Episode 20: King John meets his nobility at Runnymede, and Magna Carta is sealed

Beside the River Thames, just beneath Windsor Castle, barons and king met in a meadow, called Runnymede, where Magna Carta was seemingly agreed and sealed by both sides.

When King John lost London in May 1215, Roger of Wendover implied that his position was hopeless, with scarcely seven knights of his own to command. The king sent William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, with a small retinue to the barons in London to tell them that John was ready to concede all that they desired. The barons, 'in great joy,' it was said, appointed 15 June,

for the king to meet them, at a field lying between Staines and Windsor. Accordingly, at the time and place pre-agreed on, the king and nobles came to the appointed conference, and when each party had stationed themselves apart from the other, they began a long discussion about the terms of peace and... liberties.

This field was Runnymede and it probably has not changed very much in the last eight centuries. Ostensibly with the king was Archbishop Stephen, numerous other prelates, William Marshal, and other senior earls, and Cardinal Pandulph, until recently the papal legate to England. Roger does not list the barons, contenting himself with the description of their presence as being 'innumerable.'

I shall be printing the text of the Charter at the end of this history, and here I am only referring to the principal issues that had angered the nobility and, apparently, the citizens of London, and many other people.

Firstly, the church of England was confirmed as a free church and its elections were to be free of interference from royal control. Abbeys, monasteries, and cathedrals - right down to parishes, we infer - were also to be free of interference from the nobility, some of whom, in their local areas, had been as bad as the king in disturbing the ecclesiastical peace.

Secondly, we have seen throughout our story how, not only King John, but his brother, Richard the Lionheart, had used the inheritance of baronies and other noble rights as an excuse to levy swingeing fees on their heirs, running into thousands of marks a time. According to Henry I's Coronation Charter, inheritance of an earldomanic barony was to be £100; the inheritance of an ordinary barony was to be a hundred marks; and the inheritance of a knight's fee to be a hundred shillings. This was confirmed at Runnymede.

Thirdly, wardship - the guardianship by the king of the lands of minors - was to be reasonable, without destruction or damage to person or property. The baronage also enjoyed wardship, but here was no mention in the Charter about their being obliged to conduct themselves justly in the administration of an heir's estate. Many noblemen, like kings, doubtless used these rights to enrich themselves, distressing the estate that was to be handed on. This remained a serious problem for centuries to come, and wardship was finally abolished by Act of Parliament in 1660. Trusteeship had been invented by Tudor lawyers, and trusteeship was introduced where wardship had been abolished. What made this a much fairer system had been the creation of the Court of Chancery that made civil cases for abuse of trusteeship, among other matters, actionable at law.

Fourthly, widows were often kept waiting for their dower. Dower was the money handed over on her marriage, part of which became hers as a widow for her mainenance in a manner becoming her status. Women had often been forced into unwelcome second marriages by an influential administrator of her dower, who sold her marriage for a fat fee. These matters were abolished by Magna Carta, although it was not really until the Married Women's Property Act, of 1875, that wives and widows of the upper class became truly independent financially. Even in this twenty-first century, many women in Britain are still paid less for the same job as a man; and are mostly unlikely to reach the heights of their profession as a man is able. Some Anglican parishes will not entertain women priests and the largest Christian church of them all - Roman Catholicism - is not even contemplating such a move.

Fifthly, the City of London, together with all other cities and towns, were to have all their liberties and their old customs restored. London only had its first woman Lord Mayor - Dame Mary Donaldson - in 1985, a mere 770 years after Magna Carta. The City Corporation has since elected two more women, which reminds me of occasional remarks on my school report, 'could do better.'

Sixthly, scutage, or shield money, which we have seen levied in great tranches by the Plantagenet kings - for their wars in France - could only be levied, from 1215, with the agreement of those to be taxed. Arbitrary taxes of this sort were also forbidden to the barons who had been accustomed to tallage their tenants at will.

Seventhly, the king was to de-forest the lands that his brother, Richard the Lionheart, had absorbed into the royal demesne, and the swingeing powers of the royal foresters were curbed. Everyone hated the forest laws which took land out of cultivation so that the king could hunt in them. The royal foresters had been able to deal severely with infringements by outsiders, who went hunting on their own account - often just for food in a time of want. Foresters routinely blinded, or amputated hands and feet - even hanged - malefactors. These powers were ended, although no mention was made in the Charter about the hunting parks of the nobility. Presumably, they could carry on as before.

Eighthly - and far and away potentially the most significant clause - was that no freeman was to be arrested and imprisoned without cause and should be brought to trial quickly, to be convicted or acquitted. Lawyers, especially American lawyers, like to speak of this requirement as the 'golden thread.' It is the foundation of the right of all free-born English (and Americans) to be exempt from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment without trial. In the so-called 'War aginst Terror' - a very silly phrase - this right is being lost sight of, but that is something for my summing up later.

Finally, and it was this clause that detonated the first English civil war, the king's acts were to be scrutinized and approved by a committee of twenty-five barons. If he failed to accede to their demands, they were empowered by Magna Carta to,

annoy and harass us, by all the means in their power, such as taking our castles, lands, and possessions, and any other means, till we give them satisfaction, according to their decision, saving always our person, and the persons of our queen and children. And let everyone in the kingdom who who chooses to do so, swear that, to obtain all the aforesaid terms, (the king) will obey the twenty-five barons, and will harass us in conjunction with them, to the utmost of his power.

John was quite right, the barons had taken the kingdom from the king.

In the next Episode, the inevitable war breaks out between the king and his barons.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain