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

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