Post-classical history

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On Monday, 8 June 1215, King John issued letters of safe conduct allowing the baronial envoys to come to Staines for the establishment of peace. The safe conduct was to last until the end of Thursday, 11 June.1 Although the letters only mention Staines, almost certainly the meeting place was meant to be Runnymede, the ‘meadow of Staines’, or ‘the meadow between Windsor and Staines’, as it was called. Runnymede had several advantages for the final negotiations. It was probably a traditional meeting place, ‘mede’ of course meaning meadow, while the ‘Runny’ was related to the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘counsel’ and ‘consultation’. Runnymede was a discrete area, bounded on one side by the Thames and on the other by Cooper’s Hill. It could only be approached from two directions, along the road by the Thames, so the king, based at Windsor, would come from the north-west, and the barons, at Staines, from the south-east. Given the way the Thames winds, Windsor was south of the river whereas Staines was to the north, with the only convenient crossing place being Staines bridge. Both sides could, therefore, think their bases were secure from attack.2 According to the account of the election of Abbot Hugh, on Tuesday, 9 June, John himself arrived at Windsor with Archbishop Langton in his company.3 Hugh arrived on the same day, and was soon discussing his business with Langton. When the king came up and sought to pass between them, Langton introduced Hugh as ‘abbot of St Edmunds’, and begged for the whole dispute to be now concluded. ‘Let him,’ John replied, ‘come to us tomorrow in the meadow of Staines where by God’s grace and the aid of your merits, we will attempt to settle the matter.’

On the next day, Wednesday, 10 June, ‘when [Hugh]’, in the words of the Bury account, ‘had come and waited for a long time in the meadow which is between Windsor and Staines, after much discussion and messages from nobles sent by the king, at length the king admitted the abbot into his grace with a kiss’. The delay was because John had much more to deal with on this first day at Runnymede than the abbatial succession at Bury. The negotiations with the barons had begun. They were to lead to John authorizing Magna Carta on Monday, 15 June, and the re-establishment of peace on Friday, 19 June with the rebels once more entering the king’s allegiance. John continued to do business at Runnymede until 23 June, whereafter he spent two days at Windsor and then departed for Odiham and Winchester.

Ralph of Coggeshall gives a splendid picture of the scene at Runnymede, where the barons ‘gathered with a multitude of most famous knights, armed well at all points, and they remained there, having fixed tents. But the king with his men dwelt in the same meadow in pavilions.’4 The contrast here was doubtless between the pavilions of the king that reached high, like circus tops, towering above the smaller but multitudinous tents of the barons and knights, which stretched out across the meadow. John, however, was far from spending all his time at Runnymede. The Charter itself and a letter of 18 June are the only documents he authorized there before the peace on 19 June. All the other royal letters between 10 and 19 June were witnessed by him at Windsor, which evidently remained his base and where he almost certainly spent the night.

This was hardly surprising. John had given a safe conduct on 8 June to ‘all those who come on behalf of the barons’. The implication was that it would only be baronial representatives who would come to Staines and thence to Runnymede. In fact, as Coggeshall’s account shows, nothing like that happened. The insurgents came in large numbers and occupied Runnymede itself. It became an armed camp. That put pressure on John to go through with the Charter and indeed make more concessions. It also held out other threats. Might there be some sudden assault, perhaps in the middle of the night, in which John would find his pavilions surrounded by the men from the tents? Accordingly, John spent no more time at Runnymede than he could help. It was only once the peace was proclaimed on 19 June that he began to witness letters there on a more regular basis. By the same token, of course, the barons were not going to negotiate at Windsor, where they would have been in the power of the king.

Just how the final negotiations that led to the Charter were conducted we do not know. Most probably they were in the hands of a small group of representatives from either side, such as those John had envisaged coming ‘on behalf [ex parte] of the barons’ in his letters of safe conduct. Doubtless John’s chief advisers were those he named in the Charter itself. For the barons, the negotiators presumably included the leading members of the eventual twenty-five. Saer de Quincy was almost certainly prominent since he was the only person specifically mentioned in John’s letter of safe conduct issued on 25 May. In a treaty over London, which dates to around 19 June, eleven barons are named, the first five names appearing in the same order in a letter that was issued by the twenty-five around the same date. The five were Robert fitzWalter, bearing his title Marshal of the Army of God, Richard, earl of Clare, Geoffrey de Mandeville, calling himself earl of Essex and Gloucester, Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, and Saer himself, all men with deep and obvious grievances against the king. Both sides, of course, would have been accompanied by clerical staffs. There were doubtless plenary meetings, perhaps in a special neutral tent, which one can imagine becoming famous in the course of the discussions. There must also have been meetings of the individual teams, with messages and drafts of chapters going to and fro between them.5 Coggeshall speaks of peace being finally agreed through the intervention of Langton and several unnamed bishops and barons. That the negotiations proceeded chapter by chapter is shown by the way the engrossments, while abandoning the paragraphs of the Articles, nonetheless indicated the start of new chapters with prominent capital letters.

As he was in the much lesser matter of the election of Abbot Hugh, John himself must have been very involved, sometimes delivering his own views directly, sometimes hiding behind the arguments of ministers. He could still turn on the charm. After he had given Hugh the kiss of peace at Runnymede on 10 June, he sought him out again and said, ‘Father abbot, I have now one final request for your kindness to fulfil; let us not be without your company at table, since the divine mercy has this day restored you to my favour.’ The abbot thus dined with the king at Windsor, and afterwards they sat together in John’s chamber on the royal bed, ‘talking of many things’. When, however, the sacrist of Bury came in, and, on bended knees, welcomed the admission of the abbot, John, ‘as though in fury of spirit’, turned on him with an oath: ‘By the Lord’s feet, but for you I would have admitted him to my favour six months ago.’ This was disingenuous since, until forced to back down, John had welcomed everything the sacrist had done to resist the election. In the same way in his dealings with the barons, John doubtless alternated between affability and anger, conciliation and obstruction.

Back at Windsor on the afternoon or evening of 10 June, John did not merely dine with Abbot Hugh. He also issued a letter prolonging the truce with the barons until the morning of 15 June.6 This suggests a confidence that a settlement was now possible, although also that some days might still be needed to reach it, as indeed was the case. Holt has suggested, very reasonably, that behind this confidence lay the reaching of some preliminary agreement.7 In other words, it was on 10 June that John sealed the Articles of the Barons. He had probably agreed them orally earlier as a basis for negotiations, but the baronial negotiators whom he met on 10 June needed something more. If they were to hold their own party to the truce, they had to show some evidence of John’s good faith. That was now provided by John’s seal appearing on the Articles. It seemed to show that he had indeed conceded those ‘chapters which the Barons seek’, as the heading in the Articles put it. John, for his part, thus hoped to draw the barons into negotiations and end the civil war. He was not, he would think, actually committed to anything, for even with the seal the Articles, lacking address, witness and dating clauses, had no legal force. John could still hope to secure concessions. He might renege on the whole deal. The next few days would tell.

The Articles of the Barons were the foundation for the Charter. Fifty-six of Magna Carta’s sixty-three chapters (including here the security clause) were founded on chapters in them. Many retained the same phraseology. Whole runs of chapters in the Charter also follow the same order as that in the Articles, especially between chapters 2 and 6, and again, with little interruption, between chapters 15 and 42. Only five of the Charter’s chapters, along with its preamble and dating clause, were entirely new. Yet there was still much to argue over. Four of the five new chapters were highly significant, while many others were modified in important ways, sometimes in favour of the king, sometimes against him. Thought also went into improving the coherence of the document, hence some of the changes in chapter order. In the end Magna Carta runs to some 3,550 words as against the circa 1,945 of the Articles of the Barons.


John had some successes in the negotiations. The stipulation in the Articles of the Barons that heirs should be married ‘by the counsel of the nearest kin’ was watered down to the need just to inform the nearest kin, which gave the king much more freedom to bestow marriages on whom he wished. John retaliated against the Londoners (whom he must have regarded with intense hostility) by removing the stipulation, found in the Articles, that tallages imposed on the city, and other privileged towns, needed the consent of the kingdom.8 It was now only aids, and those just from London, that were so covered. John had thus preserved his lucrative right to tallage towns at will as part of the royal demesne. The towns, in return, simply got an innocuous new chapter (although it is not made separate in modern numbering), which said that cities, boroughs, vills and ports should enjoy all their liberties and customs. There were other gains, partly helped by Archbishop Langton’s attitude (examined in more detail later). Thus judgements on the disseisins committed by Henry II and Richard were now to be left until John abandoned or returned from his prospective crusade.

On the other side, the barons pushed very hard to improve the offer. They scored a major victory in the area of reliefs. The Articles of the Barons here had left the size of these to be decided in the Charter, so there was everything to play for. In the event, the Charter laid down that the heirs of earls and barons should both pay a relief of £100, while the heirs of knights holding from the king should pay £5 for each fee. John, by contrast, had charged baronial reliefs of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pounds and would have fiercely denied that there was anything ‘ancient’ about the £100 relief he was now pinned back to. The barons also gained in a more minor way through the tightening up of various chapters. The Articles of the Barons had retreated from the demand of the Unknown Charter that wardships be run by four knights of the fee. Now something like that came back in, if in reduced fashion, through the stipulation that, if the guardian misbehaved, then the wardship should be entrusted to two of the fee’s law-worthy men. This was to be true whether the king had entrusted the custody to a sheriff, or had sold it to someone. John’s only compensation was that, in both cases, the men were to answer to him for the issues, so at least he would not lose the revenues which were reasonably due. Tenants-in-chief also gained in chapter 26 by a tightening up of the procedure for the payment of debts during minorities, whereby the sheriff had now to prove what was owed by reference to letters patent of summons.9

When it came to the contentious issue of the royal forest, John’s opponents were able at Runnymede to improve on the Articles of the Barons. Unlike the Unknown Charter, the Articles had said nothing about deforesting the large areas made forest by Henry II. They had focused simply on the afforestations of John. Now, in chapter 53 of Magna Carta, the afforestations of Henry and Richard came back in. True, it was only through making John promise to give justice on the issue when he returned from or abandoned his prospective crusade, but still that was better than nothing. In the same chapter John also promised, when the crusade was over, to give justice in two other contentious areas, one where lords were claiming rights over abbeys founded in their fees, and the other where the king had taken the wardship of an estate although only a small part of it was held from him by knight service.


In throwing light on the negotiations, the copies of the Charter made later in the thirteenth century come into play, since in some places almost certainly, in others quite possibly, they preserve elements of drafts made at Runnymede.10 The chapter on relief, as we have said, was a great baronial victory, yet there are signs that the barons wanted more. The odd phraseology of the chapter has often been pointed out, with earls and barons being treated separately although their reliefs are the same. Was this because there had been the intention of giving them different amounts? The answer, it would seem, is yes, because in a copy of the Charter in a statute book preserved in the Huntington Library in California, which Galbraith argued was derived from a late draft of the Charter, the relief of a baron is put at 100 marks, not at £100.11

John had at least resisted that successfully, and he may have resisted something else as well, namely any suggestion that earldoms themselves were hereditary; hence the curious statement that an earl succeeded simply to the ‘barony of an earl’, so not actually to an earldom at all. That this too was an area of dispute is suggested by one copy of the Charter in which heirs of earls are indeed to give a £100 relief ‘for a whole earldom’ – ‘de comitatu integro’.12 If this was pressed at Runnymede, it failed to gain purchase, but at least the earls were given separate treatment in the Charter and avoided being lumped in with the barons. That may have been what John wanted, for in several copies of the Charter the chapter does run them together, simply stating that heirs of earls and barons are both to give a £100 relief ‘for a whole barony’, so there was here no reference to the separate ‘barony of an earl’.

The most striking of all the new chapters in Magna Carta was chapter 14, which laid down in detail the constitution for the assembly that could give the common consent of the kingdom to taxation: the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls and greater barons were thus to be summoned individually and the other tenants-in-chief severally through the sheriffs. The background here was, of course, John’s great tax of 1207. He had claimed that it had been agreed by ‘his council’, but that, of course, might be no more than his own ministers. In direct response, the Articles of the Barons had laid down that taxes should be imposed not by the king’s council but by ‘the common counsel of the kingdom’. But why did Magna Carta, in an entirely new chapter, feel the need to go further, in the process setting out what was in effect the first written constitution of parliament? Copies of the Charter which preserve elements of drafts may provide some explanation. They suggest that at Runnymede the idea that the king’s council should have a role in agreeing taxation was resurfacing and needed to be knocked on the head. In a copy of the Charter found in a late thirteenth-century cartulary of Peterborough abbey, now in the possession of the Society of Antiquaries, chapter 12 reads ‘No scutage or aid is to be levied in our kingdom save by our council and by the common counsel of our kingdom’ – ‘per consilium nostrum et per consilium commune regni nostri’. Now it may be that this is no more than an inadvertent scribal addition made in the process of transmission. On the other hand, it occurs in a chapter clearly much discussed at Runnymede, hence the way the new chapter 14 was added to it. This Peterborough copy of the Charter, moreover, like some others, as we will see, certainly has a draft version of the chapter on fines, since the phraseology there is far closer to the text of the Articles than to that of the eventual Charter.13 The king’s council also appears in what is probably one of the earliest copies of the Charter. This is found not in a cartulary or statute book but on a single sheet of parchment now preserved in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is unique in having John sometimes speak in the first person. It also in chapter 48 has wording that seems to come from a draft, since in one place it is closer to the Articles than to the Charter. In chapter 12 of this Bodleian copy, the reading is ‘No scutage or aid is to be levied in my kingdom save by our council’ – ‘per consilium nostrum’.14 It seems likely that ‘and by the common counsel of our kingdom’ has been omitted here, for the copy still has chapter 14 on how the common counsel of the kingdom should be obtained. Perhaps the copy derived from a draft made difficult to follow from the number of changes to the chapter. At the very least, these variants raise the possibility that John put up a rearguard action at Runnymede and tried to give a role to ‘his council’ in the levying of taxation. If so, one can understand why the eventual Charter, having affirmed that taxes must be levied by the common consent of the kingdom, went on to make crystal clear the nature of the assembly from which that consent must come.15 At least John would have welcomed there the presence of lesser tenants-in-chief. He may also have inserted the proviso that the business was to go ahead even if not everyone summoned turned up.

Another significant change to the Articles came in chapter 55 on putting right fines made unjustly and against the law of the land. In chapter 37 of the Articles, these were fines made for dowers, ‘maritagia’ (marriage portions and marriages) and inheritances. Since no individual king was mentioned, the chapter apparently covered the fines made with Henry II and Richard as well as John. This would explain, the issue being the more contentious, why Archbishop Langton was called in to assist the twenty-five, if they had to judge any disputes, whereas when it came simply to John’s disseisins, in chapter 25 of the Articles, the twenty-five had felt able to act alone.16 In some copies of Magna Carta, the chapter on fines retains its Articles form, save the fines are those made simply with John, so not with Henry and Richard. The chapter thus reads: ‘All fines which have been made with us for dowers, maritagia and inheritances … unjustly and against the law of the land are to be wholly remitted.’17 In the final version of the Charter, however, the barons hit back and effected a dramatic widening of the chapter. As it stood in the Articles and the drafts, it certainly addressed major grievances, but it also left untouched a whole range of fines, most notably those made to recover the king’s benevolence and secure the return of confiscated land.18 When we get to the final text in the Charter, therefore, the whole scope of the chapter has been expanded. ‘Dowers, maritagia and inheritances’ disappear, and the chapter covers ‘all fines’ made with John ‘unjustly and against the law of the land’. The clause now got to the heart of his arbitrary rule.


Archbishop Langton, as we have seen, had not engaged with the development of the baronial demands in 1214 and 1215. To do so would have been tantamount to joining the rebellion, which he was absolutely not prepared to do. It was only at Runnymede that the situation changed in a definitive way. John sealed the Articles of the Barons and thus accepted them as a basis for the settlement. Langton could step in without being accused of treason. As a proof of John’s acceptance, the archbishop took away from Runnymede a copy of the Articles with John’s seal attached, and deposited it in his archives. It was in effect his cover note, his licence to take part, which he could cite to king and pope if they later questioned his involvement.19

With this sanction, Langton turned to the roles assigned him in the Articles and modified them, or agreed to their modification, in every single place. Most important of all, as we saw in the last chapter, he removed the demand that he and his fellow bishops should guarantee John’s undertaking not to appeal to the pope. Reference to the pope disappeared, and John simply said he would not seek from anyone anything by which his concessions might be revoked. The only thing Langton was now asked to guarantee was the Charter’s final text. Langton also intervened when it came to the disseisins committed by Henry II and Richard. Under chapter 25 of the Articles, those thus disseised were to have ‘right’ determined without delay by judgement of their peers in the king’s court. If, however, John was to have the ‘term’ enjoyed by other crusaders, then the archbishop and his fellow bishops were to give the judgement without appeal. The ‘term’ here meant the period during which John as crusader could enjoy various protections. He was still, before his departure, expected to right his own wrongs, indeed, he was under an obligation to do so. But the barons clearly feared that he might be exempt from having to deal with the wrongs of his father and brother. In that case, the barons hoped that consideration of the disseisins committed by Henry and Richard might move from the secular to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction, with Langton and the bishops giving judgement on them. The Articles did not say who was to decide whether John got the crusader’s ‘term’, but almost certainly the task fell to Langton.20 The decision was very favourable to John. Thus Langton both gave him the ‘term’ and decided it should last for the fullest possible period, namely for as long as the prospective crusade continued.21 That is why John, in chapters 52, 53 and 57 of the Charter, was to deal with various issues only when he returned from or abandoned his crusade. Having given John the crusader’s ‘term’, Langton then refused to have anything to do with the substitute judgement the Articles had asked of him. Instead, John was to give justice to those complaining of disseisin by Henry or Richard only when his crusade, in one way or another, was over.

Langton’s decision over the crusader’s ‘term’ affected the Welsh. The disseisins that they had suffered at the hands of Henry and Richard were now, like those suffered by the English, to be dealt with only once John had ended his prospective crusade. Langton also stood down from his role in judging whether John’s charters allowed Llywelyn’s son and the other Welsh hostages to be retained. In Magna Carta, the son and the hostages were simply to be returned ‘immediately’, and there was no mention of Langton or the charters. It has been suggested that this was because the archbishop, at Runnymede, had indeed sat in judgement on the charters and decided the issue against the king.22 This seems most unlikely. Such a judgement would have required formal proceedings, and the production and careful inspections of charters, for which there can have been no time at Runnymede. Indeed, it was not until July that Langton and various loyalist magnates issued a letter testifying to the terms of the 1211 charter which John had extracted from Llywelyn.23 It seems far more likely that Langton had declined to play his allotted role, and this had enabled Llywelyn’s allies to insist on the immediate return of the hostages.

Langton also stood down when it came to chapter 59 on the treatment of the king of Scots. Instead of Langton deciding whether John’s charters meant Alexander should be treated differently from the barons of England when it came to restoration of liberties and rights, the decision was now passed to a judgement of Alexander’s peers in the king’s court. Again, it is difficult to see how this amounted to Langton deciding the issue in John’s favour, as has been suggested. He had simply passed the buck and left it for others to decide.24 These changes left only one instance in the Charter where Langton’s judgement still appeared, and even here his role was qualified. This was in chapter 55. Here Langton was to sit with the twenty-five in judging the unjust fines and amercements imposed by John. The archbishop was, however, to be involved only ‘if he will be able to attend’. If he could not attend, the business was to go ahead without him. This cautionary note about his availability one suspects came from Langton himself.

Langton, therefore, might seem to have engaged with the Charter at Runnymede only to distance himself from it. Yet this is far from the whole story. He was, after all, prepared to guarantee the terms of the Charter, and, if in a qualified way, take part in the work of the twenty-five barons of the security clause. Indeed, he remained in the chapter on fines even though the original reason for his inclusion (that it covered Henry and Richard) no longer applied. In associating himself with the twenty-five, he thus condoned the most revolutionary feature of the Charter. If, moreover, Langton removed the pope from the firing line, that might increase rather than reduce the chances of the Charter’s survival. There was also one other positive thing that Langton did for the Charter at Runnymede. It was far and away the most important addition made there, and was of overwhelming importance for the Charter’s future. This was that Langton put the church into Charter. In other words it was Langton who crafted and inserted what now became the first clause, on the liberties of the church.

Historians have usually ascribed this clause to Langton, yet have regarded its presence as almost routine and unimportant. It was neither. The clause might easily have been left out of Magna Carta. For all John’s sealing of the Articles, it remained obvious that the Charter was being forced upon him. Here the contrast with Henry I’s Coronation Charter was very clear. It had a first clause on the church, but then it was a freely given grant. Magna Carta, on the other hand, Langton must have known, was always liable to be quashed by the pope for having been extracted ‘by violence and fear’, as Innocent indeed later put it.25 The violent threats that forced Thomas Becket to accept the iniquitous Constitutions of Clarendon would have been another point of reference.26 Langton, therefore, had good grounds for keeping the church out of the Charter, and preventing its liberties being stained by the doubtful origins of the secular concessions. The church had already secured its gains in the charter of November 1214, which guaranteed it free elections. Why not leave it at that? Langton then would have been anticipating his successors, the bishops of 1258, who withdrew from the revolutionary Westminster parliament before the coercion of the king, and never afterwards included the church in the reforms.27 Langton might well have done the same in 1215.

Yet, on the other hand, Langton had powerful reasons for bringing in the church. His biblical commentaries show that he believed in pinning the king down to written rules. He must have thought that, for all the dangers, the 1215 Charter might succeed and become the fundamental text for English government. The church needed to be in the Charter as it had been in 1100. How then could Langton square this circle? He did so by a brilliantly devised chapter which put the church into the Charter right at the start while at the same time decoupling and distancing its concessions from those made to the rest of the kingdom. In the process, it was made quite clear that the concessions to the church were freely given and were quite unrelated to any coercion.

In the chapter, therefore, the freedom of the church was given as a concession to God, not to the kingdom:

In the first place, [we] have granted to God and by this our present charter have confirmed, for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English church is to be free …

After this concession to God, the Charter then started all over again and announced ‘We have also granted to all the free men of our kingdom … all the below written liberties’. In the printed versions of the Charter, this is still part of chapter 1 on the church, although in three of the four engrossments it appears rather as a new chapter. The division here between the concessions made to God and those made to the kingdom had no exact precedent. The 1100 Charter set the church free and then abolished all evil customs that had oppressed the kingdom, but no clear division was made between the two, for the concessions were not actually given to anyone at all. In the Coronation Charter of Henry II, the concessions were made to ‘God, holy church, and all my earls and barons and all my men’, which meant there was no separation, as there was in 1215, between church and realm, or realm and God. The same was true in the charter that King Pedro granted to Catalonia in 1205.28

Langton did not merely separate the concessions made to church and realm. He also inserted a remarkable passage which showed that, when it came to the former, John had acted completely willingly. The English church, John says, ‘is to be free’:

… and we wish it so to be observed; which is manifest from this, namely that the liberty of elections, which is deemed to be of the greatest importance and most necessary for the English church, by our free and spontaneous will, before the discord moved between us and our barons, we granted and confirmed by our charter, and obtained its confirmation from the lord pope, Innocent the third …

John’s good faith when it came to the church was thus clear, for he had made the concession over elections ‘before the discord moved between us and our barons’. There was, therefore, a clear qualitative difference between the liberties conferred on the church and those conferred on the rest of the kingdom. John had granted the former freely, before ‘the discord’. The implication, inevitably, was that in granting the latter, he had not been acting spontaneously. Langton might regret the implication, but he had first and foremost to protect the liberty of the church. He had done this too by referring to Innocent’s confirmation, which cloaked the church’s liberty in a kind of papal imprimatur. He could not do the same for the Charter as a whole, but at least he had removed the clause that positively invited Innocent to quash it.

Having introduced the church, and modified the role assigned him in the Articles, Langton left the Charter alone. Despite his veneration for Becket, he did nothing to reaffirm Henry II’s concession freeing clerks accused of crime from secular jurisdiction. He ignored John’s promise of 1213 not to outlaw clerks, although it would have sat well with chapter 39.29 He did not insist that chapter 4 on the running of wardships should also apply to ecclesiastical vacancies, unlike the Charter of 1216, where a clause to that effect was introduced. Langton also failed to support the Charter in one highly practical and deeply symbolic way. However much they might have wished to do so, he and his fellow bishops issued no sentence of excommunication against contraveners of the Charter of 1215. That had to wait until 1225, when all taint of coercion was at last removed. Yet what Langton had done in 1215 was enough. Privileged in its first chapter, he had provided the church with an impelling reason for giving Magna Carta its full support. That was to be a major factor in its survival and the central place it attained in public life. Once, moreover, the Charter had been conceded, the archbishop did all he could to preserve it and the peace it was supposed to bring.


How did the Welsh and the Scots fare generally at Runnymede? The answer is with mixed fortunes, for again there was considerable give and take. The Welsh gained, as we have seen, in their hostages, including the son of Llywelyn, being now returned ‘immediately’, without reference to any charters that might make it otherwise. The obnoxious treaty of 1211, under which the son and hostages had been surrendered, was apparently no more. On the other hand, the Welsh lost out, like their English counterparts, over the disseisins committed by Henry II and Richard, with any redress being postponed until the end of John’s prospective crusade. They also lost out in another way. Whereas, in the Articles, Welshmen disseised by John in England or in Wales were to be restored‘without plea’ (chapter 44), in the Charter (chapter 56) the possibility of a plea, which of course meant John’s plea, was entertained. If there was ‘contention’, the case was to be tried ‘by judgement of peers’, in the March, according to the laws of England, Wales or the March, depending on where the land was situated. The reference to the various laws came from chapter 44 of the Articles, where the context had been slightly different.30 The reference to ‘in the March’ was new and advantaged the Welsh, since it prevented such cases having to follow the king and the court coram rege.

In all this, the Welsh rulers had won more than had King Alexander, in part perhaps because the latter was not yet in arms against the king. The charters that John had extracted from Alexander’s father, William the Lion, in 1209, recording the Treaty of Norham, were still on the agenda, for here another form of judgement was found after Archbishop Langton’s withdrawal. It was now Alexander’s peers in the king’s court who were to decide whether the charters meant he could be treated differently from the other barons of England, this when it came to his liberties and rights and the return of his hostages and his sisters (chapter 59). If his peers, as seemed likely, decided against the charters, then, the implication was, the hostages would be returned under the terms of Magna Carta’s chapter 49. The assumption obviously was that the sisters too would be released. On this point, Alexander’s friends had done well, for the return of the sisters was included at Runnymede itself, having not been in the Articles of the Barons. The sisters, Margaret and Isabella, had been handed over to King John under the treaty of 1209. According to its terms, he had until October 1217, when his eldest son would be ten, to begin marrying them off. In 1215, therefore, he was not in breach of the treaty. That Alexander and his allies still demanded the return of the sisters showed very clearly that they regarded the treaty as invalid. When it came to Alexander’s claims to the northern counties, on the other hand, John might hope the changes at Runnymede had brought him an advantage. Since the counties had been lost to the king of Scots under Henry II, the claim should now wait until the end of John’s prospective crusade. Whether the English barons would bother with such distinctions was, however, another matter.


One of the most striking new chapters introduced at Runnymede was chapter 54, the only one in which the word ‘woman’ – ‘femina’ – appeared. This chapter directed that no one was to be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal, that is accusation, of a woman for the death of anyone other than her husband.31 How on earth did chapter 54 appear at Runnymede? The answer may be that it was through the intervention of those who had worked for the king as judges, not all of whom, as we have seen, were necessarily any longer on his side.32 The judges knew that female appeals were very frequent. They also knew that in practice, as the chapter itself implies, the legal rule restricting such appeals to the death of the husband had not always been enforced in cases of homicide. Men, therefore, accused by women of other homicides, had found themselves imprisoned pre-trial. Now that would no longer happen, those accused being able to give sureties for their appearance in court.33

At Runnymede, lords also gave less than friendly thought to their unfree peasants. It was now that the remarkable clause was inserted into chapter 20 which showed that villeins were protected only from amercements imposed by the king. In other words, as far as the Charter was concerned, lords could impose on their unfree peasants whatever amercements they liked.34 The Charter, like the Articles, also failed to deal with an issue of major concern to peasants, although curiously enough it had been covered in the Unknown Charter. Its last clause, almost as an afterthought, demanded that ‘no man should lose life or limb’ for an offence against the beasts of the forest. The Unknown Charter was very much a baronial document, yet this was not an issue that had direct relevance to barons or knights. It was peasants, unable to pay heavy amercements, who would lose life or limb for forest offences.35 The Anonymous of Béthune thought there was a clause in Magna Carta on the subject.36 In fact, it had to wait until the Forest Charter of 1217. At Runnymede, the barons, with much else to think about, just could not take the trouble to include it.

The earls and barons did take trouble in issues that concerned themselves. They realized that in the Articles, when it came to amercements, they had no special treatment and were at best lumped in with the free men who were to be amerced by ‘upright men of the neighbourhood’. The Charter put this right in a new chapter (21), which stated that earls and barons were to be amerced by their peers. The tenants-in-chief also took pains to show that some concessions related just to themselves. Thus the early chapters of the Charter on relief and wardships were now drafted to demonstrate that. The barons were not told to pass on these concessions to their men, as in the Charter of 1100. Instead, under-tenants had to rely on just the blanket injunction in chapter 60. The barons also looked after themselves, and did down a class of under-tenants, in another area. Under chapter 27 of the Articles, free men were not to lose the privileges of knighthood because they held tenements from the king in return for providing arrows or other weapons. In the Charter, this was scrapped and replaced by an entirely new chapter (although it is never printed as such), which protected a lord’s right to have the wardship of such men, if they also held from him by knight service.37 Under-tenants also lost out, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not, by a reorganization of the Charter. Thus the clause which ordered guardians to return lands fully stocked to heirs when they came of age was moved from chapter 35 in the Articles to chapter 5 in the Charter. In the Articles it had been tacked onto the chapter about the payment of Jewish debts during a minority, and clearly applied to under-tenants as well as to tenants-in-chief. In Magna Carta it followed chapter 4 on wardships, which was clearly about those in the hands of the king, and thus only for tenants-in-chief. There were also implications, perhaps again inadvertent, perhaps not, in the way some other chapters were redrafted. Thus the constables and bailiffs prevented from seizing corn and chattels now became (in chapter 28) those of the king. Whereas chapter 30 of the Articles had said that right was not to be denied, deferred or sold, so applying to the conduct of everyone, in the Charter the equivalent chapter, the famous chapter 40, simply applied to the king.

The self-regard of the barons was also shown in one of the most striking chapters introduced at Runnymede, namely chapter 14 defining the assembly that was to give the kingdom’s common consent to taxation. It was, of course, to be entirely an assembly of tenants-in-chief, dominated by the greater barons. Despite all the reasons why they might have been included, there was to be no formal place for ‘magnates’ who did not hold in chief. And there was to be no place for knights representing the counties or burgesses the towns. The exclusion of London seems especially remarkable, given the importance of the city in the rebel coalition. The mayor was one of the twenty-five barons. After the collapse of the Magna Carta peace, the barons and the citizens of London wrote jointly to King Alexander ‘against’ King John. There were also feelings in the city that it should be represented at national assemblies when taxation was discussed.38 Something of the paradox was revealed in the Charter itself, which, on the one hand, said that aids could only be levied on London by the common counsel of the kingdom, and then denied London any place in the assembly from which that common counsel came. The baronial leaders at Runnymede also failed to protect London and other privileged towns from John’s determination to get tallage out of the Charter. Not surprisingly perhaps, since if the king was prevented from tallaging his towns at will, then lords might find themselves similarly restricted when it came to tallaging the boroughs subject to their own jurisdictions. Had the negotiations been taking place in London, perhaps the city would have done better. As it was, although Robert fitzWalter was hereditarily the leader of London’s militia, no chronicler mentions the presence of London forces at Runnymede.39

Knights and free tenants did make some gains at Runnymede. If the chapters on relief and wardships were now specifically for tenants-in-chief, the section on the marriage of heirs was separated from them, and made a chapter on its own, namely chapter 6, which suggested it had a general relevance. There followed chapters 7 and 8 on widows, the second having been restored to what was probably its original place, having dropped down to chapter 17 in the Articles. Chapter 8 (in stating that a widow must get the consent of her lord if she wished to remarry) clearly applied to under-tenants, and therefore strengthened the assumption that this was also to be true of the preceding chapter, giving widows free entrance into their property. Most striking of all, however, was chapter 16. Here, the stipulation that no one should be forced to do more than due service for a knight’s fee was expanded to include other free tenements as well. This meant it had a vastly greater social range, since it now protected all those who held by rent.

When it came to local government, knights and free tenants cannot have welcomed the dilution of chapter 45, in which the king’s officials were now required to know not the ‘law of the land’ but the less local ‘law of the kingdom’. The contemporary French translation of the Charter retains here ‘la lei de la terre’, which suggests that ‘law of the land’ may have survived in some engrossments.40 Knights had also reason to question the changing treatment of the office of coroner, an office, of course, which they held. In chapter 14 of the Articles, the sheriffs were not to interfere with the pleas of the crown without the coroners. In chapter 24 of Magna Carta neither sheriffs nor coroners were to hold the pleas of the crown. Local society would have been as happy as the king with the implication that crown pleas were only to be heard by the king’s judges, but, in the process, the chapter had been changed from one trusting the coroners to one distrusting them. Against these setbacks, however, if such they were, there was a major gain. The twelve knights, elected in each county to reform evil practices, now got their own separate chapter, namely chapter 48, instead of being tacked on to the end of the Articles’ chapter 39. The whole process was also given much more bite. In the Articles, the malpractices were to be ‘corrected’ by the knights, and it was not said when. In the Charter, by contrast, the abuses were to be ‘wholly abolished’ by the knights within forty days, and ‘never revived’. The threatening nature of the power thus conferred is shown by the way in which John managed to insert one brake on the process. The abolitions were to take place only once he had been informed of what was proposed. Doubtless the king hoped at that stage to make objections and ask for delays. In several copies of the Charter which preserve elements of earlier drafts, this saving clause does not appear at all.41 This strongly suggests that John got it inserted at a late stage in the negotiations, the copies preserving a text from before the addition was made. This fits exactly with the two original engrossments now in the British Library, the one that went to Canterbury and Cii, in both of which the saving clause appears in an extra line below the text of the Charter with an indication of where it should go. It looks as though in the draft from which the engrossments were being copied, the saving clause had in some way been arrowed in as a late addition, and been missed by the clerks first time round. Arguments over chapter 48 are also revealed by the single-sheet copy of the Charter in the Bodleian Library referred to above. There the malpractices are still ‘to be corrected’ – ‘emendentur’ – as in the Articles, not ‘abolished’ – ‘deleantur’ – as in the final text of Magna Carta. The toughening up of this chapter was a great victory for the knights.

Knights must also have been very much concerned and presumably involved, along with the king’s judges, when it came to changes related to the hearing of the common-law legal procedures. Chapter 18 now made clear that the forum for the assizes must be the county court. A new addition to the chapter (made wrongly by Blackstone as a separate chapter 19) answered the plea in the Articles for the hearing of the assizes of novel disseisin and mort d’ancestor to be speeded up. If the cases could not be heard on the day of the county court, then sufficient knights and free tenants who attended the court should remain behind so that judgements could be made. Strictly speaking, all that was needed for judgements were the jurors and the judges, as the Articles had recognized. WhatMagna Carta wanted was a wider body of knights and free tenants to witness and guarantee the judgements – a notable testimony to the importance of the court and the place of the knights and free tenants within it. It may be that knightly opinion defeated further modifications to the assize procedures laid down in chapters 18 and 19. Some later copies of the Charter thus have the judges visiting three times a year, not four, and in the Charter of 1217 their visitations were reduced to just one. In 1217 the idea of the judges staying on to hear left-over pleas was abandoned. Instead they were to hear them later on in their circuit. The 1217 Charter also dispensed with the four knights elected in the county court and just said vaguely that the judges were to hear cases with the knights of the county. If this change, which clearly reduced knightly control of the assizes, was pressed at Runnymede, the knights had successfully resisted it.


A great deal of thought at Runnymede went into the clarification and reorganization of the chapters in the Articles of the Barons, with the result that the Charter was a clearer and more coherent document. Much of this work was presumably done by the clerical staffs, and perhaps again by those with judicial experience. The main effort presumably came from the baronial side. If the king’s men had got involved, John would not have thanked them. He was surely in the business of making the Charter as incomprehensible as possible!

Sometimes Magna Carta simply spelled out in more detail what the Articles had intended. Chapter 9 is a good example of this; here it is, with the passages added to chapter 5 of the Articles of the Barons in italics:

Neither we nor our bailiffs are to seize any land or rent for any debt, for as long as the chattels of the debtor suffice to pay the debt; nor are the sureties of that debtor to be distrained for as long as the chief debtor himself has sufficient for payment of the debt. And if the chief debtor fails in the payment of the debt, not having the wherewithal to pay,the sureties are to answer for the debt. And if they wish, they are to have the lands and the rents of the debtor until satisfaction is given to them for the debt which before they paid for him …

Here the section from ‘until’ replaces the ambiguous ‘until that debt is fully paid’. It may be that further clarifications to the chapter were intended but dropped through inadvertence or lack of time. Thus the 1216 Charter after the debtor ‘not having the wherewithal to pay’ added ‘or not wishing to pay when he is able’.42 Since this phrase is found in several later copies of the 1215 Charter, it may well have been in drafts made at Runnymede. Indeed, perhaps the clerks in 1216 had such drafts to hand.

Considerable efforts were made to tighten up the drafting of the crucial chapters 39 and 40 on justice. Chapter 39 now began ‘No freeman’, rather than ‘The body of a freeman’, as in the Articles, probably because it sounded odd to have the body of a freeman disseised.43 The chapter broadened the ways in which the king might go or send against someone by omitting the Articles’ ‘by force’, while it inserted ‘lawful’ before ‘judgement of his peers’. Chapter 40, apart from making the king the subject of the sentence, now spoke of ‘right and justice’ – ‘rectum aut justitiam’ – rather than simply ‘right’. It was through ‘justice’, of course, that one obtained ‘right’, and it strengthened the chapter to include both.44 Similar expertise went into improving the order of the Charter’s chapters. The two on debts to the Jews were advanced to chapters 10 and 11 from 34 and 35, thus coming after the chapter on distraint for debt. What became chapter 12 on scutages and aids came up to join them from chapter 32, taking matters about London and the towns with them. As a result of these changes, the first part of the Charter gained a more coherent focus, aimed at the financial operations of royal government. Another improvement was in linking together the two chapters on the assizes, chapters 18 and 19, rather than having them separated as chapters 8 and 13. A rather different fate attended some of the chapters which were most subject to change, for these often dropped right down the order, usually for no particular reason other than that, as we may suspect, they had got shuffled out of their previous positions in the course of their redrafting. Thus the chapter on measures, where a large new section was added on standards, fell from chapter 12 in the Articles of the Barons to chapter 35 in the Charter, where it took the place of the chapter on the king’s disseisins. The latter, much altered and argued over when it came to the disseisins of Henry II and Richard, dropped down from chapter 25 in the Articles to near the end of the Charter, becoming chapter 52. There it joined up with two new chapters, chapter 53 about the afforestations of Richard and Henry, and chapter 54 on accusations by women. Chapter 55 was the remodelled chapter on fines, which itself had fallen from chapter 37 in the Articles. In the copies of the Charter where the chapter on fines preserves its Articles form, it actually also preserves its Articles order, pretty clear proof that it was the renegotiation that caused the loss of place. We can imagine remodelled chapters being crossed out in a draft, rewritten on a separate piece of parchment and then being added back in at any convenient point, often near the end. Interestingly, however, there is one copy of the Charter where the remodelled chapter on fines is still in its Articles place, so presumably it derived from a draft where the clerk had put it back there.

Partly as a result of these changes, the order of the Charter remained far from perfect. Indeed an interesting exercise (which I sometimes set MA students) is to attempt a better job. If, for example, the expanded chapter on measures had been placed after that on fish weirs, and the chapter on disseisins had been kept in this area, rather than dropping down to the end of the Charter, it could have created coherent sections on trade and merchants and then on justice. So, for example, the Charter might have run:

       32 fish weirs

       33 measures

       34 merchants

       35 entry to kingdom

       36 convictions for felony

       37 writ precipe

       38 writ of life and limbs

       39 accusations by bailiffs

       40 no one to be proceeded against save by judgement of peers, etc.

       41 denial of justice

       42 disseisins by John, Richard and Henry

But enough of such games! Time was limited at Runnymede. The negotiators were surrounded by piles of much-worked-over drafts. Even the drafts from which the final engrossments were copied out were not altogether clear, hence the way the scribes of the Canterbury Charter and Cii made mistakes and had to add text in at the bottom.


The negotiations at Runnymede were interrupted and invigorated by one great ecclesiastical festival. Sunday, 14 June was Trinity Sunday. Presumably Archbishop Langton himself conducted the service before King John at Windsor, after which there would have been a feast. The lesson for the day was Revelation 4:1–10, where the twenty-four elders bow down before the throne of God in heaven. At least the number here, twenty-four, saved the rebels from any blasphemous comparisons with the twenty-five barons of the security clause! The day’s Gospel, on the other hand, might seem more relevant. It was John 3:1–15, where Christ tells Nicodemus that ‘unless a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God’. Mere baptism by water, moreover, was not enough. A man must be born again in spirit. Fortunately a sermon that Langton preached on a Trinity Sunday survives. While it probably comes from earlier in his career, it may give some clue to his themes on this occasion. The sermon is mercifully short, taking little more than fifteen minutes to read out, so John would have had no need to ask his archbishop to hurry up, as he had at the start of the reign with Bishop Hugh of Lincoln. If he listened, John would have received some clear lessons as to his behaviour in the future, for Langton urged his listeners to pray to the Father for ‘good power’, to the Son for ‘good wisdom’ and to the Holy Spirit for ‘good will’.45 Such injunctions, if given on Trinity Sunday 1215, were well timed, for the negotiations were nearly at an end.

Historians have long debated the true date of Magna Carta.46 The four original engrossments, as well as the copy in the bishops’ letters testimonial, all end with John’s statement that it was ‘Given by our hand [Data per manum nostram] in the meadow which is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June, in the seventeenth year of our reign.’ The natural assumption is that 15 June 1215 is the date of Magna Carta. It is therefore astonishing to find that many leading Magna Carta historians, Holt included, have regarded the 15 June date as nothing more or less than ‘fictitious’.47 Instead, they have argued that the terms of the Charter were not agreed until 19 June, and it was only then, or even later, that it was actually issued. The question of the date of the Charter is about more than a few days either way. It is of crucial importance for understanding what happened at Runnymede. The correct date, it will be argued, is indeed 15 June. Only when this is appreciated can one see both the cleverness of John’s manoeuvring and the dissatisfaction with the Charter that quickly forced him into further concessions.

The starting point for any discussion of the date of Magna Carta must be the dating clause that we have already quoted: ‘Given by our hand in the meadow which is called Runnymede … on the fifteenth day of June.’ It is remarkable how lightly this testimony has been set aside. The dating clause here was absolutely typical of that found in royal charters from the start of the reign of Richard I, when it was first introduced. It was certainly more than formulaic. The place and date change constantly and can be shown in John’s reign to correspond with the king’s known itinerary. There are also frequent changes in the name of the giver, who might be the chancellor, a chancery official or occasionally the king himself. In 1215, in the period before Runnymede, the charters were given both by the chancellor, Richard Marsh, and his deputy, Ralph de Neville, at ten different locations.48 The precise meaning of the clause is also pretty plain. To ‘give’ the charter ‘by the hand’ was to authorize its engrossment from the final draft and by extension to authorize its sealing. The natural assumption, therefore, is that John himself authorized the engrossment and sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15 June. He gave the Charter himself (the only charter he did give in 1215) because the barons, not surprisingly, insisted that he take personal responsibility for it, rather than hiving that off to his chancellor.

What on earth, therefore, has led historians (Galbraith being an exception) to reject the 15 June date?49 One factor was that the 15 June date seemed to leave an inexplicable ‘hiatus’ between this date for the Charter and the eventual peace that is firmly fixed by documentary evidence for 19 June. Another factor is that it seemed inconceivable John would issue the Charter before the peace on 19 June, thus making concessions to people who were still in rebellion against him. Since the 15 June date on the Charter indicated that something had happened on that day, Holt suggested that there was then a solemn and general agreement to accept the Articles as the basis for the Charter.50 This was taken as ‘the authorization’ for the Charter, and the date was thus retained in the subsequent drafts during the negotiations between 15 and 19 June, until it finally appeared in the Charter itself.

These arguments can all be challenged. They are for a start inconsistent. They worry about the hiatus between 15 and 19 June while also having to live with a far less explicable one between 10 and 15 June. After all, if John sealed the Articles of the Barons on 10 June, as Holt very reasonably argued, virtually nothing had then happened between 10 and 15 June, if all that occurred on that day was a general agreement to accept them. Much more serious is the fact that an agreement to the Articles, whenever that happened, could not possibly have been the authorization for the Charter itself. The Charter was certainly founded on the Articles, but also differed greatly from them. When a final text was agreed, John must have authorized afresh its engrossment and sealing. If that took place on 19 June, why does the Charter not say so? As we have seen, the ‘giving’ clause in royal charters was far from frozen and formulaic. Indeed, there is evidence that it was changed during the negotiations for Magna Carta, since Galbraith’s copy in the Huntington Library was given on 15 June not at Runnymede but at Windsor.

What then of the argument that John would not have granted the Charter to those in rebellion? John would have quite agreed, but, then, by issuing the Charter on 15 June before the peace, he was doing nothing of the kind. The nearest parallel is with November 1216, when Henry III issued a new version of Magna Carta although half the realm was in rebellion against him. The fact of the rebellion limited not the king’s actions but the circle of those who benefited from them. It is true that the Charter was granted ‘to all the free men of our kingdom’, but it went without saying that such free men were within the king’s allegiance. The fact that John announced the Charter to all his ‘faithful men’ made that clear. The liberties in the Charter were thus the exclusive concern of the king’s ‘fideles’. Rebels, of course, could look enviously at these liberties, but would only enjoy them once they too had become faithful men and had made peace. Indeed, from John’s perspective, that was the whole point.

There was nothing, therefore, to stop John authorizing the Charter before the peace, as the dating clause shows that he did. There are also clear indications within the Charter itself that, when it was finalized, the peace was still in the future. Thus, in chapter 51, John promised that ‘immediately after the restoration of peace’, he would remove all foreign soldiers from the kingdom. Significantly, this passage was added at Runnymede, for it does not appear in the Articles. The ‘immediately’ was a sop to the barons, but, for the rest, it was John who was behind this clause. He knew there might be a considerable delay between the issuing of the Charter on 15 June and the conclusion of peace, if indeed there was peace at all. It was thus vital to make clear that until and unless there was peace, he would not disarm by dismissing his mercenary soldiers. That was both a safeguard for his own position and a threat of what would happen if the settlement were not accepted. The issuing of the Charter before the peace also explains why, in the preamble, not a single rebel appears among those on whose advice John said he was acting. It was this same group, although their names were not repeated, who witnessed the Charter. If the Charter had been issued after the peace, then it would have been quite possible for ex-rebels, now once more within the king’s allegiance, to have been named within it. Indeed, at Runnymede, on 20 June, six of the greatest rebels, now restored to the king’s faith, did indeed witness a royal charter. If Magna Carta itself had been finalized on 19 or 20 June, they could have appeared there too, thus giving it a far more consensual nature.51

What then was the sequence of events on 15 June? Galbraith thought the Huntington copy of the Charter represented its final draft, hence John was put down as authorizing it at Windsor on 15 June, before he moved to Runnymede for the last negotiations later in the day. That is not impossible, but it is equally likely that the copy had no official status and was simply one view of the situation early on 15 June. Either way, the contrast between the Huntington copy and the final Charter suggests there was still a lot to play for in the final hours. The rebels succeeded in widening the scope of the chapter on fines, while John fought off the idea that the baronial relief should be 100 marks. Archbishop Langton, meanwhile, finally prevented any ban on John appealing to the pope, for it is still there in the Huntington copy. These matters having been settled, John brought the negotiations to an end and said in effect to the baronial envoys ‘That’s your lot. Take it or leave it.’ The baronial envoys took it. If they pressed for more, John might break off thewhole business and return to war. There was equally the danger that if the negotiations were continued, radicals in the baronial camp would destroy the Charter by making impossible demands. The barons had achieved a tremendous amount. It was best now to secure it. Both sides thus swore to the terms that had been agreed. It is sometimes said that John and the barons took an oath to the Charter in some great ceremony at the time of the declaration of the peace on 19 June. But the Charter itself lends no support to this idea. Instead, it says that ‘[an oath] has been sworn both on our part and on the part of the barons’. The Latin here for ‘on the part’ is ‘ex parte’, which was precisely how the negotiators acting on behalf of the sides were described in 1215. The implication is that it was these negotiators, acting on behalf of the king, and on behalf of the barons, who swore to the Charter. Since the oath is described as being in the past in the Charter, it must have taken place before John gave the Charter on 15 June.

Once John had authorized the drawing up of the Charter, he proceeded at once to have it engrossed and sealed. Legally there may have been no need for this, since the oaths themselves were a commitment to the Charter. Politically, however, there was every need. The baronial negotiators had now to approach the barons assembled at Runnymede and essentially sell them the settlement. One can imagine the howls of derision and disbelief that would have greeted their efforts without even a proper charter to demonstrate their achievements. On 10 June they had needed John to seal the Articles of the Barons to prove his good faith. How much more was that the case now with Magna Carta!

John came to the same conclusion about the need to issue the Charter, but for different reasons. His aim was to show absolutely and definitively that the negotiations were over. He also made one sovereign gain, for he kept the names of the twenty-five barons of the security clause out of the Charter. As a result, he hoped to reduce the chances of its ever being enforced. At the time John ‘gave the Charter’, the barons had yet to decide whom the twenty-five were to be. As the Charter puts it, ‘the barons shall choose twenty-five barons of the kingdom, whom they wish’. In other words, the choice was still in the future. The negotiators had evidently felt unable to name the twenty-five on the spot on 15 June. Yet they dared not postpone the settlement until they were chosen, for the reasons we have seen. So the baronial negotiators settled and left the names of the twenty-five out of the Charter. John must have been pleased. After all, without knowing the names of the twenty-five, how was the noxious security clause to work? It was now left to the barons to broadcast the names as best they could. The king’s hope, of course, was that they would not be very good at it. John’s attitude to the Charter thus stands out crystal clear. He hoped it would bring peace and make everyone disarm and go home. Thereafter it could remain as a vague symbol of good government, a testimony to his love for holy church and his desire to reform the realm. But as for its actually being enforced, no way!


John was quickly to be disabused of such hopes. The barons assembled at Runnymede did not make peace and quietly go home. Instead they made clear their dissatisfaction with the deal struck by their negotiators. In the process, they forced John, for all his ‘that is that’ bluster, into further concessions, although, thanks to the confusion over the chronology, historians have never quite appreciated the fact. It was four days before peace could finally be proclaimed, which of course is the explanation for the ‘hiatus’ between 15 and 19 June.

There were reasons for dissatisfaction. The key issue of Henry II’s afforestations had been ducked. The baronial relief had not gone down to 100 marks. And then there was the inadequacy of the security clause. It had been weakened by the removal of John’s promise not to appeal to the pope, which more or less flagged up that he would do so. The fact that the promise was still there in three copies of the Charter (including the Huntington one) shows how hard it died.52 There were also attempts to sharpen the phraseology of the clause. Whereas, in the Charter, the twenty-five barons, with ‘the commune of all the land’, were to ‘distrain and distress’ the king if he offended, several copies of the Charter all say that they were to ‘distrain and go against’ him. The Latin here is ‘contra nos ibunt’, which has a very martial ring. It is reminiscent of John’s promise on 10 May, when he said that during the negotiations with the barons he would not ‘go against them by force or by arms’ – ‘nec super eos per vim vel per arma ibimus’. It was such open warfare that was envisaged in the rejected draft of the Charter. Another draft of the security clause, one preserved by Roger of Wendover, envisaged a way of controlling the king by getting hold of key castles. Thus the castellans of Northampton, Kenilworth, Nottingham and Scarborough were to take an oath to obey the orders of the twenty-five. The Anonymous of Béthune even believed that no royal bailiff was to be appointed save through the twenty-five, which would have given them total control over the administration of the country.53 But, of course, there was nothing like that in Magna Carta. John’s castellans, sheriffs and other officials were all left in place, apart from the relations of Gerard d’Athée. The reformers in 1258 did not make the same mistake, or rather were in a better position in terms of power to avoid it. Almost the first thing they did was to get control of the king’s castles.54

If, however, the barons could not alter the Charter, they could demand further concessions outside it. It was that which happened. John had hoped that the Charter would be an end. It was not. The barons made it absolutely clear that if he wanted peace he must give more, and John complied. He thus removed the hated Peter des Roches from the justiciarship, and replaced him with Hubert de Burgh. Hubert was English and a younger son from a Norfolk knightly family. He had gallantly defended Chinon in 1205, and, good at self-publicity, had (so he said) once saved John’s nephew, Arthur, from blinding and emasculation – a scene of course made famous by Shakespeare.55 Hubert was cautious, flexible and, like Geoffrey fitzPeter, very keen to be accepted into the ranks of the high nobility. He eventually became earl of Kent. He was the antithesis of Peter des Roches and the two were to become deadly enemies. According to Hubert’s later recollection, which must have been burnt into his mind, John made him justiciar at Runnymede. That, however, was certainly after Magna Carta, for there he is still ‘seneschal of Poitou’ rather than ‘our justiciar’, the title he bore in the Charter of 1216. To be sure, des Roches himself, in the 1215 Charter, appears simply as bishop of Winchester, but that does not show he had ceased to be justiciar, because he rarely used the title.56 His removal was clearly a concession made by John in an effort to contain the discontent swirling around Runnymede. Langton himself, anxious to see peace established, had something to do with it, for, as Hubert also remembered, he was present at the appointment.57

Much more serious for John than the making of a new justiciar was his concession over London. It was the fall of London in May 1215 that had forced the king into serious negotiations. Having now issued the Charter, he must have hoped that the barons would vacate the city, and everything would return to normal. There was nothing in the Charter to say anything to the contrary. How wrong John was! He was now forced into a thoroughly disagreeable agreement over the city. The official text of this survives but is undated, and some historians have placed it in late July. It seems almost certain, however, that the agreement was struck at Runnymede shortly before the peace on 19 June. Indeed, in effect, it was a condition of the peace. In the agreement, Robert fitzWalter is described as ‘marshal of the army of God and of holy church in England’. This is a title that could not possibly have been countenanced by the king in an official document after the peace on 19 June, when the rebellion was supposed to be over and the baronial army disbanded. This date is confirmed by a newly discovered letter discussed in the next chapter that almost certainly dates from around 19 June. It was issued in the name of five barons who are identical with, and appear in the same order as, the first five barons listed in the treaty over London.58

The agreement over London (which carefully respected the city’s liberties) was made between John, on the one hand, and, on the other, Robert fitzWalter, heading twelve named earls and barons, and ‘other earls, barons and free men of all the kingdom’. All those named were rebels and all were to be members of the twenty-five. Under the terms of the agreement, the barons, far from vacating the city, were to hold it until 15 August. Even worse, Archbishop Langton was to hold the Tower of London until the same date. So instead of the barons having to get out of London, it was John who had to vacate the Tower. The point of all this was to give the barons the coercive power to enforce key aspects of the Charter. Thus if, by 15 August, the oaths to the twenty-five had been taken, and the redress of grievances demanded under chapters 52 and 55 had been made by the king, either voluntarily or by judgement of the twenty-five, then John could recover the city and the Tower. If not, the city was to remain in the hands of the barons, and the archbishop was to maintain hold of the Tower. The treaty over London thus sought to make up for the weakness of the security clause. As Holt remarked, it ‘applied the screw’.59

The London agreement refers to, and is coterminous with, John’s letters of 19 June that set in motion the taking of the oaths and the work of the twelve knights in each county.60 These can likewise be seen as a new concession forced out of John as a condition of the peace. Chapter 48 had said that local abuses were immediately to be inquired into by elected knights and abolished within forty days, provided the king or the justiciar was informed first, but gave no indication as to how and when the elections were to take place. Doubtless John hoped that the inquiry might be long delayed, if it ever took place at all. In the same way, in the security clause, there was no indication as to how and when ‘the commune of all the land’ would take its oath to support the twenty-five. Might this too be stillborn? And there was another point. The Charter itself gave no indication as to how it was to be distributed and publicized, unlike the Golden Bull issued by the king of Hungary in 1222. John certainly wanted everyone to know that he had graciously granted a charter and that it had led to peace, but as for letting anyone know of its poisonous contents, that was another matter. He would give no help to making these widely known; indeed the Charter did not require him to do so.

Again John was disabused. In his writ of 19 June, he informed the sheriffs that peace had been made, as they could see from the Charter, which was to be read publicly and adhered to. So it was to be publicized. The sheriffs were then told to ensure that everyone took the oath to the twenty-five barons, at the twenty-five’s ‘order’, on a day and at a place the twenty-five fixed. So John here, in an extraordinary abdication of royal authority, was subjecting the sheriffs to the orders of the twenty-five. And if this was not bad enough, a very definite timescale was to be given for the work of the twelve knights. They were now to be elected in the first county court to be held after the receipt of the letters in each county. This provision shows that it was not just the great barons who were discontented with the Charter. Clearly there was also pressure from knights and local society. They were determined to ensure that the abolition of malpractices in the localities actually took place.

John had been outmanoeuvred. By issuing the Charter on 15 June, he had indicated that he would give no more. The barons had called his bluff and more he had indeed given. He had dismissed Peter des Roches, made the agreement over London and set in motion the oath to the twenty-five and the work of the knights. In return, John extracted, on his part, some minimal returns. In the presence of Archbishop Langton and fellow bishops, the barons promised that they would give him whatever security he wished (other than surrendering castles and hostages) for the observation of the peace.61 The fact that this was an oral promise, of which no record was made, shows the weakness of John’s position. He also failed to get anything more than oral undertakings in another crucial area. Later he was to claim that, according to the ‘reformation of peace’, all castles and lands seized during the war were to be returned by 15 August, so by the date laid down in the London treaty. In addition, all prisoners held at the time of the peace were to be released and outstanding ransoms pardoned.62 These stipulations were clearly important for John’s supporters, who had suffered during the war, yet they appear in neither the Charter nor the London treaty. Some echo of John’s demands may have reached the Anonymous of Béthune, who believed that the twenty-five were to redress the wrongs that John himself had suffered, but again there was nothing about this in the actual Charter.63

Even with John’s further concessions, not all were satisfied. The Crowland chronicler states that some of the northerners, ‘the magnates across the Humber’, left Runnymede and, claiming that they had not been there (and thus not included in the peace), resumed hostilities.64 The failure to deal with the afforestations of Henry II must have been a particular grievance. Nonetheless, the majority of the barons decided to accept the improved offer and return to the king’s peace. Once John was certain of that, which seems to have been by the evening of 18 June, he was determined to ensure that the peace went through. It was thus on 18 June itself that he wrote to one of his captains, Stephen Harengod, announcing the making of peace ‘on Friday next after the feast of St Trinity at Runnymede’ (so on 19 June), which would have been true by the time the letter arrived. Haringod was then warned to do nothing to disturb the peace ‘as you love us and our honour and your body’.65

In the negotiations at Runnymede, John had done something to modify the baronial demands in the Articles. He had managed to postpone, for the duration of his prospective crusade, the giving of justice on the disseisins committed by Henry II and Richard. He had got rid of any suggestion that tallage needed consent. He had gained greater freedom when it came to marrying off heirs and heiresses. On the other hand, he had been pinned down to pathetically small amounts for comital, baronial and knightly reliefs. He could no longer pretend that taxation commanded consent when it had only been sanctioned by his immediate entourage. In general, the provisions on relief, the marriages of widows, debts to the Jews, aids and scutages, and the county farms, all threatened major reductions in royal revenue and power. However much John protested to the contrary, the chapters forbidding arbitrary disseisins and the denial, delay and sale of justice ran clean counter to his style of kingship. The security clause, if properly enforced, would make him no more than half a king. The treaties that had brought him much of North Wales and promised the subjection of Scotland were dead letters.

For all this, John had accepted the Charter and then made further concessions. His immediate aim was simply to end the civil war. He saw Magna Carta as a peace treaty, hence the way that ‘peace and liberties’ were linked together in the security clause. The first was to be paid for by the second. John’s hope was that everyone, having achieved the Charter, would lay down their arms and go home. Whether they would then manage to implement the concessions remained to be seen. John, after all, still retained control of his castles (other than the Tower) and was still able to appoint whom he liked to local office. There were also elements in Magna Carta to exploit. John could insist that magnates obey the Charter in their dealings with their men, as chapter 60 said they should.66He might give justice to everyone, or at least everyone who was free, by developing the common law. The Charter also left significant royal powers intact. John could tallage the towns and tax the Jews at will. He retained the royal forest as it had been under Henry II. He could appoint whomever he liked as his ministers, both at the centre and in the localities, providing that they knew the law of the kingdom, whatever that meant. He could also still give patronage, and reward his servants, as he liked. In terms of what he had to give, he retained his rights over wardships (even if they were not to be pillaged) and over the marriages of heirs (even if they were not to be disparaged). He could still expect a flow of land into his hands through forfeitures and escheats. Provided the Charter was not rigorously enforced, it was not impossible that he could live with it over the longer term.

Both John and his opponents, therefore, decided to make peace. Friday, 19 June was the day of the ceremony. In what perhaps was a procession, like that at a coronation, the barons did homage to the king, renewed their oaths of fealty and received a kiss of peace – something Henry II had conspicuously denied Becket at their last meeting. John then sealed the reconciliation with a great feast, just as he had done on his papal absolution in 1213. His demeanour was calm and jovial.67 On 20 June, at Runnymede, four members of the twenty-five – the earl of Clare, William de Mowbray, Eustace de Vesci and Roger de Montbegon – and another major rebel, Gilbert de Gant, witnessed a royal charter alongside loyalist barons.68 John had welcomed them back into the circle of the court. Whatever his real intentions, the king had every reason for pretending he was born again in spirit. This would make it all the more likely that the rebellion would end and less likely that the Charter would be enforced.

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