Post-classical history

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The Enforcement and Failure of the Charter

As John feasted with the barons on 19 June, both sides knew that a contest over the Charter was about to begin. John wanted it to bring peace, which meant the disbanding of rebel armies and the restoration of royal authority in the localities. In his mind, the precise details of the Charter were best forgotten, if indeed they ever became known. John’s opponents, on the other hand, wanted the Charter rigorously enforced. Some wanted to go beyond it. That these divergent ambitions would lead to the failure of the Charter and the renewal of civil war was always likely, but not inevitable, or at least it did not seem so at the time. Sometime in the month following Magna Carta, Alan Basset took out a nine-month lease that was to run from 20 July ‘next after the concord made between the king and his barons at Runnymede’.1 Alan was one of the counsellors on whose advice John had granted the Charter. He was a man in the know. Yet he evidently did not think the concord was about to collapse. In the cause of peace, John himself was prepared to implement certain aspects of the Charter. Thus at Runnymede on 23 June, he issued orders sending home the foreign knights and serjeants who had arrived at Dover.2 This was to fulfil the Charter’s chapter 51, under which immediately after the peace he was to remove the foreign soldiers who had come ‘to the harm of the kingdom’. John doubtless hoped that in return the barons would disarm too.


If the Charter was to be enforced, its contents had obviously to be made known. In Hungary, the Golden Bull itself declared that there were to be seven engrossments, and went on to stipulate who should receive them. One was to go to the pope to be copied into his Register.3 Magna Carta, by contrast, gave no clue as to the destination of its engrossments. John’s letters of 19 June seem to be more informative, although, as we will see, misleadingly so. In the letters, issued to the sheriffs in each county, John informed them of the peace ‘as you can hear and see from our charter, which we have caused to be made, which also we have ordered to be publicly read through all your bailiwick and firmly held’.4 The sheriffs were also instructed to obey and enforce the Charter. Not unnaturally, this has led many historians to assume that the Charter was sent to the sheriffs and thus there was one for each county. Indeed, Ralph of Coggeshall states that ‘the form of peace was set out in a charter, in such manner that each county had its own charter authenticated by the royal seal’.5 There are good reasons, however, for thinking this was not exactly the case. Coggeshall’s own statement may be no more than a deduction from the 19 June letters, of which he evidently had knowledge. The letters of 19 June said the sheriffs were to hear and obey the Charter, certainly, but not that they would receive it or should themselves proclaim it. Indeed, the letters gave no indication at all about the mechanics of distribution and proclamation. All this was strikingly different from the procedure in February 1218 when the sheriffs were sent the new version of the Charter and told to have it read in their fully attended county courts.6 Nothing like that happened in 1215. In part, this was by John’s deliberate design. The last thing he wanted was for everyone to know the precise details of the Charter. He was damned if he would tell the sheriffs to proclaim it.

In being reluctant to send the Charter to the sheriffs, John was, however, of one mind with the barons, although for different reasons. The last thing the barons wanted was to rely on the sheriffs for the Charter’s preservation and proclamation, given that the sheriffs were the very people under the Charter’s attack. The baronial problem here lay in their failure to assert control over local appointments. John remained free to choose whom he liked as his sheriffs and castellans. Indeed he staged a reshuffle in the week after the peace.7 The only local officials the Charter sought to remove were the relations of Gerard d’Athée. Here slowly and grudgingly between 2 and 20 July, John complied, moving Geoffrey de Martigny, Engelard de Cigogné, and Andrew and Peter de Chanceaux out of their castles and counties. But if their replacements were more acceptable (one was Hubert de Burgh), they were just as loyal to King John.8 John never obeyed the Charter when it came to removing Philip Marc from Nottingham castle and the sheriffdom of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

The barons, therefore, had to make their own arrangements for the publication of the Charter. They had doubtless acquired some engrossments at Runnymede itself, but they needed many more for distribution around the country. The trouble was that only John and his chancery could issue authentic engrossments validated by the royal seal. Here, then, the barons were completely in John’s hands. They were not easy hands to be in. There was firstly the practical problem that each Charter took hours to write out.9 After that, it needed to be sealed, which could produce more delay. A big effort was needed to produce large numbers of Charters in one go, and John had no intention of galvanizing the chancery into making it. The process of extracting engrossments from him became like extracting teeth.

What happened we know from documentary evidence. Precisely because neither the Charters nor the 19 June letters (to which we will return) were sent to the sheriffs in a routine way, the chancery thought it wise to draw up a distribution list, setting out who they were sent to, and this was enrolled on the dorse (reverse side) of the patent rolls.10 The list states that the bishop of Lincoln received two Charters, the bishop of Worcester one Charter and Master Elyas of Dereham four Charters. Since this information follows the statement that on 24 June the bishop of Lincoln received two of the 19 June letters, the implication is that these Charters were handed over on or after 24 June. There is some indication that Elyas of Dereham may have got his four on 27 June.11 The list closes with the statement that the Master of Dereham had received a further six Charters on 22 July. Doubtless Elyas would have liked all his ten at his first take, but he was evidently unable to secure them.

Adding up, we have here thirteen Charters in all. What were the two bishops and Elyas of Dereham to do with them? Here the distribution list is of no help. Whereas, with the 19 June letters, it both cites the recipients and then the counties for which the letters were destined, with the Charters it just cites the recipients. The reason for that is clear. Since the letters were addressed to the king’s ministers in each county, they each had a county destination indicated at their start. The Charters, with their general address, did not have a county destination and so could go anywhere. They could, of course, have gone to the counties but we may be fairly sure that did not happen, at least not immediately. Their destination instead was the bishop and the diocese. It was Ivor Rowlands who first came up with this idea, pointing out that the thirteen Charters in the list corresponded exactly to the number of dioceses with bishops in post in 1215. The annals of Dunstable, moreover, state specifically that the Charters were ‘deposited through each bishopric in safe places’.12 The safe places almost certainly were the cathedral churches, where the Charters would be accessible to anyone who wanted to inspect them. Three Charters, the list shows, went specifically to bishops, one to the bishop of Worcester and two to the bishop of Lincoln. The fact that the bishop of Lincoln also received the letters of 19 June for Oxfordshire and Bedfordshire has led to the suggestion that his two Charters were intended for those counties, both of which were within his diocese. But the two entries, although consecutive, are clearly separated, that about the Charters being a new ‘item’. A perfectly plausible hypothesis is that one Charter was for the diocese of Lincoln while the other was for the diocese of Bath and Glastonbury, where the bishop, Jocelyn of Wells, was the brother of the bishop of Lincoln, Hugh of Wells. The Lincoln diocesan destination fits perfectly with Lincoln cathedral’s having been the home of one of the engrossments apparently from the start. The Lincoln engrossment has ‘LINCOLNIA’ written twice in capital letters on the back, almost certainly by the scribe of the Charter itself. Evidently, he knew its destination, which could easily have been the case if it was one of the two taken by the bishop.

What then of the ten Charters received by Elyas of Dereham? Elyas was the steward of Archbishop Langton, and was close to other bishops.13 It would seem, then, highly likely that he passed to the bishops the Charters which he had obtained. This would explain again how two more of the surviving originals were both preserved, probably from the start, at cathedrals, namely Salisbury and Canterbury. The Salisbury Magna Carta is written in a much more formal hand than the other three originals, which seem typical chancery products, and it may be that Dereham, importuning for Charters, persuaded the chancery to accept outside help in writing them. As for the engrossment now shown to have been kept at Canterbury cathedral, Dereham, with Archbishop Langton’s approval, probably sent it there direct. That it was the Charter intended for the diocese and not for Langton personally is shown by the fact that it was kept at the cathedral as opposed to Lambeth palace or the archbishop’s treasury at the priory of St Gregory at Canterbury.14

For the baronial party, the bishops and their cathedrals were far safer custodians of the Charter than were the sheriffs and their castles, from which the Charter might never again emerge. The brothers Hugh and Jocelyn of Wells, the bishops of Lincoln and Bath and Glastonbury, were former chancery clerks of King John, but they had defied him during the Interdict and gone into exile. Hugh’s views on Gerard d’Athée’s kin must have paralleled Langton’s. In his will, drawn up in 1212 while in exile, Hugh left 40 marks to an unnamed Nottinghamshire knight whose daughter Gerard ‘wished to have’ for his son. One suspects this was the amount the knight handed over to rescue his daughter from the marriage.15 Later, in 1219, heading the judges on eyre in Lincolnshire, Hugh and his colleagues wrote a magisterial letter setting out their duty to give justice to all, rich and poor alike, and explaining how the whole county court had rallied behind Gilbert de Gant in support of the ‘common liberty of all the kingdom conceded and sworn’, a clear reference to the Charter.16 The bishop of Worcester, Walter de Grey, had been John’s chancellor, but he had bought the position for its profits and played little part in day-to-day government. The bishop’s positive attitude to the Charter can be judged from the way he took possession both of an engrossment and the 19 June letter for Worcestershire. Perhaps the only bishop who might be suspected of evil designs on the Charter was Peter des Roches of Winchester. Indeed, the Charter had effectively cost him his job as justiciar. Perhaps, in this case, Elyas of Dereham sent the Charter for the Winchester diocese direct to the monks of Winchester cathedral, with whom des Roches was frequently at odds.

Once the Charters of the Charter were safely housed at the cathedrals, the intention was not for them to remain there treasured in magnificent obscurity. Rather they were to be inspected and copied.17 Both engrossments and copies could also be circulated in the surrounding country. That, of course, was the more necessary since dioceses usually embraced several counties. Lincoln’s indeed embraced eight. Thus the Crowland chronicler speaks of ‘an exemplar’ of the Charter being borne ‘through cities and villages’.18There may be a clue to what happened with copies of the Charters in the procedures adopted in 1254. In that year the dean of Lincoln sent out transcripts of the 1225 Magna Carta (which he wanted back) so that they could be copied.19 Was this an echo of a procedure in 1215? The eagerness to get the content of the 1215 Charter across is also seen in the way that it was translated, almost at once, into French.20 Here again there was a parallel with 1254, when the dean of Lincoln ordered the papal letters confirming the excommunication launched against violators of Magna Carta to be published and proclaimed in both French and English. There is no sign, however, that in 1215 Magna Carta was put across in English either in a written text or (more useful for English-speaking illiterates) verbal proclamation, although to have done so would have helped rally free tenants to the cause.21

All this is not to say that the diocesan Charters were the only ones in the localities. There were no bishops of Carlisle, Durham and Norwich, and no archbishop of York, in post at the time of Runnymede, and it is inconceivable that Charters did not reach those areas. We know that a Charter was entrusted to Byland abbey in Yorkshire, where William de Mowbray was patron. Quite probably, the need was supplied by some of the engrossments made at Runnymede itself. There was also another source of information aboutthe Charter, although one hitherto unrecognized. This was through the unofficial copies of the Charter made from drafts which had circulated at Runnymede. Evidently, those involved in the negotiations took such drafts away, and copied them up as authentic 1215 Charters. There is a parallel here with 1258, when drafts of the reforms proposed at the Oxford parliament were likewise taken away and copied into chronicles and collections of documents.22 Since some of the copies of the 1215 Charter found their way into collections of legislation, they may well have descended from legal circles involved in the negotiations at Runnymede. That some of the copies, quite independently, give the date of 16 June to the Charter, rather than 15 June, may indicate that this was the date on which they were copied.23 Drafts were copied because, initially at least, originals were not plentiful, while thirst for knowledge of the Charter was great. These later copies seem to derive from no fewer than five versions of the Charter, all in some way independent of one another. The implication is that there were at least five different routes through which drafts of the Charter circulated. Here then was an important channel of information alongside that being opened up by the authorized version itself.

Who then had won the battle over the distribution of Magna Carta? Surely the opposition barons and knights. The fact of the Charter itself was well known. The Crowland chronicler, as we have said, wrote of ‘an exemplar’ being borne ‘through cities and villages’. Ralph of Coggeshall believed that every county had its own engrossment. The Anonymous of Béthune said something about the Charter’s contents, some of it accurate, some not.24 Copies were made, or possessed by, the Londoners, and by the religious houses of Peterborough, Luffield Reading, Stanley, Llanthony Gloucester, Montacute, Exeter and St Augustine’s and Christ Church, Canterbury, the two last from different texts. St Albans’ versions travelled to Tynemouth, Wymondham and Norwich. One copy of a draft version, found in a legal collection, is in French.25 Some of this transmission took place considerably after 1215, but it probably reflects the pattern then. John had lost the battle to bury the Charter. Could he win the battle to prevent its execution?


The execution of the Charter depended on the work of the twenty-five barons. They were to sit in judgement on disseisins and fines, if John refused immediate redress. They were to hear the complaints about breaches of the Charter and indeed any other abuse. If the king failed to put matters right, they were to force him to do so with ‘the commune of all the land’. They were also to issue the instructions to the sheriffs for the taking of the oath that would form the commune. The oath itself was to obey the orders of the twenty-five in coercing the king. On 15 June, when John authorized the Charter, the barons had not yet chosen the twenty-five. That was not surprising, for it must have been a difficult and contentious business. Some barons probably refused to become members. Many others may have coveted the position, thinking they would gain status and power. No earl could have been denied membership, but lower down the hierarchy there was much to play for. Presumably the decisions were made in the period between 15 and 19 June. Three independent lists of the twenty-five are known, one copied thrice over from a common source at St Albans abbey, one copied at Reading abbey and one found in a volume of legal texts along with a copy of the Charter itself.26 In these copies, the first eleven names (as C. R. Cheney noted) appear in the same order, seven earls first, and then William Marshal junior, Robert fitzWalter, Gilbert de Clare (eldest son of the earl of Clare) and Eustace de Vescy.27 Perhaps at a meeting of the twenty-five, the clerks already had a list of the first eleven, and then, with the members milling around, jotted down the names of the rest in different orders. The twenty-five seem to have been chosen by the time of the treaty over London around 19 June, for although they do not appear in that treaty in a body, all thirteen of the named barons were members.

The twenty-five were hardly a representative baronial group. The first and most striking point was that they were made up entirely of former rebels. There was thus no common ground in support of the Charter. Eight of the twenty-five could be described as northerners, but the majority had their main interests in East Anglia, Essex and the home counties. Only John fitzRobert really linked both north and east. Only William Malet, lord of Curry Malett in Somerset, and a former sheriff of the county, was a West Country baron, despite that region being a centre of discontent. Only Geoffrey de Mandeville, having gained Glamorgan through his marriage, held a major Welsh lordship. Only William of Huntingfield represented tenants-in-chief who held knights’ fees rather than baronies, although that was probably not the reason for his inclusion. The northern barons Nicholas de Stuteville, Peter de Brus and Gilbert de Gant did not feature in the group, yet room was found for the eldest sons of three earls, the father of one being the loyalist William Marshal.28

Despite these inadequacies, the twenty-five showed at once that they meant business. Robert fitzWalter retained his title of ‘marshal of the army of God’ and probably neither he nor his colleagues ever disarmed. In one list of the twenty-five, each member is made responsible for raising a military force. These range from the 200 knights promised by Geoffrey de Mandeville and William Marshal junior down to the ten knights of William Malet and some others. The total given was 1,083 knights, a formidable force.29


The business of taking the oath to the twenty-five had begun at Runnymede, where no fewer than thirty-eight loyalists had been obliged to swear it.30 The swearing in of the localities was set off by John’s letter of 19 June sent to all the sheriffs. Under its terms, the sheriffs were to obey the orders of the twenty-five when it came to arranging the taking of the oath. The sheriffs were also informed that twelve knights, elected at the next county court, were to investigate and then abolish the ‘evil customs’ of the sheriffs ‘as is contained in the charter’. The sheriffs were not, however, actually instructed to do anything about the election. Indeed, the only thing they were told to do directly by the king, apart from obey the twenty-five, was to uphold both the Charter and the peace. John can have had little interest in distributing this letter, any more than he had an interest in distributing the Charter. He certainly wanted people to know there was peace, and that his Charter, graciously conceded, had brought it about. But he may well have informed the sheriffs of the forthcoming peace and warned them to keep it in letters witnessed already on 18 June, if the writ sent to one of his captains, Stephen Haringod, is anything to go by.31 Beyond that, the king’s aim was surely to obstruct rather than accelerate the taking of the oath and the inquiry by the knights.

What happened over the 19 June letters, therefore, paralleled what happened over the Charters, which is why the distribution list dealt with both. John did not have the letters carried to the sheriffs by royal messengers in the usual routine way. Indeed, that is implied in the letters themselves, which tell the sheriffs not that they are being sent the letters but that the letters will simply arrive in their ‘parts’. With this the baronial leaders were content. They wanted the letters to be as well known as possible, not sent to sheriffs, who might then keep quiet about them. In the case of the one letter that did go direct to a sheriff, John’s aim was probably just that, since the sheriff in question, Engelard de Cigogné, was marked down for dismissal by the Charter.32 For the rest of the letters, the distribution list shows that they were received for the most part by trusty agents of the barons, or indeed by the barons themselves. Thus the first letter on the list, significantly for Yorkshire, was received by Philip fitzJohn. He was a tenant of William de Mowbray and the beneficiary of a charter that John issued on 20 June at Runnymede, which was witnessed by many former rebels, including Mowbray himself.33 Of the following letters, Worcester’s was received by its bishop, those for Somerset and Dorset by a clerk of the bishop of Bath, London’s by the mayor and sheriffs, those for Leicestershire and Warwickshire by Saer de Quincy, Northumberland’s by Eustace de Vescy, and those for twelve counties, including Lincolnshire, by another clerk, Henry de Vere. Vere (like many rebels) had been active in royal service, but he was also a brother of one of the leading rebels, Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford. Next on the list are the letters for Oxfordshire and Bedfordshire, which were received by the bishop of Lincoln. Since this last ‘take’ is dated to 24 June, one may assume the other letters were received before that date. That none of the recipients took away Charters as well, until the bishop of Lincoln on or after 24 June, is another indication that engrossments were unavailable. The remaining twelve letters, along with his first four Charters, were all received by Elyas of Dereham on what may possibly have been 27 June.34 Where the letters were then sent by their immediate recipients we will discuss in due course.

Having extracted the letters, the baronial leaders had now to enforce the taking of the oath. This was to be sworn either before them in person, or before those whom they appointed. John, of course, must have hoped that the twenty-five would never make this work. ‘How they tried to do so, we do not know. It may well be that they, or groups among them, sent letters to the sheriffs giving them instructions, just as later they sent letters enforcing their judgements. They may also have worked through officials they themselves appointed.’ What I have placed here between inverted commas comes from the first draft of this book! Since then a superb discovery by Nicholas Vincent has turned speculation into fact, and in a detail I had not imagined. In a cartulary of St Augustine’s abbey, Canterbury, preserved in the Lambeth Palace Library, Vincent has found a copy of the very letter implementing the taking of the oath.35 This is in a fourteenth-century hand, and comes between a copy of the 1215 Charter and a royal letter (discussed below) of 27 June. Although the copy has some obvious mistakes, the letter itself is clearly genuine. Addressed to the sheriff of Kent and the other royal ministers in the county, it was written in the names of Robert fitzWalter, ‘marshal of the army of God and the church’, and the earls of Clare, Essex and Gloucester, Norfolk and Winchester, and ‘their other colleagues to whom the common oath ought to be sworn throughout England’. The sheriff was informed that he was being sent four knights (their names are given), who were also the bearers of the letter. The knights were to receive on behalf of the four earls and their colleagues the oaths due to be sworn according to the king’s letters (evidently those of 19 June). The sheriff was to see this was done on the day and at the place the four knights assigned him. The letter concluded by saying that the four knights were also to be present when the twelve knights were elected in the county court to inquire into the evil customs as ‘contained in the charter of the lord king’. This of course referred to the inquiry commissioned by the Charter’s chapter 48, the letter of 19 June having stipulated that the twelve knights were to be elected at the next meeting of the county court.

The letter was thus issued in the names of fitzWalter, Richard de Clare, Geoffrey de Mandeville, Roger Bigod and Saer de Quincy. (Evidently Mandeville was now styling himself both earl of Essex and earl of Gloucester, titles John had denied him.) The ‘colleagues’ – ‘socii’ – referred to were clearly the rest of the twenty-five barons of Magna Carta’s security clause. Although the letter is addressed to the king’s officials in Kent, we can be confident that similar missives, setting up four knights, went to the other counties. In the St Augustine’s copy, the letter is undated but was probably drawn up around 19 June, in parallel with the king’s own letter. As we have seen, all the five named barons appear in the same order in the treaty over London, which can be independently dated to shortly before the peace on 19 June.

Each group of four knights had thus been assigned major tasks, and there were probably other duties. The letter of the four earls and their colleagues did not say the knights would be bringing the king’s letters of 19 June, let alone the Charter itself, but it was, one may suspect, to these groups of knights that the 19 June letters were sent by Elyas of Dereham and the other recipients named on the distribution list. When, therefore, the sheriffs were told that the letters would be arriving in their areas, it was the knights who brought them. Likewise it was the knights, once the engrossments of the Charter had reached the cathedrals, who took them on the tours mentioned by Coggeshall and ensured that they were ‘publicly read’ and made known to the sheriffs in the way described in the 19 June letter. In some counties, of course, where the king’s sheriffs still had power, the knights had a difficult task. In others, subject to baronial sheriffs, they were pushing at an open door.

A heavy burden, therefore, rested on each group of four knights, but they could shoulder it. Assuming they were appointed in all the counties, there must have been approaching 150 of them. All presumably were present at Runnymede, and involved in the rebellion. Indeed, on 22 June, one of the Kentish knights, William of Eynsford, recovered a wardship of which he had been deprived during the war.36 The Kentish four were Eynsford, William de Ros, Thomas de Canville and Richard of Graveney. All had major holdings in Kent, as well as lands in other counties. All save Canville were tenants of the archbishop of Canterbury, and closely associated with Langton.37 They would certainly have had access to the engrossment of the Charter sent to Canterbury cathedral. All four had direct experience of John’s lordship, the three Canterbury tenants when John held the archbishopric during the Interdict, and Canville as a tenant of the honour of Boulogne, one of the honours which, as the Charter indicated, was in the hands of the king. John was able to pressurize all four to join his Irish expedition of 1210, lending them money, as he did other knights, to keep them going.38 Richard of Graveney (near Faversham) appeared on many grand-assize juries in John’s reign, although these were actually for adjoining Surrey, where he held Tooting Graveney from the abbot of Chertsey. Thomas de Canville held at Westerham in Kent and Fobbing in Essex, and does appear as a Kentish grand-assize knight.39 William of Eynsford and William de Ros, who head the list, were higher in status, too high to appear on juries. Ros, lord of Lullingstone in Kent, would have been a tenant-in-chief had not John conceded his overlordship to Archbishop Hubert Walter, Langton’s predecessor at Canterbury.40 At Eynsford, in Kent’s Darent valley, not far from Lullingstone, William boasted a substantial castle. He was clearly as wealthy as a major baron and in 1212 had offered John 1,200 marks for a wardship.41 His ancestor’s excommunication by Becket, in a dispute over theadvowson of Eynsford church, had been one of the early ingredients in the quarrel with Henry II.42 All four knights rebelled after the failure of the Charter, William of Eynsford being part of the garrison at Rochester castle.43

The Kentish four were far from a completely homogeneous group. There were big differences in wealth between William of Eynsford, at the top of the list, and Richard of Graveney at the bottom. Yet all must have taken independent decisions in 1215, and were far from being controlled by their lords. Thomas de Canville’s lord was the king. Langton believed in the Charter, but did not condone the rebellion. In other counties, some in each group of four knights would surely have been tenants of the baronial leaders, although that did not mean they lacked an independent voice. The four knights would have been very willing agents when it came to the work assigned them in implementing the oath. That the twenty-five barons were able, throughout England, to appoint men of such local stature shows the power of their position and what John was up against.

Apart from receiving the oath, the four knights in each county were also to preside over the election of the twelve knights empowered to abolish abuses. According to the letter of 19 June, the elections were to take place at the next county court after the receipt of the letters in the sheriff’s area.44 The sheriff was informed of this but given no specific function, although, as he presided at the county court, he might certainly have assumed one. It was thus to guard against his interference, and also to monitor the whole process, that the election was to take place in the presence of the four knights. The expectation was probably that the four would themselves be among the twelve, just as the four knightly electors usually featured in the panels of twelve knights which they elected to hear grand assizes. Since the county court met once a month, all the elections, even allowing for the halting distribution of the letters, could have taken place at the July sessions.

Having arranged for each group of four knights to receive the oath and preside over the election of the twelve knights, the twenty-five did not leave it there. Instead, on 27 June, when the king was at Odiham, they forced John to issue another letter about the oath. It was an amazing missive because it showed that the twelve knights were now intended to become a parallel executive in the counties, alongside and undermining the sheriffs. This was laid bare at the very start of the letter, which was addressed to the sheriff and ‘the twelve knights elected’ in each county to ‘abolish the evil customs’ of the sheriff! John now ordered the sheriff and the twelve to seize the lands and chattels of those who refused to take the oath to the twenty-five. If they still did not swear within fifteen days, their chattels were to be sold in aid of the Holy Land, and their lands were to be retained in the hands of the king. Given the likely reluctance of John’s sheriffs to do any such thing, one can quite see why the order went to the knights as well. They now had the power to bypass the sheriff and the right to attack their enemies. The order thus threatened to accelerate John’s loss of local control. It also showed he had lost control at the centre, for the injunctions were ‘provided by judgement of the archbishop of Canterbury and the barons of our kingdom’, so not by the king at all. Pains were taken to ensure that the letter reached a wide audience, with that for Hampshire and perhaps for other counties being translated into French.45

In default of further discoveries, we have no detailed knowledge of how and how far the oath was taken. The baronial letter simply said that it was to be sworn before each group of four knights at the time and place they assigned the sheriff. This gave the knights considerable leeway, and did not pin them down to the next meeting of the county court, which was the venue stipulated for the election of the twelve. Perhaps special meetings of the county and hundred courts were envisaged. That something did happen is clear from the chroniclers. The Crowland chronicler says that ‘an oath was sworn by everyone that they should observe [the Charter] at the king’s order’. Ralph of Coggeshall wrote of a ‘general oath’ being made ‘by everyone, both knights and free men, through all the counties of England’. Both Coggeshall and Wendover recognized that the oath involved the coercion of the king. All three chroniclers knew of the 19 June letter that set the process in motion.46

Another aspect of the work of the twenty-five was to deal with complaints about breaches of the Charter and other abuses, with those complaining having to bring their cases before four members of the twenty-five. Clearly for this to work knowledge of the membership was vital. In the event, the Magna Carta settlement collapsed before the scheme could be put to any kind of test. The twenty-five’s regional imbalance would never have helped the process. Had there been a real will to open up redress to lower sections of society, quite different procedures might have been adopted.47 But at least the swearing of the oath to the twenty-five must have made their names known. Perhaps indeed the groups of four knights read out the names at the swearing ceremonies.

The principal work of the twelve knights, as laid down in the security clause, was to investigate and abolish, within forty days, the malpractices of the king’s local officials, although John or his justiciar was to be informed of what was proposed first. That the knights, officially or not, got going very soon after Runnymede is shown by a remarkable letter issued by Archbishop Langton and the bishops, probably in the second half of July. The letter stated that, in the negotiations over the chapter (48) commissioning the work of the twelve knights, both sides had understood that the customs necessary for the running of the royal forest should remain in place.48 Had some effort been made to inform John of what the knights were proposing, as the Charter laid down? Probably not.Rather, John was hearing from his local agents what was going on. The exclusive focus on the royal forest in Langton’s letter is not surprising. Other abuses, such as exactions at local courts, could be resisted certainly but could only really be abolished by future legislation, as indeed happened in the Charter of 1217. The royal forest was different. Here the knights could take direct action by simply declaring Henry II’s afforestations invalid, and thus allowing everyone to cut the trees and hunt the animals within them. The Crowland chronicler gives a vivid picture of the magnates, especially in the north, careering through the land, selling the king’s woods and killing his beasts, as well as pillaging his houses and manors. This was part of a more general breakdown. After Magna Carta,the Crowland chronicler told how John sent his sheriffs through the provinces to provide for peace ‘in the accustomed manner’ and ‘procure what was due to the fisc’. In the areas controlled by the barons, however, the sheriffs were either seized or driven out. In Norfolk and Suffolk, the counties continued to be run by the rebel pair Roger de Cressy and William fitzRoscelin.49

John’s hopes when he agreed the Charter had been utterly dashed. It had not been left as a vague and, in terms of its details, a little-known symbol of his benevolence. Instead the Charter was being preserved in cathedrals, paraded through the counties, copied from unofficial drafts, and vigorously and perversely enforced. The king’s officials, instead of recovering their authority, were being abused and defied. And this was not all that John had to stomach.


Under the terms of the Charter, the king was obliged to restore immediately the lands, castles, liberties and rights that he had taken from people ‘without lawful judgement of their peers’. Any dispute was to be decided by judgement of the twenty-five barons. These were no idle words. In the ten days from 19 June, John was forced to make some fifty acts of restoration, twelve of the twenty-five barons being among the beneficiaries.50

Save in the few cases where he was simply restoring what he had seized during the war, John was here redressing his own arbitrary disseisins, or what were alleged to be arbitrary disseisins. Sometimes he openly confessed as much. On 19 June itself, he acknowledged that he had disseised the earl of Hereford of his Trowbridge lands unjustly, and he instructed the earl of Salisbury, under the terms of the Charter, to restore them.51 Ten days later he admitted that Clemencia, wife of Henry de Braibeuf, had been disseised of her dower (in Headington, adjoining Oxford) ‘by our order without judgement’.52 Likewise, on 24 June, he restored the son of Earl David to Godmanchester, of which he had been disseised ‘by our will and without judgement’. Three days before, Earl David himself had been restored to ‘his’ castle of Fotheringhay, seized after the plot of 1212.53 Two of the ringleaders of the 1212 plot and the 1215 rebellion likewise secured redress. Robert fitzWalter recovered ‘as his right’ Hertford castle.54 Eustace de Vescy regained the privilege of running his dogs in the forest of Northumberland ‘as he ought to have this and is accustomed’.55

Among other members of the twenty-five, William de Lanvallei recovered his ‘right’ in the manor of Kingston in Somerset; Richard de Munfichet his ‘right’ to be custodian of the Essex forest; Geoffrey de Say the wardship of the heir of one of his tenants; and Earl Richard de Clare the vill of Buckingham, this the marriage portion of his daughter, widowed when John starved to death her husband, William de Briouze junior. Another leading rebel, Robert de Brus, recovered his fair at Hartlepool as conceded in John’s charter to his father. In some cases it was not so much that John had disseised individuals as that he had refused to acknowledge rights, or alleged rights, in the first place. Two important concessions came very much into that category. Robert de Vere was at last recognized as earl of Oxford and conceded the earl’s third penny of the county, while Saer de Quincy, earl of Winchester, gained the castle of Mountsorrel that he had claimed vainly since 1204 as his wife’s inheritance.

As the dam began to break, and the waters of redress poured over him, John made desperate efforts to patch the leaks and stem the flood. One tactic, employed against Eustace de Vescy and Gilbert de Gant, was to order restoration ‘if’ what was said was true, which left it open to the recipient of the writ (the sheriff or current holder) to say that it wasn’t true. This did not always work. Having told the sheriff of Oxfordshire to restore William fitzEllis, ‘if’ he had been disseised unjustly, John next day substituted an order that simply gave William possession as it had been ‘adjudged’.56 In a much more important case, John’s efforts were similarly in vain. He asked for a delay in returning to the earl of Hereford the honour of Trowbridge. The earl accepted a short postponement for the return of the castle but none at all for the lands. John had thus to write to the earl of Salisbury telling him to put Hereford in possession ‘without delay’. That this letter was issued on 19 June, and explained that the immediate restoration of lands, castles and rights taken by the king ‘unjustly and without judgement’ was a condition of the peace, shows the pressure John was under.57 The king was similarly unsuccessful in trying to resist some of the demands of Geoffrey de Mandeville. Here he ordered a local inquiry into rights that Geoffrey claimed only then to cancel it and simply to concede the rights as they had been held by Geoffrey’s father-in-law.58 John resisted more successfully in the case of Geoffrey’s claim to the Tower of London, although the wonder is that he had to resist at all. After all, the claim presumably went back to charters that the Mandevilles had obtained during King Stephen’s reign, and it was not John but Henry II who, in the first instance, had ignored them. This was surely a case that should, under the Charter, have waited until John returned from or abandoned his prospective crusade. Geoffrey nonetheless put it on the agenda and when the Tower was entrusted, under the treaty over London made at Runnymede, to Archbishop Langton, it was ‘saving to anyone his right in thecustody’.59 John likewise strove to fend off William de Mowbray’s claim to hold in hereditary right both York castle and the Yorkshire forest. This too had been denied in the first instance not by John but by his predecessors. Yet on 19 June, John was forced to entrust York castle to Mowbray until ‘we have inquired whether the castle belongs to him in hereditary right or not’. When Mowbray followed this up by saying that an inquiry had already been held, John expressed astonishment, and ordered the sheriff of Yorkshire to discover when it had been held and on whose authority. Evidently he thought, probably rightly, that Mowbray had simply staged an inquiry of his own.60

There is no sign that judgements of the twenty-five played a formal part in these restorations, or at least none are mentioned in the implementing writs. The judgement referred to in connection with William fitzEllis was probably one in an earlier lawsuit.61 We know that the twenty-five did issue their own writs, announcing their judgements, but the only example comes from much later, and after relations with John had completely broken down.62 Probably, at this stage, the emphasis was on getting John to confess and immediately reverse his disseisins. More contentious issues were postponed to another council, which was scheduled to meet at Oxford on 16 July. When agreement was reached over this meeting, proceedings at Runnymede came to an end, and the barons returned to London.63 The date of 16 July was well before the 15 August deadline in the London treaty, when it would be judged whether John had complied with the settlement and could recover London from the barons and the Tower from Archbishop Langton.

One tailpiece. There was just one unmarried woman (a widow) who was able to profit from the restorations at Runnymede. This was Matilda de Courtenay. On 19 June itself she secured a writ returning her dower in Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire. Matilda had lost her dower and other lands in England as a result of taking the French allegiance in 1204. Seeking their recovery, in November 1213 she obtained a safe conduct, at the petition of the papal legate, to come to England to speak with King John. There may well have been other noblewomen at Runnymede, but Matilda is the only one for whom we have some evidence.64


For the moment John was still able, with his ‘ifs’ and inquiries, to fashion a little wriggle room when faced with all the demands for redress. Nonetheless, in the great wave of restorations after the peace on 19 June, he must have felt he was near to drowning.

In these circumstances, the wonder is that John went along with the Charter for as long as he did. But there remained powerful reasons for at least giving it a try. The barons remained in arms and held London fast. In a letter written in late June, Robert fitzWalter, still styling himself ‘marshal of the army of God’, reminded another member of the twenty-five, William d’Aubigné, Lord of Belvoir, of how vital was possession of the city, ‘our refuge’, and how disastrous would be its loss to the king. Accordingly, a tournament, planned for Stamford in Lincolnshire, was now to be held near London, and there d’Aubigné was summoned to come with horses and arms. The prize would be a bear given by ‘a certain lady’. John also faced the destruction of his ordinary revenues as the barons and knights swept through the counties, pinning the king’s men back to their castles. At the Oxford council itself, still struggling to pay the 1,100 marks he owed the Templars, John told the exchequer to give them the money in instalments, ‘great or small’, as it came in.65 Evidently the exchequer had no reserves of cash. Nor in reality was any money coming in, as John well knew, judging from the dearth of orders even of this kind. Indeed, where was the exchequer? Some of its rolls remained in London, where next year they fell into the hands of Prince Louis. Other rolls were moved to Reading abbey and then to Odiham.66

John, therefore, still clung to his policy, hoping that the Charter would bring a restoration of peace and order. He was also developing an excellent public line to justify his conduct and damn that of his opponents. He was doing all he could to observe the terms of the peace, by fulfilling everything that was asked of him. Yet his enemies were doing nothing to fulfil their side of the bargain, and were doing him injury everywhere. That this argument is recited in the Crowland chronicle shows John’s success in getting it across.67

Having left Windsor on 26 June, John went first to Winchester and then to his castles at Marlborough, Devizes and Corfe. He left Corfe on 13 July. He would go to the Oxford council due to start on 16 July and make the best of it. On 15 July, realizing he would be late, the king stopped on the road between Newbury and Abingdon, wrote to Archbishop Langton and the ‘barons of England’ explaining the delay, and gave them the names of an impressive delegation who were coming on ahead.68 In fact, John did reach the Oxford area on 16 July, but decided to spend the night at Woodstock. He arrived at Oxford next day. He was to stay there until 23 July.

The Oxford council is of great importance, something first grasped by H. G. Richardson, however much he was wrong about certain details.69 It was the last time that John met the barons face to face before the renewal of the civil war, for he refused to attend any later gatherings. In 1218 the exchequer could still date events by reference to ‘when the council was at Oxford’.70 John came to it determined to get his due. The envoys sent ahead on 15 July were to receive what was due to him as well as to give what was owed.71What John felt he was owed is very clear: a laying down of arms and a restoration of order so that the sheriffs could once again maintain peace and collect revenue. He also expected to have what was due from London. He could not hope to recover the city itself from the barons before 15 August, but meanwhile, as the treaty said, he should receive his due farms and debts. He had received not a penny. At Oxford itself, John acknowledged, in a letter to the king of France, that the Londoners were likely to disobey his orders. A few days later, when he tried to arrange for a debt to be paid from money owed by the city, he accepted that the mayor might not ‘wish’ to obey him.72 What a situation for a king to be in!

The barons were equally clear what they wanted from the king. He should now settle all the claims delayed because they were contentious, the most spectacular being Geoffrey de Mandeville’s claim to the Tower of London, and William de Mowbray’s to York castle and the Yorkshire forest. There was also the question of the unjust fines and amercements which, under chapter 55 of the Charter, were either to be forgiven by John or adjudged by the twenty-five and (if he could be there) Archbishop Langton. The king had promised as early as 10 May that two of these fines – the ones made by Geoffrey de Mandeville and Giles de Briouze, bishop of Hereford – should be referred to the judgement of his court.73 And then there was the fine of Nicholas de Stuteville which, because it was unpaid, allowed John to retain his castle of Knaresborough. The king had certainly made many restorations of land, but he had done nothing about these or any other fines, presumably because he argued that they were not unjust. It was, of course, perfectly possible for the twenty-five to press ahead and give judgements of their own on these matters, as indeed they did later. There was nothing in the Charter which said that John had to be involved. Yet clearly those judgements would have far more weight if John accepted them, and announced them in parallel letters. Indeed, unless the exchequer started to obey the twenty-five, it was only letters of John that could get fines removed from the pipe rolls.

At the Oxford council John made some last concessions. Thus, on 22 July, Elyas of Dereham obtained six engrossments of Magna Carta from the chancery. If, as seems likely, Elyas distributed these to the bishops, he had an easy task since as many as eight of them (including Archbishop Langton) were present at the council. It was also during the council that, in accordance with the terms of the Charter, the king moved Peter de Chanceaux from Bristol and Andrew de Chanceaux from the county and castle of Hereford.74It may also have been following a decision at the council that John, a few days later, gave the castle of Colchester to one of the twenty-five, William de Lanvallei, William claiming it in hereditary right.75 This was the last significant restoration the king was to make.

At the same time, John gained some successes of his own. With Llywelyn and the other Welsh rulers being given safe conducts through Langton to come to court, the king seems to have pushed back onto the agenda Llywelyn’s 1211 charter of submission, although this had been removed from consideration at Runnymede. At any rate, it was probably at the Oxford council that Langton and a group of loyalist magnates issued a letter testifying to its terms.76 It was probably also at Oxford that John persuaded Langton and the bishops to make two important declarations. In one, that already referred to, they explained how the terms of the inquiry by the knights should be understood.77 In the other, they affirmed that in their hearing, when the peace was made, the barons had promised to give whatever security the king wished for its keeping, save for the surrender of castles and hostages. The declaration then explained how the barons had reneged on their undertaking, for, when John demanded charters, guaranteeing their faithful service, they refused to give them. The king’s demand had been a crucial test of baronial loyalty, and one they had failed. This did not quite amount to a declaration of war, but it came close to it.

Not surprisingly, during the council the two sides seemed totally apart. Gone was that moment at Runnymede when John feasted with the baronial leaders and allowed them to attest a royal charter alongside loyalist magnates and ministers. The king issued no fewer than six charters at Oxford. The long witness lists featured the name of not a single former rebel.78 An anecdote preserved by the Anonymous of Béthune which almost certainly belongs to this time adds vividly to the picture. One day the twenty-five barons came to the king’s court to make a judgement. The king was ill in bed, with his feet so painful that he was unable to walk, presumably due to gout. He asked the twenty-five to come to him in his chamber. They refused. It would, they said, be against their rights. So John was carried to the twenty-five, who refused to rise to greet him. The Anonymous observed that such examples of pride and outrageous behaviour were frequent.79 They showed all too clearly that the twenty-five regarded their status as quite equal to the king’s, as did the oath taken to obey them by the commune of the land, and the refusal to give John charters of faithful service. John’s own mercenaries, according to Matthew Paris, declared that it was the twenty-five who were now the king of England. That must have been how John felt.

John remained equally alarmed about what was going on in the localities. On 23 July, at the end of the council, he sent a furious letter to the earls, barons, knights, free tenants and everyone else in Yorkshire. ‘As they loved themselves and all they had’, they were to return the lands and castles that they had seized during and ‘after the war’. They were to do this by the 15 August deadline contained in the ‘reformation of peace’. They were also to return the chattels and prisoners likewise seized ‘after the peace’. Evidently there had been no peace.80

The anecdote of the Anonymous of Béthune shows the twenty-five at work, although at work still in the king’s court and in his presence. Perhaps John’s perfunctory order restoring William de Lanvallei to Colchester was a grudging fulfilment of a judgement by the twenty-five. But if there were other judgements, the twenty-five had to go it alone, for there is no sign of John implementing them. Nothing seems to have been done about the fines, and it was not until September that the twenty-five issued their judgement returning Knaresborough castle to Nicholas de Stuteville.81 It was not just John who was angry. According to the Melrose chronicler, his opponents, feeling that he had violated the articles of the peace, left the Oxford council ‘with great rancour’.82


It was John, however, who drew the conclusions. In his letter to those in Yorkshire, he still indicated he was trying for peace. ‘We do not wish,’ he said, ‘that by the detention of any of the foresaid things against the form of the peace, that the peace in anything should be disturbed or violated.’83 But this was merely a cover for his real intentions.

The events at the Oxford council had made up John’s mind. He decided to ask the pope to quash the Charter. The papal letter doing just that was issued on 24 August.84 The fit with the end of the Oxford council on 23 July is tight but exact. The messengers had to travel from Oxford and reach Anagni, some forty-four miles south-east of Rome, where the letter was issued. From Oxford to Anagni is 1,250 miles. Supposing the messengers left on 24 July, and arrived on 22 August, thus allowing a day or so for Pope Innocent’s response, they would have averaged forty-two miles a day, or a little more if one day was taken up by the Channel crossing. There is nothing impossible about that, given the supreme urgency of the journey. Innocent’s decision would have been immediate, and he could draw, for the phraseology of his letter, on his previous missives.85 In any case, the messengers may well have left before the end of the council. The king’s furious letter to the Yorkshiremen on 23 July was thus in effect a farewell to the Charter.

John’s decision was momentous, and must have been taken after deep discussions with his leading counsellors – with Peter des Roches, Hubert de Burgh, and the earls of Pembroke, Chester and Derby, who were all at Oxford. These men met in the king’s chamber, sitting on his bed, as he lay there tortured by his gouty feet. The discussions were, of course, deeply private because the last thing John wanted was to let his enemies know what was on his mind. The Anonymous says the envoys were sent ‘most secretly’.86John’s public position remained the same: he was doing what was required of him under the peace; it was the opposition who were the violators.

For John, abandoning the Charter was a high-risk course. It meant fighting a war, which he might lose, given that his opponents were bound to call in aid from France. But John’s acceptance of the Charter had always been posited on two things. The first was that, whatever the Charter said, the twenty-five barons of the security clause would not develop into some parallel power in the land, challenging royal authority in an impossible fashion. The second was that the Charter would lead to peace and the restoration of royal government in the shires. When neither of these premises proved correct, John decided to abandon the Charter. Did some of the baronial leaders realize that things were heading towards a smash, and that a stop needed to be put to the local anarchy and the arrogance of the twenty-five? Then perhaps both sides, in a plethora of complaints and inquiries, could have tussled over what the Charter meant under the umbrella of its peace. Something along those lines happened, when it came to implementing the Forest Charter, during the minority of Henry III. John might have been willing for a while at least to go down such a path. But the pent-up feeling in the localities, and the anger and suspicion of the baronial leaders, blocked off that possibility. If there were voices of caution, they fell on deaf ears.

Although it was the events at the Oxford council that persuaded John to abandon the Charter, he was not unprepared. For some time, he had been building up funds. On 6 July, when at Devizes, he received 9,900 marks, contained in sixty-six sacks, from the treasury at Corfe castle. Two days before, the king had taken a great mass of treasure (simply in weight of silver it was around 440 marks) out of the tower at Marlborough and had it carried to his chamber.87 This was part of a more general policy of calling in his silver and jewels, deposited at religious houses around the country. On 24 June letters went out to sixteen of them to that effect. The result was that in the next few weeks, as his position in the country deteriorated, John became surrounded by a fantastic accumulation of silver cups, jugs, basins, dishes, candelabras, staffs and belts, many of them encrusted with pearls and jewels.88 While, moreover, John had removed the Athée clan from some of the castles and counties, he still retained them in his service. Indeed, on 2 July, John ordered Geoffrey de Martigny, having vacated Northampton castle, to join him with all the knights and serjeants from the garrison.89

After the Oxford council, John’s new direction was revealed not by his words but by his actions. He never again met the assembled barons. In late July and early August, he made a quick visit to the Welsh marches and then headed for the Channel coast. From 9 August, all the way through until 9 October, he hardly moved from there, spending his time at Wareham, Sandwich, Dover and Canterbury. His aim was to secure the ports, and arrange for the import of foreign mercenaries. On 12 August, with a fair promise to the duke of Brittany of restoring his lands in England, John asked him to come with as many knights as he could muster. On 28 August, the king was arranging for a loan of 1,000 marks to pay the wages of the knights coming to England.90 He was preparing for war.

Archbishop Langton, however, was still making valiant efforts to save the peace. Under the London treaty, John had until 15 August to implement the Charter and thus recover the city from the barons and the Tower from the archbishop. Naturally, there was no question of such a recovery now, but Langton still strove to bring the sides together. He and his fellow bishops met at Oxford on 16 August, hoping that the king would join them there for negotiations with the barons at Brackley. It nearly worked. John did indeed leave Wareham and get as far as Marlborough, only then to turn back. He sent envoys instead who declared that, having fulfilled his side of the bargain, the king had received only injury in return. He would not come now since the barons were in arms. This was all too true, for the barons, instead of staying at Brackley, had progressed to Oxford ‘in armed array’. The crisis was further ratcheted up by the unveiling at Oxford of papal letters issued on 7 July.91 These were written in reply to John’s letter of 29 May, so in ignorance of the Magna Carta settlement, but since that was virtually dead it hardly mattered. The papal letters, from John’s point of view, were perfectly suited to the new situation.92 Innocent thus berated Langton for failing to support the king, and then excommunicated all those disturbing king and kingdom. Langton, on pain of suspension, was commanded to proclaim the sentence of excommunication, while the bishop of Winchester, the papal representative Pandulf and the abbot of Reading were given authority to see all this was carried out. At the Oxford council, Langton was able to postpone taking any action, while he and fellow bishops went to see John in one final bid to bring him to a meeting. They failed in the attempt, but the meeting went ahead anyway, at Staines between 26 and 28 August. Here Langton promulgated the sentence of excommunication, although only in general terms, without pointing the finger at any individual baron. It was possible indeed to interpret the sentence as aimed as much at John as his opponents.93

When the barons returned to London, after the Staines meeting, they made more formal arrangements for taking over the government of the country, groups of shires being placed under individual members of the twenty-five. John’s own reaction came in a letter of 5 September, issued by the bishop of Winchester, Pandulf and the abbot of Reading. Doing what Langton had refused to do, they now implemented the papal orders of 7 July, and excommunicated the baronial leaders by name, together with the city of London. The letter was cleverly drafted. It did not actually condemn the Charter. Indeed it still took the old line that it was the barons who were violating it, violating ‘what had been ordained by the lord king by the counsel of the magnates who were then his familiars’. It then went on to stigmatize the gifts of land and the making of judgements without authority of the king, clearly referring to how the twenty-five were plunging ahead on their own.94 When the barons heard of their excommunication, they brushed it aside and appealed to the general council that was soon to meet in Rome. If the sentence had any effect, it confirmed them in the decision they were now taking. This was to set in train the process of deposing King John and electing another king in his place, electing none other than Prince Louis, the eldest son of King Philip Augustus of France.

In the narrative of the Crowland chronicler, the decision to summon a council to bring this about is placed between the barons’ return to London after the Staines meeting in late August and the issue of the 5 September letter. Perhaps John knew what was happening by 9 September, when he made various concessions on trading matters to King Philip, and then sent him envoys.95 The opposition had got far more from Magna Carta than had John, but now recognized its failure. John was reneging on the Charter and resorting to war. Although no papal missive condemning the Charter had arrived, everyone knew it was on its way. The barons, in these circumstances, could simply have waged war under the sanction of the Charter, supported by ‘the commune of all the land’. But there was no point trying to force the king to keep the Charter when he was bent on rejecting it altogether. John could not be restrained, he could only be replaced. In 1212 the king’s removal had seemed justified by papal threats of deposition. These could no longer be pleaded in 1215, but his removal still seemed unproblematic. John had become king, so he proclaimed in 1199, ‘by the unanimous consent and favour of the clergy and people’.96 Given that he had ruled so badly, what was to stop clergy and people withdrawing their consent and choosing another king? Both the Crowland and Coggeshall chroniclers thus narrate the process without turning a hair. According to the former, the barons realized that the business needed ‘the common consent of all the kingdom’. They thus summoned ‘all the chief men’ to meet at a designated time and place. When the assembly met, voices were still raised in the king’s favour, but the majority opinion was decisively against him. He was deposed, and the throne offered to Prince Louis. Louis’ own manifesto, when he arrived in England in 1216, explained events in the same terms. The barons ‘chose us as king and lord’, John ‘having been judged unworthy of the kingdom by the common counsel and approval of the kingdom’.97

The choice of Louis was not without drawbacks. Philip Augustus had intended to make him king at the time of the abortive invasion in 1213, but had forbidden promises about the return of Norman lands to those disinherited in 1204.98 Probably the same was true in 1215, so that was disappointing. The barons had also to reckon with John conjuring up national feeling against a French threat. Although, moreover, Louis had a hereditary claim, which he set out in his manifesto, it was almost laughably tenuous: since John had been convicted of treason for betraying his brother Richard, he should not have succeeded in 1199. Instead, the true heir to the throne was the only other surviving child of Henry II, his daughter Eleanor, married to the king of Castile, and Eleanor had generously passed her rights to her daughter Blanche and Louis on their marriage.

There were, however, good reasons for choosing Louis. How far his character was known is unclear, but it certainly turned out to be the total reverse of King John’s, for Louis was uxorious, pious and honourable. He also came from a ruling dynasty very different from the Angevins. This was an age in which, as R. W. Southern wrote, ‘the French kings alone among the kings of Europe enjoyed the help of a constantly favourable public opinion.’ With a great landed base, ‘they grew rich without becoming unpopular’. There was no French Magna Carta.99 England could now bask in the same sunlight, all the more so with the end of the financial demands needed to support wars in France. These considerations were, however, the icing on the cake. The main reasons for choosing Louis resided in the facts of power. The barons were involved in a life and death struggle. Victory at all costs was the aim. It was the French monarchy that could bring it. As the Crowland chronicler observed, the barons, lacking confidence in themselves, appealed to Louis to come in strength to rescue them from ‘the hands of the tyrant’. Backed by his father, Louis could draw on all the resources of the French monarchy. That surely should guarantee victory. The same could not be said of King Alexander of Scotland, who might otherwise have been a candidate. It was the Capetian prince who could rescue England from the Angevin tyrant.

We do not know exactly when the assembly deposing John and electing Louis met. After the magnates had been ‘cited’ to appear at it, John’s supporters, according to the Crowland chronicler, argued that he was still prepared to maintain the ‘peace’ and so should not be deposed. This suggests the meeting was before the arrival, in late September, of the papal bull condemning the Charter. It may be, however, that the chronicler is here simply painting a general picture of the attitudes of John’s supporters. Given the formal summonses of which he speaks, and the forty days’ interval mentioned in the Charter, October would seem the most likely time for the assembly. It thus took place in the full knowledge of the papal bull.

Dated 24 August, the papal bull would have taken a month to arrive in England and so was presumably received towards the end of September. Preserved in the British Library, and a star exhibit in the 2015 exhibition, it measures some 50 by 46 centimetres, and is finely written in a large, clear hand. It is an impressive-looking document. The bull narrated the whole course of the quarrel and declared that ‘by such violence and fear as might affect the most courageous of men’, John had been forced to accept an agreement shameful, demeaning, illegal, unjust, and harmful to royal rights and the English people. Pope Innocent thus declared the Charter ‘null, and void of all validity for ever’.100 After the bull’s arrival, John could proclaim the end of the Charter, supported by the full panoply of papal authority. His enemies were confirmed in their decision to depose him. The die was cast. In the second week of October, the barons gained control of Rochester. On 13 October John began his long siege of the castle.101 The civil war had begun.

If anyone had struggled to save the Charter, it was Archbishop Langton. His efforts to take a middle ground and give each side its due seem altogether admirable. On the one hand, he and his fellow bishops were ready to help the king. They issued proclamations exposing the baronial refusal to give John guarantees of loyal service. They also set out the correct interpretation of chapter 48 empowering the twelve knights. On the other hand, through his steward Elyas of Dereham, Langton played a central role in the distribution of the Charter, and the letters of 19 June. His own knights were implementing the oath to the twenty-five in Kent. Langton himself took part in the judgement by which those who refused the oath were to have their property seized. Indeed, it was surely the archbishop who decided that their chattels should be sold in aid of the Holy Land. In thus supporting the oath, Langton was associating himself with the most radical part of the Charter. There were practical reasons for doing so, for if the oath was obstructed, a renewal of civil war was bound to result. There were also, one may suspect, ideological reasons. The archbishop saw a parallel between the ‘community of all the land’, formed by the oath, and the church as the congregation of clergy and people from which, he believed, secular authority derived.102 Taking the oath was thus a condition for being part of the community of the land and congregation of the faithful. Indeed, the secular and the religious were linked in the support envisaged for John’s prospective crusade.

Langton had struggled until the last moment to bring the sides together, but, after the failure of the Staines meeting, his role as a peacemaker was over. He was being ordered, in the 5 September letter, to publish the sentences of excommunication. If he obeyed, he would have definitively sided against the barons. If he refused, he would have sided against the king. Langton evaded the issue and, within a few days of the 5 September mandate, left England for the papal court. Pandulf and his colleagues duly suspended him from office.

There was a subtext to Langton’s role in the great crisis of 1215. This concerned the castle of Rochester.103 After his absolution by Langton in 1213, in an effort to appease the archbishop, John had accepted Canterbury’s long-standing claims to possession of the castle. Given its strength and strategic importance, however, Langton, at John’s request, had allowed the sheriff of Kent, Reginald of Cornhill, to continue as castellan. In 1215, however, John began, rightly, to suspect Cornhill’s loyalty. As a result, both on 25 May and 15 August 1215, he tried to persuade Langton to hand the castle over to more trusted royal agents. The archbishop never complied. The request in May came at the very moment when peace negotiations were beginning in earnest, which was not a good time, Langton may have felt, for a shift in the strategic balance. Once peace was established, as it was at Runnymede in June, Langton was entitled, under his earlier agreement with John, to recover the castle of Rochester, and the king seems to have accepted the point. According to Wendover, he restored the castle to the archbishop, although in practice this made no difference to Cornhill’s tenure. When John, in August, renewed his pressure to surrender the castle, Langton was still hoping to act as a mediator and bring the parties together. According to Coggeshall, he refused to resign either Rochester castle or the Tower of London, ‘without judgement’. If this was to be a judgement of the twenty-five, then Langton was still recognizing their authority. Yet there are signs that the barons too were worried about his attitude. Coggeshall has the story of Robert fitzWalter briefly occupying Rochester castle, fearful that Langton would hand it over to the king. This took place, Coggeshall says, while John was at Canterbury and Dover, which would fit exactly with the seizure of fitzWalter’s lands ordered at Dover on 17 September.104 The archbishop’s relations with John had certainly not broken down at this point. On 10 September the king issued a full and fulsome letter placing Langton’s possessions, during his absence, under royal protection.105 Things looked different in October when Reginald of Cornhill handed Rochester castle over to the barons. It was only then that John branded Langton ‘a notorious and barefaced traitor’ for failing to surrender it.106

Holt has argued that, in the run up to the hostilities, John ‘had won the war of nerves and propaganda’. The king had done so by sticking to the line that he was ready to observe the peace; hence the argument of his supporters when they refused to countenance his deposition. By asking the pope to quash the Charter, however, John necessarily abandoned his virtuous stance. His hypocrisy had been exposed. Had he really issued the Charter for ‘the honour of God and the exaltation of holy church, and the reform of our kingdom’, he should have stuck to it, or at the very least, like his son, have reissued it with the more doubtful parts left out. But John’s commitment to the Charter was always skin deep. He wanted its peace, not its implementation. The position of John’s opponentswas no more reputable. They had taken far more than was justified in the localities. They had never disarmed. Both sides got what they deserved, a renewal of civil war.

In 1216 John made those submitting to him forswear the Charter.107 If he won the civil war, he was not going to have that again. On the baronial side, the twenty-five were still wielding authority in the autumn of 1215. On 30 September letters issued in the names of Geoffrey de Mandeville, Saer de Quincy and Richard de Clare, and attested by Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, sought to implement the twenty-five’s judgement returning Knaresborough castle to Nicholas de Stuteville.108 Probably it was the twenty-five who convoked the assembly that deposed the king. Louis’ own commitment to Magna Carta, however, is hard to gauge. He certainly had a good knowledge of the Charter, for when he finally left England the prince surrendered, among other documents, ‘the charters concerning the liberties made in the time of King John at the meadow of Runnymede’.109 In the archives of the king of Scotland, there was found, at the end of the thirteenth century, a ‘letter of Louis, son of the king of France, concerning the confirmation of the charter of the barons of England’. This has been interpreted as a letter confirming Magna Carta, but one wonders whether that was the case.110 It seems odd for such a letter to be sent to the king of Scotland. Much more likely, Louis’ letter was a confirmation of a charter in which the barons of England offered him the throne. The Crowland chronicler states that the agreement with Louis was affirmed with ‘conventions and securities’.111 It is surely inconceivable, in such an agreement, that Louis would have accepted all the restrictions in the Charter, let alone the security clause. The long manifesto which he issued on his arrival in England said nothing about the Charter and merely opined that he had come to restore both church and kingdom to their ‘ancient and due liberty’.112No chronicler has anything to say about Louis’ attitude either. Had he become king, he would probably have done no more than issue a Coronation Charter confirming ancient liberties and offering law and justice in the future.

In the autumn of 1215, therefore, on the one side was King John, now determined to crush the Charter. On the other, the prospect of a new king with no commitment to it. Magna Carta seemed a failure without a future.

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