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The City of London and the Magna Carta

The City of London and the Magna Carta

By Anthony Alridge

Given at Gresham College on January 14, 2015

Anthony Alridge once famously argued a case using the Magna Carta as precedent, so who better to discuss who the great charter has shaped and been adopted by the City of London. In this lecture he examines the history of the city and the Charter and how the two have become inextricably linked.

Excerpt: When King John came to the throne the citizens of London paid 3000 marks for the right to appoint their own sheriff. John granted them a Charter preserving their ancient liberties. In 1206 the City and the King came into conflict about the level of taxation. The City demanded that taxes should not be levied on them without the agreement of the King’s Council and the City. This appears to be the first medieval reference to no taxation without representation.

17th century map of London

Once rebellion had started in May 1215, London was of crucial strategic importance, because it controlled the route from Dover – the first stone bridge across the Thames at London had been completed in 1209. Whoever controlled London could prevent the importation of mercenary soldiers from Europe. Aware of this John granted a Charter early in May specifically giving the City the right to chose a mayor. He received no payment for this. The person appointed had to be faithful to the king and discrete.

The Saxon office of ealdorman became alderman. Those who governed the City became drawn from a narrow oligarchy drawn mainly from the drapers, pepperers, goldsmiths, mercers and vintners. The more self important among them began to call themselves barons.

The leader of the rebels, Robert Fitzwalter, had contacts in the City. He was lord of Dunmow in Essex, but also of Baynard’s castle in the City. Although John had razed this to the ground, Robert was also entitled to carry the banner of the City and to command the militia. This will explain why, when the rebels arrived outside the City walls on 17th May, the gates were opened to them. Roger of Wendover, a monk at St Albans, chronicled these events. The rebels ‘entered the City without any tumult while the inhabitants were performing divine service…the rich citizens were favourable to the rebels and the poor ones were afraid to murmur against them.’ When John met the rebels at Runnymede he was at such a disadvantage militarily that he had no alternative but to make the grant. Clause 13 guaranteed London its ancient liberties and free customs. Shortly after the grant a separate treaty was entered into whereby London was to remain in the custody of the rebels as security for the King complying with his grant. When he failed to do so, civil war broke out.

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