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

Friday 21 February 2014

In the finest tradition: the right of English bishops to reprimand the king

Two bishop saints, mid-13thC, BL, Royal 2 B VI, f.11
Recently, the archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols spoke out in the national press against the government’s cuts to welfare spending, labeling the policy ‘a disgrace’ that threatened to abandon society’s most vulnerable to ‘hunger and destitution’. Yesterday, a coalition of 27 Anglican bishops and 16 other faith leaders wrote a letter to the Mirror in support of Nichols’ message. The bishops’ intervention raises an important question about the role of religious leaders in politics, in a modern western world that many would categorise as secular. The prelates should take comfort, though, that they have history on their side.

English bishops since before the Norman Conquest had a duty – a responsibility, in fact – to reprimand kings when they acted immorally. For instance, the tenth-century archbishop of Canterbury, St Dunstan, after catching King Eadwig in flagrante delicto (‘sprawled between his whores, his crown flung off, some way away on the floor’), threatened the king with excommunication, ‘took him by the hand, replaced the crown, and dragged him forcibly from the room.’ Thankfully, no such demand has yet been placed on today’s bishops.

Dunstan’s right to wag his finger at the king was based partly on Biblical precedent. Old Testament prophets, seen as the forerunners of the Christian clergy, had reprimanded King Saul and King David when they sinned. The medieval bishops’ authority was also based on their role in the coronation. Since 973, English bishops had received the coronation oath – a promise to rule justly – from the king. They also anointed him with holy oil. Since bishops made the king, they also were duty-bound to call him to account.

Their remit for overseeing royal action expanded as time went on. Famously, Thomas Becket criticised Henry II for his treatment of the Church and the quarrel escalated to the point of lethal violence. But, in the thirteenth century, the bishops also kept their eye on royal policy more generally, for the good of the wider kingdom. Crucial to this development was Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury 1207-26. Langton was a prodigious scholar of the Bible and took the clergy’s responsibility for chastising wayward kings very seriously.  As archbishop of Canterbury, he put this thought into action by taking it upon himself and his colleagues to enforce Magna Carta. Magna Carta bound the king to act within the law and regulated the king’s treatment of his subjects across society. Whether or not Langton helped to compose the Charter – and there is real doubt that he did – he came to be one of the Charter’s most vigorous supporters.

It was Langton who, in 1225, stepped in with his fellow bishops to pronounce a sentence of excommunication against anyone who dared break the Charter’s terms. This was an important move because, since 1216, the Charter had contained no means of enforcement. The original issue of Magna Carta in 1215 included the security clause, which empowered 25 barons to seize the king’s possessions if he failed to abide by the Charter. When a new version was issued on behalf of the young king Henry III in 1216, this controversial clause was left out. This meant that there was no clear way to call the king to account if he failed to keep Magna Carta. Langton’s decision to use spiritual punishment now gave the Charter teeth. The threat of excommunication was one that the king would have taken very seriously, because the sentence would mark him as an outsider in the Christian community and might also give his subjects licence to rebel.

Langton’s actions in 1225 were a model for his successors. In 1234, a new archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund of Abingdon, publicly chastised Henry III in an assembly at Westminster for the king’s willingness to listen to evil counsel, berating him for the damage that his policies were doing to the kingdom and his subjects. Edmund threatened the king with excommunication if he did not mend his ways. Henry listened to the archbishop’s advice and threw out the bad counsellors. In 1237, Edmund enforced Henry’s confirmation of Magna Carta by sentence of excommunication. His later successor, Boniface of Savoy, did the same in 1253 and again, in 1265, the English bishops reiterated the sentence. Although today we might not live in a world where government leaders fear the reprimands of Church leaders, Langton would be pleased to hear (as reported in the Mirror) that at least Mr Cameron was ‘rattled’ by the bishops’ reprimand. Vincent Nichols, Justin Welby and their colleagues should feel assured that they are acting in the finest tradition of the English clergy.  

Read more on bishops, kings and Magna Carta:
S. T. Ambler, ‘The Montfortian Bishops and the Justification of Conciliar Government in 1264’, Historical Research, 85 (2012), 193-209

D. A. Carpenter, ‘Archbishop Langton and Magna Carta: His Contribution, His Doubts and His Hypocrisy’, EHR, 126 (2011), 1041-65

D. L. d'Avray, ‘«Magna Carta»: its Background in Stephen Langton’s Academic Biblical Exegesis and its Episcopal Reception’, Studi Medievali,ser.3, 38:1 (1998), 423-38

B.K. Weiler, ‘Bishopsand Kings in England, c.1066-1215’, in L. Körntgen and D. Waβenhoven (eds.), Religion and Politics in the Middle Ages:Germany and England by Comparison (De Gruyter, 2013), 157-203

Friday 14 February 2014

On the Feast of St Valentine, 1265: Simon de Montfort's parliament and Henry III's promise to keep Magna Carta

DAC does Henry III 
Today might be the feast of St Valentine but, on this day in 1265, Henry III’s heart must have turned cold. Held prisoner by Simon de Montfort, he stood humiliated in the chapter house of his beloved Westminster abbey while an announcement was made that he had sworn to subjugate himself to Montfort’s council. At the same time it was proclaimed that Henry had vowed to abide by Magna Carta. Whilst a royal promise to keep the Charter was nothing new (the 1225 issue of Magna Carta had been confirmed by Henry in 1237 and 1253), circumstances in 1265 made this occasion very different. Henry’s oath was not part of a mutual bargain between king and subjects, provided freely in return for a grant of taxation. Instead, it was extracted from him by force. Defeated on the field of battle at Lewes in May 1264, and held captive by the triumphant Montfort, now de facto ruler of England, the king had no choice but to endorse Magna Carta and the radical Montfortian constitution in the same breath.

Henry’s situation was all the more demeaning because the scene of his humiliation, Westminster abbey chapter house, was the very place Henry had built to profess the majesty of his rule. He had begun the rebuilding of Westminster abbey in 1245 (in honour of his patron saint, Edward the Confessor) and had personally overseen the design of the chapter house. Envisaging a venue where he would meet his nobles in parliament, the king had commissioned a lectern decorated with wrought iron and, possibly, gilding. Henry must have imagined himself making dignified speeches, stood on the magnificent tiled floor that bore his coat of arms, bathed in light from the house’s vast windows, surrounded by prelates and magnates who sat awed by his authority. Instead, the king stood dumb (if, in fact, he was there at all) while a rebellious subject announced on his behalf that the king was now subject to conciliar rule.

The history of Magna Carta is bound up with that of Westminster abbey. The old abbey had been a site for assemblies since the days of its founder, Edward the Confessor, and it was there in St. Katherine’s chapel that Magna Carta had been confirmed in 1237. The chapter house of the new abbey was built by the first king to govern under the Charter’s restrictions and was designed with the new modus vivendi for ruler and ruled in mind. Even if the events of 14 February 1265 showed that this relationship had been usurped by a more radical model, it was here in the chapter house that the importance of Magna Carta in the language of good government was confirmed.

Henry’s confirmation of Magna Carta in 1265 is discussed in a Feature of the Month on the Magna Carta Project website. For more on Henry’s chapter house, see: D. A. Carpenter, ‘King Henry III and the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey’, in R. Mortimer (ed.), Westminster Abbey Chapter House: The History, Art and Architecture of 'a Chapter House Beyond Compare' (London: Society of Antiquaries of London, 2010), 32-9

Thursday 6 February 2014

David Carpenter on researching Magna Carta

Professor David Carpenter (KCL)
As part of our series of blogs looking at the work of the project team, co-investigator David Carpenter talks about his research on Magna Carta.
In 1996, David Carpenter published his first piece of research on Magna Carta in his volume of collected essays, The Reign of Henry III. In ‘The Dating and Making of Magna Carta’, he argued that King John, in a canny move, issued the Charter on 15 June before his barons had chosen the 25 barons who would enforce the Charter, allowing John to keep the names of the 25 out of the official version.
1996 was a significant year for Magna Carta scholarship, with two other important articles published at the same time as David’s.
‘I think Nick Barratt’s article on the revenue of King John (EHR, 1996) is a pioneering article and the most important thing to have come out since Holt’s work (Magna Carta, 1st edn., 1965), furthering our understanding of Magna Carta and revealing for the first time the gigantic revenues which John generated in the second half of the reign. I also think the article by Katherine Faulkner about the knights in John’s reign (EHR, 1996) was very important, showing how many there were. Since then, there have also been two collections of essays on King John and Magna Carta (King John, New Interpretations (1999) and Magna Carta and the England of King John (2010)). Another important area of research has been on the thought world behind Magna Carta at the Paris schools, by John Baldwin and Philippe Buc, looking into the academic thought that fed into the ideas that created Magna Carta. I don’t think Stephen Langton (archbishop of Canterbury 1207-26) played a part in the development of baronial demands in 1215 but once negotiations started at Runnymede he was very involved. No one did more to fight for the Charter and its survival after Runnymede than Langton and the more you look at it the more courageous his activity was. That’s changed our view of things.’
Yet, despite the strength of research on Magna Carta, there are still some things about the Charter that are hidden from view.
‘We know a great deal about what happened at Runnymede but the gap in our knowledge is between the composition of the Unknown Charter (January-June 1215), which is basically the Coronation Charter of Henry I with some additional demands, and the Articles of the Barons (10 June 1215), because the transformation between those two documents in huge. Whereas the Articles of the Barons is basically Magna Carta and has got all the stuff about local government, the role of the knights and the security clause, the Unknown Charter hasn’t got any of those things, so there’s been a gigantic expansion in the whole programme of the opposition to the king. How that came about, we don’t know. And perhaps the most striking thing about Magna Carta is the security clause, with its 25 barons with power to coerce the king, and the origins of that, how it was put together, is something one would love to know more about. Maybe some document will be discovered – it’s amazing what has come to light as a result of the Magna Carta Project and allied work in the last few years – so it’s possible that something will appear to fill that gap between the Unknown Charter and the Articles of the Barons.’
David’s recent research has looked at the drafting of Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215.
‘I got into that almost by accident because I was interested in how Magna Carta was divided into chapters, and how those chapters were numbered. In the four original engrossments of 1215 there was no paragraph divisions or numbering, so I wondered when that first started. If you look at thirteenth century copies of Magna Carta, the division in chapters is much clearer than in the original engrossments, because they do have new paragraphs for what they conceived of as new chapters, and sometimes those are indicated with decoration. And so I got interested in looking at those thirteenth century copies of Magna Carta, and it was only then that I realised that some of them were variants and weren’t in accord with the authorised version. That raised the question of whether these preserved drafts of what happened at Runnymede. That’s been a really interesting part of what the project has discovered. I’ve been looking at lots of cartularies, along with Nick Vincent (the project’s Principal Investigator), and we’ve made several important discoveries there that will be revealed in due course. This has all helped with the book I’ve been writing on Magna Carta for Penguin, which will come out towards the end of 2014. That’s been a fascinating exercise in which I’ve made use of what the project’s done, particular Henry Summerson’s wonderful commentaries on the various clauses.
I wouldn’t say my ideas about King John have particularly changed, but I’ve enjoyed going over some of the wonderful primary sources for his rule again. It’s sometimes said that sources for John’s reign aren’t that good, or aren’t as good as those for Henry II’s reign. But when you look at the Anonymous of Béthune, the Life of William Marshal, the Magna Vita written on St Hugh and Ralph of Coggeshall’s chronicle, you can get very close to what John was like. I feel he was a much more formidable operator than he’s sometimes given creditor for, because he could be immensely courteous and charming and all the more dangerous for that: you had always to suspect the knife beneath the cloak. So he could smile and be a villain – on a superficial meeting you wouldn’t necessarily suspect what he really was – and that emerges very strongly in some of the accounts.’