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:
‘…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.’
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.’
6. 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.
7. 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.’
8. Clause 12 allows the king to raise a ‘reasonable’ aid or scutage (taxes) to pay towards the first marriage of his eldest 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.’
9. 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.’
10. 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.
11. 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.’
12. 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.
13. Isabel 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?’
14. 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 14 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 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; 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 Books, Amazon 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 & Sword, Amazon, Bookshop.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.
©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly