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Magna Carta

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

(Magna Carta, 1215)

Rights and Power

In 1215 on a battlefield known as Runnymede one of England’s most defining constitutional documents was born – Magna Carta. When King John of England set his seal to the small piece of parchment he authorised a charter that was to become the focus of future generations’ battles against oppressive rulers and governments. 

Holinshed’s Chronicles recount the struggle between King John and his barons and their subsequent meeting at Runnymede in 1215.

The charter was intended to restore relations between a monarch and his subjects in order to bring peace to a kingdom in the throws of civil war. Under its terms, certain rights were granted to the people of England and limits were placed upon the powers of the king.

Containing as it did clauses relating to the justice system, unfair taxes, and abuses of power perpetrated by King John, the king’s subjects, as represented by the barons of England, saw the charter as a way to hold the king accountable for his unpopular actions.

Translation: ‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land’

Whilst the story of King John’s abuses of power and his civil war with the Barons is common knowledge, the contribution made by Lincolnshire and its people to the development of Magna Carta is less widely known.

Magna Carta and the Bishops of Lincoln

Hugh of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln, as a close personal advisor to King John, was one of the first to warn the king against exercising an unjust rule over the people. Drawing his attention to a scene from the Last Judgment, Hugh is believed to have recommended the king to ‘Fix your mind on their perpetual torment and let your heart dwell on their ceaseless punishment. Thus will you understand the great dangers incurred by those who for a short time are set over others as rules, but who by not ruling themselves are tormented by devils forever’. That Bishop Hugh was able to make such a remark illustrates the political importance of the Bishop of Lincoln in England at this time.

St Hugh was not the only Bishop of Lincoln to influence the course of Magna Carta’s history. His successor, Bishop Hugh of Wells, was one of the original signatories at Runnymede and as such his name appears on the 1215 charter. That Bishop Hugh of Wells was influential enough to present the king with such a charter illustrates the position of Lincolnshire as a major centre of political power in the 13th century.

These names represent a ‘who’s who’ of the political powers in early 13th century England.

Indeed, so that the charter’s terms were known throughout the kingdom, contemporary copies were drawn up and sent to great seats of power within each county. Such a copy was sent to the Bishop of Lincoln who kept it at Lincoln Cathedral. Amazingly, it appears not to have been moved and has remained in place for almost 800 years.

One of only four known 1215 copies, the Lincoln Magna Carta is on permanent display at Lincoln Castle except for brief periods when it is taken on tour oversees.

Magna Carta and the Battle of Lincoln Fair

Civil war in England did not end at Runnymede. When in October 1216 King John died at the Bishop of Lincoln’s castle at Newark, the Kingdom was in turmoil. Advisors to the new King Henry III realised the importance of bringing peace to the Kingdom and saw the charter as a vital part of this process.

Lincoln Castle, one of two remaining royalist strongholds, was to play a pivotal role in the end of the civil war and the development of the 1215 charter into the Magna Carta we recognise today.

Under siege from the rebel barons’ forces, Lincoln Castle had so far held out in a spirited defence led by Lincolnshire’s very own female constable Nicolaa de la Haye. A decisive battle was fought in May 1217 when William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, led royalist forces to aid the stout-hearted constable, and the siege was ended at this Battle of Lincoln Fair.

Following this decisive victory a council was held and the charter of 1215 was reissued in the name of Henry III. The young king’s advisors hoped that by reaffirming the rights of the people and the limits of the king’s power the Kingdom might finally be restored to peace. And so Magna Carta as we know it today came in to being.

Charter of the Forest

It was at this time that clauses relating to the unjust and harsh system of ‘Forest Law’ were removed from the 1215 charter to be given expression in a separate document known as ‘Charter of the Forest’.

This copy of Charter of the Forest is one of only two known to have survived. It is on permanent display at Lincoln Castle.

Under King John certain rights allowing people to make their living off the land were being eroded by the King as he took common land and made it his own private ‘Royal Forest’. Anyone found hunting or allowing their animals to graze in Royal Forest was subject to severe penalties that could lead to bodily dismemberment or even death. Charter of the Forest reduced these penalties and claimed back common land from the crown.

From 1217 the charter of 1215 became known as Magna Carta, or ‘The Grand Charter’, and was subsequently reissued on several occasions, always alongside Charter of the Forest.

The Legacy of Magna Carta     

From its very beginnings, Magna Carta has been the focus of fierce negotiations over accountability, power, and justice. Over the centuries countless people engaged in struggles with governments and leaders have called on the charter to justify their rights and liberties.

The right to due process and trial by jury, the right of the people to petition their leaders, and the development of parliaments as a barrier to the excessive power of the monarch, have all been heavily influenced by the clauses first set out in Magna Carta.

The significance of Magna Carta is felt throughout the world. Many nations have adopted it’s principles in the pursuit of democracy and still more look to it as a beacon of justice. With such a strong role in its development, Lincolnshire can proudly recognise Magna Carta as an iconic part of the county’s heritage.

What does Magna Carta say?

‘For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood….None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable men of the neighbourhood’

‘No man shall be forced to perform more service for a knight’s ‘fee’, or other free holding of land, than is due from it’

‘No constable or other royal official shall take corn or other movable goods from any man without immediate payment, unless the seller voluntarily offers postponement of this’

‘SINCE WE HAVE GRANTED ALL THESE THINGS for God, for the better ordering of our kingdom, and to allay the discord that has arisen between us and our barons, and since we desire that they shall be enjoyed in their entirety, with lasting strength, for ever, we give and grant to the barons the following security: The barons shall elect twenty-five of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to them by this charter’

What does Charter of the Forest say?

‘Henceforth no one shall lose life or limbs on account of our hunting rights; but if any one is arrested and convicted of taking our venison, let him redeem himself by a heavy payment, if he has anything with which to redeem himself. And if he has nothing with which to redeem himself, let him lie in our prison for a year and a day. And if, after the year and the day, he can find sureties, let him be freed from prison; but if he cannot, let him abjure the realm of England’

‘Henceforth every freeman, in his wood or on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch, or arable in cultivated land outside coverts, provided that no injury is thereby given to any neighbour’

‘Every freeman may in his own woods have eyries of hawks, sparrow-hawks, falcons, eagles, and herons; and he may also have honey that is found in his woods’

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Last updated: 18 February 2011

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