Magna Carta 1: backwards and forwards

As all my readers will probably be aware, this year is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and there have been large numbers of events commemorating it. The most active group of all has been the Magna Carta Project and a few weeks ago I went off to their conference to get an exhaustive dose of Magna Carta-related research. The conference included 30 or so papers, so I can only give brief summaries of them (I think a conference publication is planned for those who want more details). But this is a report also from a Carolingianist’s viewpoint, not that of someone who specialises in the central Middle Ages. As the post title implies, I’m coming to Magna Carta from the other direction to most people, not looking backwards from 2015, but forwards from 815 (or maybe even 715). What is distinctive about Magna Carta in that respect? What evidence is there of continuity as well as change?


Seal matrix of Robert fitz Walter, one of the leading rebels

We started off with an entertaining talk by Nick Vincent, principal investigator of the project who set the scene with a brief history of commemorations of Magna Carta, including the event he had just attended at Runnymede, memorably described as “part village fete, part Fascist rally”. He pointed out how few of the previous anniversaries of the charter had been celebrated: in 1715 the government had been distracted by the Old Pretender, in 1815 by Napoleon and in 1915 by the Kaiser. A large committee of the Royal Historical Society had been formed in January 1914 to prepare for the 700th anniversary, but was disbanded in October 1914, having done almost nothing. The RHS, however, were behind a set of essays published in 1917 on the charter.

In 1965, commemorations of the 750th anniversary were overshadowed by the death of Winston Churchill, but the year did mark the publication of James Holt’s volume on Magna Carta, which as Nick put it, “rescued it from the lawyers”. Nick highlighted the research of John Baldwin and Philippe Buc on the scholastic ideas behind Magna Carta: it shouldn’t just be seen as an English document, but placed in a European context.

Nick also provided an introduction to the Magna Carta Project, which has focused on the charter and related texts as physical objects. Nick himself had discovered a copy of it back in 1980 at Hereford Cathedral and the project had so far identified 227 charters of King John, using these as comparisons for the handwriting of the Magna Carta copies.

After Nick, we started off before 1215 with papers from Jinty Nelson and then Levi Roach on the political role of charters in the Carolingian Empire and Anglo-Saxon England. Jinty’s paper was showing how many of the individual elements seen in 1215 were already present in the Carolingian world. There was certainly “assembly politics”, as discussed by Tim Reuter and charters, which tell us about very varied levels in Carolingian society. You can also see similar ideas of how a king should behave, going back to Isidore and examples of agreements involving both nobles promising fidelity to the king and the king swearing to behave as a “rex fidelis” to them, such as made by Charles the Bald in 858. Hincmar of Rheims, meanwhile, was interested in how coronation oaths might be used to ensure correct behaviour by kings, as well as celebrating how the “boni barones” of Charlemagne and Carloman had ensured a smooth succession.

One difference that Jinty did note is that these kind of political agreements appear in the Carolingian period largely in capitularies, rather than in a charter form, though she reckoned there were close links between the various types of documents. Thinking about her paper afterwards, I was struck by the thought that you could make a kind of Frankenstein’s monster version of many of the clauses of Magna Carta if you stuck together bits of different Carolingian capitularies, but such a concoction wouldn’t include much of royal agreements with the magnates, like the one in 858 or the Capitulary of Coulaines 843 (one of the other key examples of agreements between Carolingian rulers and their fideles). Carolingian rulers did promulgate decrees about matters like widows and weights and measures and fish-traps, as Magna Carta did in 1215, but they did that only in capitularies of their own free will. So one key difference between thirteenth-century England and ninth-century Francia is the increased complexity of the political situation, with more groups involved in negotiations at times of crisis and making more specific political demands.

Levi’s paper, meanwhile, was building on an article by Julia Crick which looked at Anglo-Saxon ideas of liberty. Ideas of “libertas” (freedom and exemptions from public duties) initially became associated with holding land by charter (bookland), but then came to be applied more specifically to exemptions for religious and monastic establishments.

Levi was talking about a specific group of such church exemption charters known as the Orthodoxorum charters, and arguing that some of the earliest ones were forgeries by Abingdon Abbey. Although the earliest, Sawyer 658 and 673, are dated as 959 AD, there are implausibilities (like a dead archbishop signing one) and Levi saw the privileges given as reflecting the problems of the 980s, and these charters as produced in the 980s or 990s, along with genuine charters giving liberties to specific churches. These charters, reflecting constitutional developments in Aethelred’s personal reign, then inspired forgeries which provided the same kind of liberties for other monasteries. Levi also pointed out that such royal safeguarding of church liberties was a common European theme and the tendency was for liberties and privileges to be given to churches first and then to expand outwards to wider recipients.

Although in questions, someone was trying to make a distinction between such charters as giving rights to one individual institution and Magna Carta as addressed to all, the combination of Jinty’s paper and Levi’s did suggest there were several variations on forms of legislation that might have similar content and effects.

Similar parallels to European patterns were also visible in Bjorn Weiler’s paper on “Good Kings and Bad Kings in Medieval Reality”. This was looking at how some later twelfth-century historians rewrote aspects of John’s reign to make it conform to norms. In particular, Bjorn highlighted how Matthew Paris claimed that Archbishop Hubert Walter made a speech to the barons at John’s coronation, saying that a king must be chosen unanimously and must show virtue, implicitly replacing John’s succession by hereditary right with an election. Roger of Wendover had already claimed that John had made promises at his coronation and had been warned not to accept the office if he was not prepared to keep them.

The earliest evidence for the coronation (by Roger of Howden) doesn’t mention Hubert’s speech, but Bjorn points out how it fits within a long tradition of bishops admonishing kings (such as St Dunstan’s letter on the crowning of Edward the Martyr and an Archbishop of Reims (Fulk?) supposedly denouncing Charles the Simple as unsuitable to be king, because he consorted with blasphemers). Enthroning a king was a sign of status for a bishop, but also a challenge for him. In particular, there was a concern to establish the norms of royal behaviour at the start of a king’s reign (or, in Matthew Paris’ case, to retrospectively claim they had been established), so he could be held to account later.

Attempts to hold kings to account weren’t new in C12, but Bjorn did see a particular concern about this as the increased use of a class of royal administrators separated the king more from the traditional elite. The period was also marked by a “fashionable” concern for law and ethics; what Bjorn did think was new (with the continuing council envisaged by Magna Carta) was the putting in place of long-term methods of oversight of the king, rather than simply one-off moments of enforcement. John Sabapathy has just published a book on new methods of accountability in the high Middle Ages: looking again at Magna Carta within this framework sounds a useful development.

After dodgy history about real kings, we had Martin Aurell on “Good Kings and Bad Kings: Arthur, Tristan and John”, starting with the end of Arthur the pagan, British king in Richard I’s reign: “Arturus, rex Britonum” had become “Arturus rex Angliae” in Roger of Howden, and Arthur’s tomb was found in Glastonbury in 1191. By c 1230 Arthur had become associated with the house of Anjou, as seen in the Lancelot-Graal cycle and other texts. But the use of the associations weren’t straightforward: Arthur of Brittany, for example, was able to use the resonances of his name against his uncle. Some versions of the story had Arthur as a bad king: the French romances in the thirteenth century tended to see him negatively as an English king, in contrast to Lancelot as being from Gaul.

Martin also pointed out how ideas about kingship and law were embedded in such romances and may have reached an elite lay audience in this way. He mentioned Arthur’s speech on how a loyal king “preserves law, truth, faith and justice” and how the Prose-Graal has Arthur having to do penance for his sins. I was particularly interested by this aspect, as that again sounded like something that had changed from the Carolingian period. Whatever the stories being heard at Charlemagne’s court, they probably didn’t have the same ideas of contractual relations between kings and the aristocracy and the theocratic ideas of a good king: those I’d say come in with some of the chansons de geste, but it’s hard to see them before that.

There were a couple of particularly interesting comments during the questions on this session: Nigel Saul pointing out that one thing missing from Magna Carta was any baronial control of royal patronage, which was a key flashpoint later on and Alice Taylor mentioning some of the twelfth and thirteenth-century romances that deal with the king denying rights and inheritances (especially in Raoul de Cambrai and Silence). Once again, I had the sense of the patterns of problems with kingship repeating down the centuries: royal favour was always both inevitable and problematic.

We then moved onto John’s relationship with the church, starting with Janet Burton on “King John and the Cistercians”. Janet was arguing that John wasn’t unremittingly hostile to the Cistercians, but that he reacted to events, with clashes at several times over John’s need for money (first to pay Philip Augustus and then in 1210 for the Ireland expedition). In between these, his relationship with them was more positive and he even founded Beaulieu Abbey. What interested me most was hearing about the Cistercians as an order dealing with John, for example, abbots in England saying that they could give money without the consent of the General Chapter. Such structured monastic orders weren’t around in the early Middle Ages and their existence did pose a challenge to rulers’ authority in the thirteenth century.

Sophie Ambler followed on “The Church in Politics, 1200-1300”, reminding us that the church was at the heart of events in 1215, especially since we now know that several of the copies of the 1215 Magna Carta were probably made by episcopal scribes. Archbishop Stephen Langton played a key role in enforcing the charter, including the use of excommunications. Similar rituals were associated with later proclamations: Matthew Paris has a vivid description of the symbolism used in 1253: the bishops held lighted candles which they threw down to the ground at the end of the sentence of excommunication, saying: “Thus are extinguished and stink in hell those who attack this sentence”.

Sophie particularly highlighted the role of Stephen Langton, who had been trained in the schools of Paris and used this training to discuss ideas of what the king was entitled to do. For example, he seems to have used legal formalities to avoid handing over Rochester Castle to John in late 1215 (we heard more of that later in the conference). It’s perhaps not surprising that John ended up denouncing Langton as a “notorious and bare-faced traitor” and that Langton lost his ability to act as a mediator and peacemaker. Sophie ended by saying that Langton’s tomb was tucked away in Canterbury Cathedral and he deserved more commemoration. (I didn’t get the chance at the time to say that my old parish church, Slindon in West Sussex has a memorial to him).

After refreshments, we reconvened for the final session of the day: Anne Duggan, John Hudson and George Garnett discussing: “Magna Carta: Common law or ius commune?”

This was one the session that was probably toughest for the non-legal historians among us to follow, especially since I admit to only having a hazy notion of what the ius commune is: basically, the combination of Roman and canon law taught in the schools which forms the basis of many European legal systems, but supposedly had little influence on English secular common law. This traditional view goes back to Glanvill and the London Collection of English laws from the twelfth century: the collection included a forged letter of Pope Eleutherius to King Lucius of Britain saying that rather than giving than the Pope giving Lucius Roman law to follow, Lucius should develop his own law with the counsel of his peers. George was putting this into a context of twelfth-century attempts to dig up Anglo-Saxon law and present Norman law as a continuation of it. In other words, right from the start, we don’t have simple descriptions of the history of English law, but attempts to frame the story in a particular way.

This traditional and accepted view of the lack of influence of “learned law” in England and on Magna Carta in particular was challenged by Richard Helmholz in Magna Carta and the ius commune, which saw 21 clauses of Magna Carta as influenced by ius commune. One of the most interesting things I gained from the discussion between Anne, John and George was a sense of how hard it is to pin down influence. Elements of the ius commune were circulating by the 1130s, even if the full system was only developed later. But how do you conceptualise “influence” where there may be influence on vocabulary, but not procedure or vice versa, or when writers may be using a smattering of Roman law to add a patina of learning? And how do you know when it’s not just that similar solutions have been independently found for similar problems?

Three points in particular stuck with me. John talked about how in North Italy, the same jurist might use Roman law in one place, Lombard law and another and custom in a third. Anne pointed out that in the English sources you can see a learned population who are bilingual or even trilingual (English, French, Latin), as sometimes reflected in word order. And finally there was her description of the lawyers as “subtle men taking from ius commune whatever was needed to add precision to English laws”. It’s these ideas of legal and linguistic code-switching that give me the best sense of this thirteenth-century legal world, one that in that aspect does seem considerably removed from my scholarly Carolingian home world.


2 thoughts on “Magna Carta 1: backwards and forwards

  1. This is a massive amount of detail to absorb in one reading. Maybe, at a personal level, it is because I am uncomfortable with reading in quantity on a computer screen. However, your synopsis of this broad spectrum conference and the path from which you approached it, I found quite magnetic. It seemed to me, there was more than a hint of subversion flowing through the analysis which, definitely appealed to me.

    In truth, I have found the year long public ‘celebrations’ of the first and more-or-less failed Magna Carta somewhat shallow, misdirected and not well focussed. Some historical perspective from other quarters, (if an individual chose to locate it) placed some substance amongst the mass of media bunting. Reading this post retrieves, what for me, has been a local jamboree with minimal significance.

    ‘No man is an island’ is so relevant to your synopsis. Reading of ‘learned men’ in international legal [and ecclesiastical] circles, including those on the British Isles, draws back the muffling curtain, the one that ascribes, all that was and is developmentally best, as only being found here. We know there were scholars world-wide, just as there are today, so, unless they were all stuffed into dungeons, or, other forms of isolation, there would have been some shared interest and communication. Nationalism offers a narrow prism.

    As you know, I am not a Medieval Scholar, nevertheless, in my view, there is much in your writing that is worthy of a broad reach of the population


    • I’m sorry about the density of my post – it was a very intensive few days and part of me writing reports is to help me put the pieces together in my mind.

      But I’m glad I conveyed at least some impression of one of the best points of the conference: it wasn’t just limited to English scholars or only talking about English history, and it was serious consideration of Magna Carta and the events of the early thirteenth century rather than just triumphalism or cynicism.

      I’ll try and post more about the subsequent days of the conference in a week or two (which included papers on military history, Magna Carta’s effects for women and how people later in the Middle Ages understood and misunderstood the charter). Meanwhile, if you want to read some more relatively short articles on the charter and King John, I’d recommend the Magna Carta Project Feature of the Month. There’s a particularly entertaining post about King John and cranes!


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