10 Facts About Women and Magna Carta

Magna Carta

Magna Carta is probably the most significant charter in English history and, today, its importance extends beyond England’s shores, holding a special place in the constitutions of many countries around the world. Despite its age, Magna Carta’s iconic status is a more modern phenomena, seen in the influence it has had on nations and organisations throughout the world, such as the United States of America and the United Nations, who have used it as the basis for their own 1791 Bill of Rights and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, respectively.

Originally called the Charter of Liberties, it was renamed Magna Carta, or Great Charter, in 1217, when the Charter of the Forest (see Appendix C) was issued. Sealed (not signed) in the meadow at Runnymede in June 1215, the legacy of Magna Carta, down through the centuries, has enjoyed a much greater impact on history and the people of the world than it did at the time of its creation. As a peace treaty between rebellious barons and the infamous King John, it was an utter failure, thrown out almost before the wax seals had hardened, not worth the parchment it was written on.

The Magna Carta of 1215 reflects the needs and events of the time in which it was issued; an England on the brink of civil war, disaffected barons demanding redress, the Church and cities such as London looking for protection. It was not a charter that was intended to form the protection and legal rights of every man, woman and child in the land; though it has come to be seen as just that in subsequent centuries. Indeed, the common man does not get a mention, and of the sixty-three clauses, only eight of them mention women as a gender. Only one clause uses the word femina – woman – and that is a clause which restricts the rights and powers of a woman, rather than upholding them.

10 Facts About Women and Magna Carta

1. As queen, Isabelle d’Angoulême is mentioned in Clause 61, the security clause of Magna Carta:

Seal of Isaballe d’Angoulême

…And if we or our justiciar, should we be out of the kingdom, do not redress the offence within forty days from the time it was brought to the notice of us or our justiciar, should we be out of the kingdom, the aforesaid four barons shall refer the case to the rest of the twenty-five barons and those twenty-five barons with the commune of all the land shall distrain and distress us in every way they can, namely by seizing castles, lands and possessions, and in such other ways as they can, saving our person and those of our queen and our children, until, in their judgement, amends have been made; and when it has been redressed they are to obey us as they did before…

2. Other than Isabelle d’Angoulême, only 2 women can be positively identified in the text of Magna Carta. Though they are not named, the Scottish princesses, Isabella and Margaret appear in clause 59 as the ‘sisters’ of Alexander II, King of Scots:

We will treat Alexander, king of Scots, concerning the return of his sisters and hostages and his liberties and rights in the same manner in which we will act towards our other barons of England, unless it ought to be otherwise because of the charters which we have from William his father, formerly king of Scots; and this shall be determined by the judgement of his peers in our court.

3. Magna Carta restricts the right of women to accuse others of murder. Clause 54 states: 

‘No one shall be taken or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman for the death of anyone except her husband.’

King John

In a time when a man had the right to face his accuser in trial by combat to prove his innocence, this right would be automatically removed if his accuser was a woman; women were not allowed to use force of arms. A female accuser was seen as being able to circumvent the law, and therefore the law was open to abuse. It was merely that a woman may make a false accusation, rather that a woman may be manipulated by her menfolk to make an accusation, knowing that she would not be required to back it up by feat of arms. Whereas her husband, father or brother may have been challenged to do just that.

Clause 54 was used on 5 July 1215, when King John ordered the release of Everard de Mildeston, an alleged murderer. Everard had been accused of the murder of her son, Richard, by Seina Chevel. The charge was therefore forbidden under the terms of Magna Carta, and the accused released.

4. The experiences of Loretta de Braose are believed to have inspired Clauses 7 and 8, which sought to protect the rights of widows. Clause 7 established that:

After her husband’s death, a widow shall have her marriage portion and her inheritance at once and without any hindrance; nor shall she pay anything for her dower, her marriage portion, or her inheritance which she and her husband held on the day of her husband’s death; and she may stay in her husband’s house for 40 days after his death, within which period her dower shall be assigned to her.’

5. Clause 8 allowed that a widow was to be free to choose whether or not to remarry, so long as she paid for the privilege:

No widow shall be compelled to marry so long as she wishes to live without a husband, provided that she gives security that she will not marry without our consent if she holds of us, or without the consent of the lord of whom she holds, if she holds of another.’

The clauses protecting widows were intended to protect the inheritances of underage heirs, rather than the rights of the women themselves.

6. Clause 11 protects a wife from having to repay the debts of her dead husband from her dower:

And if a man dies owing a debt to the Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing of that debt; and if he leaves children under age, their needs shall be met in a manner in keeping with the holding of the deceased; and the debts shall be paid out of the residue, saving the service due to the lords. Debts owing to others than Jews shall be dealt with likewise.’

7. Clause 12 allows the king to raise a ‘reasonable’ aid or scutage (taxes) to pay towards the first marriage of his eldest daughter:

Joan of England, King John’s oldest daughter

No scutage or aid shall be levied in our realm except by the common counsel of our realm, unless it is for the ransom of our person, the knighting of our eldest son or the first marriage of our eldest daughter; and for these only a reasonable aid is to be levied. Aids from the city of London are to be treated likewise.’

8. Clause 15 allows that no lord could raise a tax from his free men except to ransom his person, knight his eldest son and marry his eldest daughter once:

Henceforth we will not grant anyone that he may take an aid from his free men except to ransom his person, to make his eldest son a knight and to marry his eldest daughter once; and for these purposes only a reasonable aid is to be levied.’

9. The fate of Matilda de Braose, left to starve to death in John’s dungeons, is thought to have influenced clauses 39 and 40 of Magna Carta. Clause 39 states;

No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.

Clause 40 promised:

To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.’

Clause 39 could not prevent the perpetual imprisonment of women of royal blood, such as Eleanor of Brittany and Gwenllian of Wales. Their royal blood made them a focus for rebellion and opposition and therefore a threat to the throne and the stability of the kingdom.

10. Ela of Salisbury used clause 8 of Magna Carta to support her rejection of an unwelcome offer of marriage:

No widow is to be distrained to marry while she wishes to live without a husband.’

11. Clause 6 of Magna Carta dictated that

Heirs shall be given in marriage without disparagement, yet so that before a marriage is contracted it shall be made known to the heir’s next of kin.’

This clause should have effectively protected women from being forced to marry below their station.

12Isabel d’Aubigny famously invoked Magna Carta when Henry III commandeered land and rights that were rightly hers, proclaiming; 

‘Where are the liberties of England, so often recorded, so often granted, and so often ransomed?’

13. The Rt. Hon. Fiona Woolf, C.B.E., called Magna Carta

the single most important legal document in history. The foundation for global constitutions, commerce and communities. The anchor for the Rule of Law.’ 

You may have noticed that there were 13 facts, rather than the 10 as advertised – my apologies. I got carried away!



Rich Price, King John’s Letters Facebook group; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made EnglandThe Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of BritainOxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Ralph of Diceto, Images of History; Marc Morris, King John; David Crouch, William Marshal; Crouch and Holden, History of William Marshal; Crouch, David, ‘William Marshal [called the Marshal], fourth earl of Pembroke (c. 1146–1219)’, Oxforddnb.com; Flanagan, M.T., ‘Isabel de Clare, suo jure countess of Pembroke (1171×6–1220)’, Oxforddnb.com; Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight; Chadwick, Elizabeth, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’, livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com; Stacey, Robert C., ‘Roger Bigod, fourth earl of Norfolk (c. 1212-1270)’, Oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com.


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Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & SwordAmazonBookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

Alternate Endings: An anthology of historical fiction short stories including Long Live the King… which is my take what might have happened had King John not died in October 1216. Available in paperback and kindle from Amazon.


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Guest Post: The Women of the House of Montfort by Darren Baker

It is a pleasure to welcome historian Darren Baker to History … the Interesting Bits today, with a guest article about the women of the family of Simon de Montfort. Darren is the author of The Two Eleanors, a book telling the dual biography of Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, and Eleanor of England, wife of Simon de Montfort. Darren’s latest book, Crusaders and Revolutionaries of the Thirteenth Century: De Montfort, was released in November from Pen & Sword and is a stunning biography of the the Montfort family.

So, over to Darren …

The Women of the House of Montfort

Darren Baker

King Philip I of France leaving his wife for Bertrade de Montfort

The house of Montfort arose some 50 kilometres west of Paris in a place known today as Montfort l’Amaury. Their family name ‘de Montfort’ is usually associated with two Simons, father and son, the relentless Albigensian crusader and the determined English revolutionary, both men of the 13th century. Other family members went further afield and established lordships in Italy and the crusader states.

Less known is the prominence of the de Montfort women. Their influence reaches back to the 11th century, starting with Isabella. Her father, Simon I, gave her in marriage to Ralph de Tosny, who in turn forced his sister Agnes to marry this first Simon. When Isabella fell out with her father’s children with Agnes, she put on armour and led a body knights in the field against her half-brothers.

Isabella’s half-sister Bertrade was married to Fulk IV of Anjou. She grew tired of his lecherous ways and took as her next husband the king of France, Philip I, who deserted his wife to marry her. Hoping to see her son with Philip succeed to the throne over her stepson Louis (VI), Bertrade had the older youth poisoned, but the attempt failed and brought about her disgrace. She died in a nunnery in 1117, not living to see her son from her first marriage, Fulk V of Anjou, become king of Jerusalem.

Two generations later, Simon III stood loyally by the English in their fight with the French. He was rewarded with marriages for his three children into the Anglo-Norman nobility. His oldest son Amaury V married Mabel, daughter of the earl of Gloucester, the next son Simon IV married Amicia, daughter of the earl of Leicester, and daughter Bertrade II married Hugh, the earl of Chester. This Bertrade was the mother of the legendary Ranulf de Blondeville, arguably the last of the great Anglo-Norman barons.

The senior branch of the house of Montfort died out in 1213, but Amicia’s son Simon V (the crusader), who was already the count of Montfort, inherited the earldom of Leicester. It was confiscated by King John in 1207 and ended up in the custody of Ranulf. It was from Ranulf that Simon VI acquired Leicester in 1231 and became an English noble, but that’s getting ahead of the story.

Eleanor de Montfort and children

Simon V’s wife was Alice de Montmorency. She was very much an active crusader against the Albigensians and often participated in her husband’s war councils. Their daughter Petronilla was born during the crusade and baptised by Dominic de Guzman, founder of the Dominican order. After Simon’s death in 1218, Alice placed Petronilla in a nunnery, where she became the abbess later in life. Alice’s oldest daughter Amicia founded the nunnery of Montargis, south of Paris, and died there in 1252.

In England, Alice’s son Simon VI rose high in royal favour and married Eleanor, the youngest sister of King Henry III and widow of William Marshal II. Together she and Simon had five sons and one daughter. The clash between Eleanor’s husband and brother ended in civil war and Simon’s death in 1265 at the battle of Evesham. Eleanor left England to live out the rest of her life in Montargis and took her namesake daughter with her.

Guy de Montfort was the only one of Eleanor’s sons to marry. He found service under Charles of Anjou, the king of Sicily, and rapidly advanced to become the count of Nola. He received a Tuscan heiress as his bride, but he scandalised the family in 1271 by vengefully murdering his cousin. Guy escaped punishment for the most part and had two daughters, of whom only the youngest Anastasia survived to adulthood. She became the countess of Nola at her father’s death in 1292 and married into the Orsini family of Rome.

Eleanor de Montfort died in 1275, living long enough to see her daughter marry Llywelyn of Wales by proxy. Later that year, the boat carrying young Eleanor and her brother Amaury VIII was captured by the forces of their cousin King Edward I, who had been alerted to their intentions. Eleanor was confined at Windsor Castle and not freed to marry Llywelyn until 1278.

She died four years later giving birth to a daughter Gwenllian. When Llywelyn was then killed, the baby girl was placed in a nunnery in Lincolnshire. By the time of her death in 1337, the de Montfort family, once so admired and respected across Europe and the Mediterranean, seemed long extinct. But their fortunes were about to be revived.

Joan of Navarre, Queen of England

This part of the story goes back to Simon V and Alice’s oldest son Amaury VII, who succeeded his father as the count of Montfort. He was followed by his son John, whose wife was pregnant when he left on crusade and died overseas. The daughter born to her, Beatrice, became the countess of Montfort when she came of age. She married Robert of Dreux and had a daughter Yolande, who became the second wife of King Alexander III of Scotland in 1285 in the hope of producing an heir to that throne.

It didn’t happen, and after Alexander died, Yolande married Arthur II of Brittany. Their son John succeeded her as the count of Montfort, and when his half-brother the duke of Brittany died in 1341 without an heir, John put in a claim for the duchy. It turned into a war of succession, which was won by his son, another John of Montfort, in 1365, a hundred years after Evesham.

In 1386, this John of Montfort took as his third wife the famous Joan of Navarre. She was the mother of his children and after his death became the queen of England with her marriage to King Henry IV. It was through her and Yolande that the Montfort family line returned to England.

About the Author:

Darren Baker was born in California, raised in South Carolina, and came to Europe in 1990, settling permanently in the Czech Republic. A former submariner in the US Pacific fleet, he later studied languages at the University of Connecticut and works as a translator. A trip to the UK inspired him to revisit the events of 13th century England, which he does on his website simon2014.com and in his books. His newly released Crusaders and Revolutionaries of the Thirteenth Century: De Montfort is his fourth on the subject.


My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.


You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly