KZOO 2015: Session #42 – Magna Carta in Context

British Library's Magna Carta, photo credit Joseph Turp
British Library's Magna Carta, photo credit Joseph Turp
British Library’s Magna Carta, photo credit Joseph Turp

This coming week I’ll be featuring summaries on some of my favourites sessions and papers from #KZOO2015. It was a busy week for us, but extremely enjoyable. Many thanks to old and new faces who made it a memorable experience.

I kicked off my first session on Thursday with the Magna Carta. In London, I attended a paper in late March about the creation of the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibit currently on at the British Library. When I get back to England, I’ll be going to it so I wanted to hear more about this historic document. There were 3 papers presented: Magna Carta and the Context of Peacemaking Between King and Subjects by Stephen Church, Magna Carta and Excommunication by Felicity Hill (University of East Anglia), and Colin Veach (University of Hull) finishing off the session with his paper on King John and the Baronial Liberties in Ireland. The session was hosted by the University of East Anglia and presided over by David Crouch (University of Hull). Here’s a brief summary of these 3 papers.

Magna Carta and the Context of Peacemaking Between King and Subjects

Stephen Church (University of East Anglia)

David Crouch read Stephen Church’s paper and started the discussion off with the question: At what point did the Magna Carta assume its important position in English history? The common assumption is that it gained prominence in 1225 but Crouch’s paper suggested that this was not the case and it became important at a later time when the sons of the Magna Carta barons stepped into their father’s shoes after 1235. Why 1235? This was because the barons of the 1225 reissue were still those of the Runnymede generation, they were still running the country without any concern for their threatened liberties. The barons looked continually for the king to deceive them. In the mid-1220s, the biographer of William Marshal, gives this impression from the way John’s barons spoke about their king. “Be on your alert against the king”, was still a rooted idea a decade after John’s reign.

When Magna Carta was first reissued in 1216, King John had only been dead for one month. The papal legate was in full sympathy with the rebel barons after Pope Innocent III died. This reissue secured a purpose and afterlife for the document for years to come. Another reissue occurred in November, 1217. The 1225 reissue, which differs very little from the 1217 version, came out when many of the original 25 barons were still alive. Archbishop Stephen Langton was credited with this reissue. The 1225 Charter was not just granted to all free men, but to everyone ‘omines’. It also carried an extensive witness list which earlier issues did not and included former loyalists and rebels. However, it didn’t reinstate any means of redress if the king reneged on the terms. According to most scholars, document could hardly be considered transformative as the old generation was still around for it, but Crouch argued that the 1235 charter was transformative because it was put to the test by a generation that was entirely not present for the original issue.

Even so, Earls began appealing to the terms of Magna Carta as early as 1227. There was a ‘dawning conciousness’ by magnates that the Magna Carta could be called upon to assist them when they came into conflict with the royal government.

Was Henry I’s Coronation Charter, a.k.a., The Charter of Liberties, an earlier Magna Carta? It doesn’t seem to be the case. While it was an important English legal document, and touched on some similar aspects, Henry I’s Coronation Charter was wildly different from Magna Carta. Henry I was hailed as a king who issued a charter of liberties, but it seems to have been issued under some duress, 3 days after his brother, William II’s death in a hunting accident. Henry issued it as a way of soliciting support from the barons who had sided with his brother. It addressed the matter of the limit of the king’s reach. Henry was fair to his barons and to some extent, kept to his promises. It was John’s stunning breach of liberties one hundred years later that caused the reaction of Magna Carta.

King John signs Magna Carta
King John signs Magna Carta

Magna Carta and Excommunication

Felicity Hill (University of East Anglia)

This paper looked at the interesting and contentious role churchmen played in upholding the Magna Carta. The Church’s role was important because they publicised the charter repeatedly. In 1279, it was ordered to be affixed to church doors and King Edward I promptly ordered it to be taken down. It was desirable and neccessary for the Church to have Magna Carta for pastoral purposes. The punishment of excommunication was first proclaimed against those who went against the charter in 1225 by Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. Once the papacy confirmed excommunication, it stuck.  The sentence was published in English and French, and had to be disseminated because canon law required it. Normally, a total of 3 warnings had to be given before you could excommunicate someone, however, this safe guard was bypassed in Magna Carta as it functioned under canon law’s ipso facto/latae sententiae, which meant the sentence had already been passed, followed by an immediate loss of membership to the Church.

Listing ipso facto excommunication was an important feature in the Late Middle Ages because contravening any of the clauses in the Magna Carta incurred automatic excommunication. How did this work if most people didn’t understand what was contained in the document? The 13th century Church was rather fixated with publishing the Magna Carta because priests had to be able to explain the punishment of excommunication to their flock since, in most cases, it affected the laity. Excommunication was a serious matter as it separated the offender from the Church, potentially severing their path to salvation. General sentences of excommunication were published in the locality’s mother tongue 4 times per year. Excommunications falling under under Magna Carta’s latae sententia were regularly reviewed over the course of the year. 13th century clergy were anxious about keeping their flock from falling into excommunication under Magna Carta. If a bishop or priest didn’t do all he could to prevent excommunication, he was held culpable for their lost souls. It was important for the bishop, and the clergy to know Magna Carta and regularly publish it to prevent people from falling into the danger of being excommunicated. The church had to ensure the specifics of the charter were understood. It was important to know it, ‘lest they imperil their souls’. Ipso facto excommunications were often put into convenient lists so that clergy could easily keep track of what people were being excommunicated for and work towards preventing that.  By the end of the 13th c., Magna carta was part of medieval English clerical legislation.

Eventually, knowledge of the Magna Carta became common place and part of church life, shared to every parish in the country so that priests would not be neglecting their duty in protecting their flock.

King John
King John

King John and Baronial Liberties in Ireland

Colin Veach (University of Hull)

King John, a fan favourite. This paper looked at John’s reign in context under his lesser studied realm, Ireland. In 1216, the King’s minority government wrote to the Irish about Magna Carta being enforced in Ireland. Within that letter, they declared young Henry III had removed the dissention between his father and the barons in Ireland, and he was not his father. Why did they feel the need to state this? John’s history in Ireland wasn’t a pleasant one, even though traditionally Ireland was royalist and not on side with the Englsih baronial rebels. The letter repudiated John’s hold in Ireland and was aimed at bringing back what the liberties that the Irish lost under John. What were these liberties and how did they lose them?

Each suggested that John’s treatment of the Irish revealed a lot about John. His conduct in Ireland helps us understand his tyrannical rule in England. When John turned 18, in 1185, he was knighted, and sent to Ireland to be crowned king. His expedition was his first taste of adult authority, and he was ready to apply the administrative lessons he learned at court. What was the Irish situation at the time? In 1185, Ireland was a frontier zone with a strong semi-independent nobility. This didn’t mesh well with John’s view of kingship and he began limiting their rights almost immediately. He behaved in a domineering manner toward the established elites in Ireland and alienated the leading Irish barons. After John lost their support, he returned broke, and uncrowned, and blamed the elder Hugh de Lacy for his disgrace. Ireland was glad to see him go but once he was crowned King of England in 1199, Ireland was back on his radar. John took pains to promote factionalism among the Irish barons so that they were too busy fighting themselves to rise up against him. He installed his crony, William de Brus, in Limerick to assist him in controlling the Irish situation. Unfortunately for John, William was an outsider to Ireland, and by 1201, he had failed miserably in his task – none of the great magnates in Ireland were restrained to John’s satisfaction. John’s disastrous attempts at controlling the Irish barons left bad blood long after he was gone, hence prompting the damage control letter writing campaign mentioned at the beginning of this summary.

~Sandra Alvarez

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