 2011, David Carpenter (co-investigator of the Magna Carta Project) set out to reassess the role played by Stephen Langton (archbishop of Canterbury 1207-1226) in the drafting of Magna Carta in 1215, as well as in the Charter's subsequent survival. 

'After King John’s settlement with the pope in 1213, his archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, was at last able to enter England. That he then played a major part in national affairs is undisputed. What is disputed is his precise contribution to Magna Carta. At one extreme, historians have ascribed to Langton all that was best in the charter: the way it asserts the fundamental principle that the ruler is subject to the law, and the way too it reaches out to a wide constituency and is not just a selfish baronial document. At the other extreme, led by J.C. Holt, they have argued that Langton contributed little to the charter’s fundamentals, and was a mediator and moderator rather than an originator. These divergent views reflect contemporary testimony. In the (often challenged) account of the St Albans abbey chronicler, Roger of Wendover, Langton seems very much the fons et origo of Magna Carta. In the accounts of Ralph of Coggeshall and the Barnwell chronicle, in contrast, he is far less prominent and appears essentially as an intermediary between the sides. This article will seek to reveal a Langtonian role in the shaping and survival of the charter very different from that found in previous accounts; it will relate that role to the archbishop’s doubts about the validity of the 1215 charter, doubts only removed in the final and definitive version of 1225; and, lastly, using evidence hitherto ignored, it will expose the seeming hypocrisy of Langton’s conduct when set against the principles of the charter and the canons of his own academic thought.'

Sunday 15 June 2014

799 Years On

Pine's engraving of Magna Carta 1215
‘King John was trying to suffocate Magna Carta at birth and he had good reasons for doing so. One, perhaps, only impinged slightly on the fringes of his thought. Hitherto, if civil wars had been fought for any positive end, they had been fought on behalf of an individual, a Robert Curthose or a young King Henry, or in the interests of the participants in seeking land, office, and power. Now a civil war was being fought for a cause, a programme, not for one individual or even several, but for a document, a simple piece of parchment. The rebellion which King John faced was thus quite novel. It was the first of a long line which led through the Provisions of 1258-9 and the Ordinance of 1311 down to the Grand Remonstrance of 1641. Of all these Magna Carta was the ancestor and was so recognized by its progeny...

The men who were responsible for the Great Charter of 1215 asserted one great principle. In their view the realm was more than a geographic or administrative unit. It was a community. As such, it was capable of possessing rights and liberties. Magna Carta was indeed a statement of these rights and liberties, which could be asserted against any member of the community, even and especially against the King. The durability of Magna Carta is to be explained by the general utility of this central concept. Once it was established, the rights it subsumed could be expanded, amended, and further defined. Judgement by peers could become trial by jury. Per legem terrae could become due process of law. That the constitutional history of England has been in Stubb’s words ‘a commentary on this charter’, was a result of the Promethean quality of the Act of 1215.’ (J. C. Holt, The Northerners (1961))

Thursday 5 June 2014

Translating Magna Carta

Back in 2012, members of the Magna Carta Project team met to produce a new translation of Magna Carta and, along the way, got an insight into how the drafters of the Charter set about their task in 1215. Soon you'll be able to listen to the discussion clause by clause but, for now, here's a preview.

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Magna Carta and Excommunication in 1253

Excommunication ceremony (BL, Royal 6 E VI f.216v)
On 13 May 1253, the Archbishop of Canterbury and thirteen of his suffragan bishops pronounced a sentence of excommunication in the great hall at Westminster, against anyone who violated ecclesiastical liberties or the liberties contained in Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. Although sentences of excommunication had been pronounced against violators of the charters previously, notably in 1225 and 1237, this is the first for which a text survives. The bishops invoked the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, Saints Peter and Paul, and all saints and martyrs, as well as the champion of the English Church St Thomas Becket, and the canonised Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor. They then proceeded to ‘excommunicate, anathematize, and sequester from the threshold of the holy mother Church’ all those who deprived churches of their rights, or who violated, infringed, or diminished the free customs and liberties of the realm, especially those contained in the Charters. Anyone who disturbed the peace of the kingdom was also excommunicated.

The ceremony performed by the bishops was described by the monastic chronicler Matthew Paris, who wrote that as the sentence was finished and the candles held were thrown down (so that they were extinguished and smoking), everyone said, ‘Thus are extinguished and stink in hell those who attack this sentence’, and bells were rung. The king himself declared, ‘so help me God, I will faithfully guard all these terms inviolate, as I am a man, as I am a Christian, as I am a knight, and as I am crowned and anointed king’. Paris noted that before the sentence had begun the king had been offered a candle to hold himself, but had declined on the grounds that this was improper because he was not a priest. Instead he held his hand to his chest for the entirety of the sentence, with a cheerful expression on his face.

The background to this solemn pronouncement was that the bishops had called for the king to renew and confirm the Charters, and in return they would agree to grant him a large tax. David Carpenter has discussed the negotiations surrounding this confirmation in detail, but key to understanding these events is that it was the bishops, rather than the secular nobles, who pushed for the confirmation. This was largely because the clerical tax requested was considerably more substantial than the tax imposed on the laity. It is therefore significant that the sentence of excommunication protected the Charters, but not only the Charters. It in fact begins by protecting the liberties of churches, and in a separate clause the liberties contained in the Charters. The bishops thus tightly bound the freedom of the Church to the freedoms in Magna Carta.

The sentence was later pronounced in the localities, in every parish church of the country. In the dioceses of Lincoln and London, however, it was also pronounced in secular spaces, with priests turning up at county courts with hand-bells to fulminate the anathema. Paris noted the particular efforts to have the sentence publicised by Robert Grosseteste, the bishop of Lincoln, who died later in 1253. Paris claimed that he did this because he was afraid that the king would renege on his promises. The text was also confirmed the following year by Pope Innocent IV, and at the end of the decade by Alexander IV. Innocent appointed the dean of Lincoln, Richard Gravesend, to publish the sentence of excommunication. Gravesend ordered each bishop to ensure that it was pronounced not only in every church of the country, but also in all public assemblies. This was to be done in both English and French.

From 1253, every time infringers of the charters were excommunicated, it was this 1253 text that was used. Confirmations of the Charters were frequently sought by both bishops and the secular nobility for the remainder of Henry III’s reign, and again during the reign of Edward I. Particularly important confirmations of the Charters, with renewals of the excommunication, occurred during the conflicts between the king and the barons in the middle of the century, during the period of reform and rebellion, and at the end of the century when the Charters were reissued as the Confirmatio Cartarum. Public Magna Carta excommunications pronounced later in the century and in the fourteenth century were again followed by orders that the sentence of excommunication and the Charters themselves should be published in local parishes in the vernacular. This important tradition of publishing Magna Carta in the vernacular in local churches, with a solemn ceremony of excommunication, started in 1253.

This blog is contributed by Felicity Hill (UEA), whose doctoral research looks at excommunication and politics. 

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Podcast: Magna Carta: what more is there to say?

Professor Nicholas Vincent (UEA)
In this podcast, recorded in 2012 at the National Archives, the Magna Carta Project's Principal Investigator, Professor Nicholas Vincent, discusses the context and legacy of Magna Carta, his work in tracing originals of the Charter and the work of the Magna Carta Project on the charters of King John.

Listen here to Nicholas Vincent's podcast via the National Archives website

Thursday 27 March 2014

Review: 'The Greatest Knight: William Marshal' (BBC 2), presented by Dr Thomas Asbridge

Dr Thomas Asbridge
Following hot on the heels of the first instalment of Robert Bartlett’s BBC series on the Plantagenets comes another BBC production, ‘The Greatest Knight: William Marshal’, a documentary presented by Thomas Asbridge. Marshall, Asbridge tells us at the outset, is a ‘forgotten hero of our history’. While this assertion is sure to have induced puzzlement among students of the Middle Ages, it may be interpreted as a sign that Asbridge’s efforts are targeted at a general audience.
Much of what was covered in last night’s documentary is well-trodden ground, in some cases quite literally so, given that several of the locations visited by Asbridge, including the tomb of Henry II at Fontevraud, the hall of the ducal palace in Poitiers, and the castle of Le Mans, all featured in the first episode of Bartlett’s Plantagenets series. The chronological scope of Asbridge’s documentary – from the middle of the twelfth century during the reign of King Stephen down to the Magna Carta crisis – is also the same as Bartlett’s first episode. More striking, however, is the proximity between Asbridge’s documentary and Saul David’s 2008 Timewatch special on William Marshal. The 2014 and 2008 productions share a title (‘The Greatest Knight’). Like David, Asbridge took a New York cab to the Morgan Library in order to consult the manuscript containing the History of William Marshall. Asbridge spoke to the same curator (one William Voelkle) featured in the Timewatch episode, and even highlighted a passage in the History to which David had drawn attention (that wherein the young Marshall is described as lazy and greedy). In terms of presenting style, Asbridge is more of a Bartlett than a David. Whereas David’s documentary featured ‘talking head’ interjections from prominent scholars including David Crouch and David Carpenter, Asbridge, like Bartlett, generally eschews that approach. The difference between the presenting styles of Asbridge and David are manifest in other ways. David sought to try and see the world through Marshal’s eyes by donning armour and taking part in a joust. Asbridge in contrast, limited himself to a careful twirl of one of the Wallace Collection’s oldest swords. To do so, he had to don blue surgical gloves, and contend with a curator hawkishly watching over him.

Given the familiarity of the subject matter of this documentary, then, did Asbridge succeed in putting his own stamp on proceedings? In one important respect, he did. He accomplished this by placing the History of William Marshall (‘a priceless window into the Medieval world’) at the very heart of his enquiry. When introducing the History near the outset, Asbridge pointed out that historians must interpret this text as a literary construction written to project a carefully tailored image of its subject. He acknowledges that the historical Marshall and the characterisation of him in the History are not necessarily one and the same. (The extent to which the latter can be disaggregated from the former is a matter that often vexes modern scholars). In conversation with the Morgan Library’s curator, Asbridge even adduces some of the salient details regarding the circumstances of the History’s provenance and reception. This is an approach which exhibits a high level of trust in the audience’s critical ability. It is not typical of a primetime documentary intended for airing on the BBC, and is all the more admirable for it.
The hour unfolded with Asbridge tracing the course of Marshal’s life, pointing out certain moments wherein he appears to have acted out of a desire to conform to the contemporary martial ethos which governed knightly behaviour – or, as Asbridge called it, chivalry. While academics might take issue over what ‘chivalry’ consisted of in the age of William Marhsall, and the extent to which it actually did have a bearing on the thoughtworld of the warriors of that period, it would have overcomplicated matters to have done so in this context. Asbridge’s interest focussed chiefly on Marshal’s role in the high politics of his age. The choice to open and close the documentary at Westminster was deliberate; for Asbridge, the ‘greatest revelation of William Marshal’s life’ were the attempts by men of his ilk to limit royal power, which played a part, his argument went, in the development of the system of governance under which we in Britain presently live. There is perhaps no audience better qualified than those who read this blog to discuss how that claim squares with Marshal’s vigorous attempts to shore up royal authority over the rebellious barons of England during the first years of Henry III’s minority after John’s death in 1216.