Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

Æthelflæd (from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220)

12th June 2018 marks the 1100th anniversary of one of England’s greatest ever women. The daughter of Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, led the resistance against Danish invasion, alongside her brother, Edward the Elder. And yet, she is virtually unknown to the people of today.

Æthelflæd was born about 870, the eldest child of King Alfred and his wife, Ealhswith. Alfred’s biographer, Asser, says Ealhswith was a member of the Mercian royal house through her mother, Eadburh. Around 886 Æthelflæd was married to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia and a trusted lieutenant of her father. Æthelred ruled over the English half of the Mercian kingdom, which had been dissected by the Vikings, but submitted to King Alfred’s overlordship. The marriage was a political alliance, intended to strengthen Saxon resistance to the Danes, who were now occupying Northumbria, Yorkshire and East Anglia. The resulting close relationship of Mercia and Wessex was only further strengthened by the renewed Viking attacks of the 890s.

During the early years of their marriage the young couple appear to have settled in London, the city that had been entrusted to Æthelred’s care by Alfred. Æthelflæd seems to have taken after her father – she was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. The couple jointly presided over provincial courts. The ‘Mercian Register’, a fragment of a Mercian chronicle, included in some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, records that Æthelflæd was exercising regal powers in the region even before her husband’s death. In his final years Æthelred increasingly suffered from illness, during which time Æthelflæd assumed greater authority. The couple had only one child, a daughter, Ælfwynn. Writing 2 centuries later William of Malmesbury claimed the lack of more children was due to Æthelflæd’s avoidance of marital relations, possibly due to a fear of dying in childbirth. Malmesbury quotes her as saying it was ‘unbecoming a daughter of a king to give way to a delight, which after a time produced such painful consequences’. Æthelred died in 911, though whether this was from wounds received in battle or from illness remains unclear. He was buried at Gloucester.

Charter S 221 dated 901 of Æthelred and Ætheflæd donating land and a golden chalice to Much Wenlock Church

Wessex had already adjusted to a change in ruler when Æthelflæd’s father had died in 899 and had been succeeded by her younger brother, Edward ‘the Elder’. When Æthelred died, Edward was happy to support his sister as sole ruler of Mercia, but he took personal control of the cities of London and Oxford, cities that could be used as bases from which Edward would be able to launch campaigns against the Danes of the Midlands. The siblings seem to have had a trusting relationship for many years; Edward had entrusted his son Æthelstan, often viewed as the first king of England, to Æthelflæd and her husband, to be educated at the Mercian court.

The first woman to rule an Anglo-Saxon kingdom  – albeit as a client of her brother’s more powerful kingdom of Wessex, Æthelflæd was accorded the title the Lady of the Mercians. She proved to be a vital ally to her brother and the siblings worked together to combat the threats of the Danes. In 909, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Edward sent an army, made up of West Saxons and Mercians, into Danish territory in the north. It was probably this army that brought back to Mercia the relics of St Oswald, the 7th century Northumbrian saint. They had been taken from Bardney in Lincolnshire and Æthelflæd had them translated to the new minster at Gloucester, which was renamed St Oswald in his honour.

Æthelflæd continued the policy, started by her father, of building burhs and established a ring of fortified centres around western Mercia. The burhs not only provided protection against the Danes, but served as bases from which to launch attacks on Danish occupied regions. Each burh could provide a refuge for all villagers within a 20-mile radius; it would have a large garrison, depot and its own water supply. During Æthelred’s lifetime, burhs had been established at ‘Bremesburh’, Worcester (between 887 and 899) and Chester (907). Later, on Æthelflæd’s orders, in 913, fortresses were built at several further sites, including Bridgnorth, Tamworth and Stafford, in response to Viking raids into Edward’s territories.

Edward built two further burhs at Buckingham in 914, plugging a defensive gap between Tamworth and Hertford. At the same time, Æthelflæd built one at Warwick and another at Eddisbury; this latter, with a new burh at Runcorn in 915, helped to strengthen her northern defences. While the Danes appeared to be the greatest risk, Æthelflæd did not neglect her defences along the Welsh border, building a burh at Chirbury and one at the now-lost location of ‘Wearburh’. In the same year, Edward fortified Bedford and in 916 he built a burh at Maldon to fortify Essex against seaborne raiding. While this building programme was going on, it also seems highly likely that Æthelflæd rebuilt and strengthened the defences of Gloucester and Hereford.

Statue of Æthelflæd and her nephew, Athelstan, Tamworth

Æthelflæd was no silent partner in Edward’s reconquest of England. Most remarkably, she personally led successful military campaigns against the Welsh, the Norse and the Danes of York. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that on the feast of St Cyriac the Martyr, 16 June 916, the abbot Egbert and his retainers, were murdered for no known reason. The Mercian abbot had been travelling in the Welsh mountain kingdom of Brycheiniog when he was attacked. Æthelflæd seems to have taken the murder as a personal affront; the abbot was, after all, under her protection. Three days later she invaded Wales; her army ravaged Brycheiniog, burning the little kingdom. Although King Tewdr escaped, Æthelflæd took his wife, Queen Angharad, as a hostage, with 33 others, many of whom were relatives of the Welsh king. Eventually, the king submitted to Æthelflæd, promising to serve her faithfully and to pay compensation. The incident not only demonstrates Æthelflæd’s commitment to her people, but also shows her strength and determination, attributes she was to put to good use against the Danes.

In 917 Æthelflæd turned her attention to those Danes. Danish forces had taken the offensive, raiding English territories. By the end of the year Edward had subdued East Anglia, with all the Scandinavian armies of the region submitting to him. While her brother was raiding in  the East Midlands, Æthelflæd led her forces across the West Midlands. She marched on the Viking stronghold of Derby, personally leading the army on campaign. It would be the first of the Danes’ ‘Five Boroughs’, which made up the Danelaw, to fall. Although she managed to successfully storm the fort, her army suffered heavy casualties, including four of her most trusted and senior thegns (thegns were the army’s commanders and officers). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported; ‘With God’s help Ethelfleda, lady of Mercia, captured the fortress known as Derby with all its assets. Four of her favoured ministers were slain inside the gates’.¹

The Saxon victory was a great shock to the Danes. Their Viking myths told of an invincible woman who would appear at Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse, and make brave warriors cower before her. Æthelflæd was relentless  – in early 918 she and her army moved on to Leicester, while Edward headed for Stamford. Leicester was the centre of a heavily settled Danish colony, and Æthelflæd ravaged the countryside around the settlement. The Danes had no choice but to surrender in the face of her indefatigable forces. However, she was magnanimous in victory, displaying mercy and charity by distributing alms as she progressed into town.

Æthelflæd in the thirteenth century Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings

The inexorable advance of Æthelflæd’s army combined with her compassion for the defeated was to prove to be a clever strategy, demonstrating to those regions still controlled by the Danes that she was prepared to offer compromise if they would only submit to her. The Danes of York, the Viking capital, in particular, began to look at submitting to Æthelflæd as a serious option to avoid continued conflict. Their new king was Ragnall, a Viking pirate from Dublin, who had taken the throne by force; but the Danes knew that Edward and Æthelflæd would never make peace with him. In the summer of 918 the noblemen and magnates of York sent emissaries to Æthelflæd, promising that they would surrender to her.

In May, King Edward had marched his army to Stamford, building a new fort south of the river and accepting the surrender of the local Danes, who submitted to him as their new ruler. It was while he was still at Stamford that Edward received word of his sister, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle made a cold, clinical report:

918 While he was there his sister Æthelflæd died at Tamworth two weeks before midsummer. The king took possession of Tamworth and the whole province of Mercia which she had governed.²

Æthelflæd died suddenly at Tamworth on 12 June 918. She was buried beside her husband, in the east chapel of the cathedral she had founded, St Oswald’s Minister, Gloucester. Although she did not live long enough to see the successful conclusion to the work she and her brother had carried out, her achievements cannot be lightly brushed off. Between 910 and 920 all Danish territories south of Yorkshire had been conquered. Her nephew Athelstan consolidated the kingdom that had been created by the efforts of Edward and Æthelflæd. If Æthelflæd did not live to see the extent of her success, neither did she live to see her daughter, Ælfwynn, nearly thirty and still unmarried, briefly become the nominal ruler of Mercia; only to be ‘deprived of all authority’ six months later and taken to Wessex, from where nothing more is heard of her.

St Oswald’s Priory, Gloucester, where Æthelflæd and her husband are buried

The story of Æthelflæd mainly comes from the Mercian Register, embedded largely in the B, C and D texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. She appears only rarely in the primary text, text A, which focuses on Edward and Wessex. Text A tries to minimise Æthelflæd’s significance, but could not wholly obscure her achievements. She was, after all, the daughter of Alfred the Great, the wife of the ealdorman of Mercia and a prominent woman in her own right, in an era when this was an incredible rarity. It is thought that it was Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, who inspired the 10th century poem, ‘Judith’ who is ‘white and shining’, ‘noble and courageous’. In the poem, Æthelflæd is depicted as the ‘valorous virgin’ who struck off the head of the hostile foe with her gleaming sword and ‘ascribed the glory of all that to the Lord of Hosts’. Recognising her vital role in the creation of England, the 12th century Henry of Huntingdon declared Æthelflæd ‘to have been so powerful that in praise and exaltation of her wonderful gifts, some call her not only lady, but even king’. In a poem he described her as ‘worthy of a man’s name’ and ‘more illustrious than Caesar’, apparently high praise indeed – for a woman.

In the 21st century Æthelflæd’s story is becoming more widely known than it has ever been. She is one of the major influences of my book, Heroines of the Medieval World and appears, appropriately, in the chapter on Warrior Heroines. With her appearance in Bernard Cornwell’s wonderful The Last Kingdom books and television series, and Annie Whitehead’s novel, To Be A Queen, Æthelflæd’s story is finally being brought into the light. On the 1100th anniversary of her death, her incredible achievements are being celebrated in the heart of Mercia, in Gloucester and Tamworth. And not before time; Æthelflæd should be the inspiration for future generations of strong, influential women and stand out as an example of what can be achieved if you are determined enough.

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Footnotes: ¹ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swaton; ² ibid.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Further Reading: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, c. 1090–1143 by William of Malmesbury; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon by Thomas Forester; Alfred the Great by David Sturdy; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson;  History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The mammoth Book of British kings & Queen by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing 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.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Eleanor of England, Queen Leonor of Castile

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Eleanor of England, Queen of Castile

On 13th October 1162 (1161 has also been suggested, but most sources agree on 1162) the Queen of England gave birth to a 2nd daughter at Domfront Castle in Normandy, Eleanor. She was the 6th child of Europe’s most glamorous and controversial couple; Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Named after her mother Eleanor was baptised by Cardinal Henry of Pisa, with the chronicler Robert de Torigny standing as her godfather.

Of Eleanor’s 4 older brothers 3 had survived infancy; Henry, the Young King, Richard the Lionheart and Geoffrey – later Duke of Brittany. Geoffrey was nearest to Eleanor in age, but already 4 years old when she was born. Eleanor’s older sister, Matilda, had been born in 1156 and would be married to Henry V ‘the Lion’, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, when Eleanor was just 6 years old. At the age of 3 Eleanor would be joined by a baby sister, Joanna, in the Plantagenet nursery and by a last brother, John, in 1166.

Eleanor’s birth coincided with an awkward period in her parents’ marriage. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s vassals, unhappy with Henry’s rule, were attempting to get her marriage to Henry annulled on the grounds of consanguinity. Although the plot was unsuccessful and the Cardinals were unimpressed with the argument, it cannot have been an easy time for the King and Queen.

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Domfront, Eleanor’s birthplace

Eleanor’s early childhood was quite nomadic. She travelled often with her parents, in her mother’s entourage. Henry had been absent from the country for 5 years when Eleanor 1st came to England with her parents in 1163. The Royal family would spend the Christmas of 1164/5 at Marlborough, while in the midst of the crisis of Henry’s disagreements with his archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket. Eleanor of Aquitaine would then take her children to Winchester, from where they visited Sherborne Castle in Dorset and the Isle of Wight before moving to Westminster.

In February 1165 3-year-old Eleanor was betrothed to the infant son of Frederick Barbarossa, Frederick, in order to cement a treaty with the Emperor. And following the conclusion of the treaty the Archbishop of Cologne was introduced to Eleanor and Matilda (who was to marry Henry the Lion). However, where Matilda departed for her new life in Germany in 1168, Eleanor’s proposed marriage was still in the distant future.

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Alfonso VIII of Castile

Some historians have speculated that Eleanor was educated for some time at Fontevrault Abbey, along with her younger sister Joanna and her baby brother, John, who spent 5 years there after initially being intended for the church. However, by 1168 she was with her mother, who had decided to settle in Aquitaine and was allowed, by Henry II, to have her children with her.

By 1170 Eleanor’s marriage to the Emperor’s son was no longer a part of Henry II’s plans, and he decided to look elsewhere for an alliance. Seeking to extend his influence across the Pyrenees and to prevent a French alliance with Castile, Henry betrothed Eleanor to 14-year-old Alfonso VIII, king of Castile since he was just 2 years old. Raoul de Faye, Seneschal of Poitou for Eleanor of Aquitaine, was influential in negotiating the marriage; arranging for Eleanor to receive Gascony as her dowry, but only after the death of her mother.

September 1177 saw Eleanor on her way to Castile. A month short of her 15th birthday, some historians suggest she was escorted as far as Bordeaux by her mother, but this is not supported by the contemporary chronicles. However, she would have been given a suitable escort – as the daughter of a king and as a future queen herself – to see her safely to her wedding at Burgos Cathedral.

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Henry I, King of Castile

Eleanor and Alfonso appear to have had a very successful marriage, and a close, trusting relationship. Eleanor is renowned for introducing her mother’s Poitevin culture into the Castilian court. The court encouraged the culture and architecture of Eleanor’s youth, whilst blending it with the luxuries offered by the neighbouring Moorish culture. Castilian poet Ramon Vidal described Eleanor as “Queen Leonore modestly clad in a mantle of rich stuff, red, with a silver border wrought with golden lions.” While the troubadour Pierre Vidal described to Eleanor as elegant and gracious.

Eleanor and Alfonso would have 7 children that survived infancy. Their eldest daughter Berengaria would marry Alfonso IX, King of Leon, and would act as regent in Castile for her younger brother, Henry I, before succeeding him as queen regnant. Berengaria and Alfonso’s marriage was dissolved by the papacy, on the grounds of consanguinity; but their children were declared legitimate. Shortly after succeeding to the throne of Castile, Berengaria abdicated in favour of her son, Ferdinand III, but continued to act as his closest adviser.

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Berengaria, Queen of Castile

One daughter, Eleanor, married James I, king of Aragon, but they divorced in 1229. While another, Constance, was dedicated as a nun and eventually became abbess of the abbey of Las Huelgas, founded by her parents in 1187. The abbey’s nuns were drawn from the highest ranks of the Spanish nobility, they belonged to the  Cistercian Order, a closed community mainly cut off from the world.

Alfonso and Eleanor had 2 sons who would survive childhood. The eldest, Ferdinand, predeceased his parents, dying of a fever in 1209 or 1211. Henry I would succeed his father, but died in 1217 when a loose roof tile fell on his head. He was 13 years old.

Two other daughters survived childhood. Eleanor’s 2nd eldest daughter, 14-year-old Urraca, was initially suggested as the bride of the future Louis VIII of France, son of Philip II Augustus. In 1200 the girls’ grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was instrumental in arranging the marriage; her dowry was to be provided from the territories Richard I had won from France at the end of the 12th century.

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Urraca, Queen of Portugal

Eleanor of Aquitaine outlived all but 2 of her children With the deaths of Richard I and his sister Joanna in 1199, only Eleanor in Castile and her baby brother John, now King of England, remained of the once large brood of 4 boys and 3 girls who had survived infancy.

Such recent losses may have helped to persuade the 77-year-old Eleanor of Aquitaine to travel to Castile, in person and in the depths of winter, to collect the granddaughter who would be Louis’ bride. The reunion of the 2 Eleanors would surely have been highly emotional.

She was received at Alfonso’s court with all the pageantry and courtesies appropriate for most remarkable woman of her time. The Dowager Queen of England stayed with her daughter for over 2 months, taking the opportunity to spend some time with her daughter and grandchildren, as the marriage would not be able to take place until after Lent.

In getting to know her granddaughters, Eleanor of Aquitaine seems to have decided that 12-year-old Blanca would make a more suitable bride for Louis. Whether it was because of the girls’ temperaments or simply a matter of names, as some historians have suggested. Urraca was not a name easily translated into French, whereas Blanca, as Blanche, was easily  recognisable.

Blancheofcastile
Blanche of Castile, Queen of France

It was, therefore, 12-year-old Blanche who travelled back to France with her grandmother to marry the Dauphin, Louis – the same Louis who would be invited to become England’s king by the rebel barons and laid siege to Lincoln Castle in 1216. Blanche and Louis were married in Normandy, as France was under papal interdict at the time; Blanche would be the mother, and lifelong adviser, of Louis IX (St Louis).

In 1206 Urraca married the heir to the throne of Portugal – the future King Alfonso II.

Eleanor of England and Alfonso VIII appear to have had a happy, successful marriage, producing a family of 4 sons and 8 daughters over a 16 year period. Eleanor enhanced the culture of the Castilian court and acted as a diplomatic conduit between her husband and brothers, Richard and John, in order to aid each other and keep the peace – most of the time. However, in 1204, following the death of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Alfonso had to resort to a show of military force in order to successfully claim his wife’s dower rights over Gascony from John.

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Abbey of Las Huelgas

Their happy marriage came to an end when Alfonso died in Burgos on 6th October 1214. He was buried in the Abbey of Las Huelgas, where their daughter, Constance, was now Abbess, leaving Eleanor as regent for their 10-year-old son, Henry I. Broken-hearted Eleanor, however, only survived her husband by a little over 3 weeks. Overcome with grief she died in Burgos on 31st October 1214, and was laid to rest beside her beloved husband; leaving their daughter Berengaria to take up the regency for Henry.

Of Eleanor’s grandchildren 2 were to become saints, Louis IX of France and Berengaria’s son Ferdinand III, king of Castile; her great-granddaughter and namesake, Eleanor of Castile (Ferdinand’s daughter), would become Queen of England as the wife of Edward I.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: Brewer’s Royalty by David Williamson; The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett; Eleanor of Aquitaine, by the Wrath of God, Queen of England by Alison Weir; Eleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine by Douglas Boyd; oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

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From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

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

 

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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2016

 

The Eternal Legacy of Magna Carta

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Lincoln Cathedral’s Magna Carta

Today – June 15th 2015 – is the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta.

On 1 April 2015 Lincoln Castle reopened its doors after an extensive refurbishment. The renovations included a new purpose-built, state-of-the-art, underground vault for its most prized possession: one of only four surviving copies of the original 1215 Great Charter – the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta’s new home cannot fail to emphasise the importance of this charter in the history of not only England, but also the rest of the world. Two films – Magna Carta: Challenging the Power of the King and Magna Carta: Meaning and Myth – reconstruct the events leading up to Magna Carta and chart its significance through the centuries, respectively.

But what is Magna Carta? And what makes it so important?

n many ways, the reign of King John had been a continuation of that of his father, Henry II, and of his brother, Richard I, with one significant difference. Early in his reign John had lost the French part of the great Angevin empire: Normandy and Aquitaine were now held by France. In 1214 King John returned to England following his defeat by the French at the Battle of Bouvines. The battle ended the king’s hopes of regaining the lost empire.

Added to this catastrophe was the character and personality of John himself. By nature John was paranoid, secretive and distrustful. John’s cruelty is widely known. He is accused of killing his nephew and rival claimant to the English throne, Arthur of Brittany; he hanged 28 Welsh hostages (sons of rebel chieftains) and he hounded William de Braose and his family all the way to Ireland and back. De Braose’s wife and son died in one of John’s prisons, probably from starvation.

The History of William Marshal, a biography of the great knight and statesman, states of John: ‘He kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner, and in such abject confinement that it seemed an indignity and a disgrace to all those with him who witnessed such cruelty’.

Although John faced the fallout of Magna Carta, many of the injustices targeted by the barons can be seen in the reigns of his predecessors. Heavy taxes, arbitrary fines and the exploitation of wardships were long-established royal revenue earners. However, where Henry and Richard had a whole empire to exploit, John’s need for money had to be met by England alone.

Even John’s disagreement with the Church can see parallels in the reign of Henry II and his clashes with Thomas Becket. John opposed the election of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, and refused to allow his consecration. Pope Innocent III went so far as to excommunicate John and place England under interdict; in 1213 Philip II of France was even invited to depose him.

John finally came to an agreement with the Church in May 1213, swearing that the liberties established under Henry I would be strictly observed and allowing Langton to take up his post as archbishop. However, John broke his oath almost immediately and Langton became one of the leaders of the opposition to the king.

The barons’ objections to John were almost beyond number. He had failed to face the French and had lost not only his family’s Continental possessions, but also those of his barons. Few had forgotten his treachery against his brother – his attempt on the throne whilst Richard was away on Crusade. His barons even complained that he forced himself on their wives and daughters.

The barons had had enough.

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Lincoln Cathedral

The rebels were ready to fight. After occupying London they made one final attempt to prevent war, presenting the king with a list of their demands.

Following further negotiations a long detailed document was produced, dealing with particular grievances of the time and with injustices in general. It touched on the whole system of royal government. And it was granted to ‘all free men of the realm and their heirs forever’.

Magna Carta

Of its 63 clauses, some terms were asking for immediate remedies, such as the removal of corrupt administrators and the sending home of foreign mercenaries. The clause stating that fighting outside of the kingdom could not be imposed by the king was a reaction to John’s recent attempts to force his English barons to help him recover his Continental domains.

Others had long-term aims. The document sought to guarantee the privileges of the Church and the City of London. Restrictions were placed on the powers of regional officials, such as sheriffs, to prevent abuses. The royal court was fixed at Westminster, for justice to be obtainable by all, and royal judges were to visit each county regularly. Taxes could no longer be levied without the consent of the Church and the barons.

Clauses included the fixing of inheritance charges and protection from exploitation for under-age heirs; the king was to take only what was reasonable from an estate (although ‘reasonable’ remained undefined). From henceforth a widow was to be free to choose whether or not to remarry and her marriage portion (dowry) would be made available to her immediately on her husband’s death. Another clause sought to prevent the seizure of land from Jews and the king’s debtors.

Magna Carta even went so far as to regulate weights and measures. It also reduced the size of the king’s forests and limited the powers of forest justices.

Although most of the 63 clauses of Magna Carta are now defunct, three still remain as major tenets of British law, including ‘to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice’. That no person could be imprisoned, outlawed or deprived of his lands except by judgement of his peers and the law of the land has remained the cornerstone of the English legal system ever since.

Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede, Berkshire, on 15 June 1215. John ordered that the charter be circulated around the towns and villages.

As a peace agreement between King John and his rebellious barons, however, it failed miserably. By July John was appealing to the Pope for help. Pope Innocent III’s response arrived in England in September. The treaty was declared null and void; it was ‘not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust’. By the time the letter arrived in England, the dispute had already erupted into the Barons’ War.

Deciding they could no longer deal with John’s perfidy, the rebel barons invited the King of France, Philip II, to claim the throne. Philip’s son and heir, the future Louis VIII, accepted the offer. Having landed on the south coast, he marched for London, where he was proclaimed King of England on 2 June 1216.

John’s fortuitous death at Newark in October 1216 turned the tide against Louis and the rebels. The highly respected knight and statesman, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, was appointed regent for John’s nine-year-old son, Henry III. Marshal’s staunch loyalty was renowned throughout Europe; he was the embodiment of the chivalric code. Many barons who had previously sided with Louis saw the opportunity to come back from the brink, and rally around the young king. Marshal reissued Magna Carta and faced and defeated the joint French and rebel army at Lincoln on 20 May 1217.

Afterwards, the English were able to dictate peace terms to Louis, and the French went home. Magna Carta was issued a third time, along with a new Forest Charter (also on display at Lincoln Castle). Its reissue in 1225, on Henry III attaining his majority, is the one that made it onto the statute books.

The Legacy of Magna Carta

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Lincoln Castle

It is hard to overstate the enduring significance of Magna Carta. Although it was initially a document conceived by rebel barons, the regents of Henry III exploited Magna Carta as a royalist device to recover the loyalty of the rebel barons. However, once it was issued it was used as a curb to all regal excesses. In 1265 it was invoked to create the first parliament.

By the late 1200s Magna Carta was regarded as a fundamental statement of English liberties.

Magna Carta set the precedent for future reform programmes, such as the Provisions of Oxford of 1258, the Ordinances of 1311, the Petition of Right of 1628 and the Grand Remonstrance of 1641.

The influence of Magna Carta has spread far beyond England’s shores. It can be seen in the United States’ 1791 Bill of Rights, in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.

Although a failure in the short term, in the long term, Magna Carta established defined limitations to royal rights, laying down that standard to be observed by the crown and its agents.

It is the closest thing England has to a Constitution.

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Article and Photos © Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015

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Article originally published on The Review in June 2015.

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Sources: Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; The Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

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From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly