Today is the 807th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. A link to the Wikipedia article on the Magna Carta is here, but there are pieces all over the internet. It doesn’t always mean what people think it means, and a lot of it has been repealed, but it is still vitally important. Before this, a monarch could do what they wished, regardless. Afterwards, the ruler was brought under the rule of law. It made the king accountable and, as such, was almost immediately repealed. However, with the death of King John soon after and the long minority and turbulence of the reign of his son, Henry III, the Magna Carta was reinstated, amended, quoted, argued and somehow endured.
I’ve read a translation, and I found it very interesting. Most of it wasn’t about truth and freedom. It was more about money.
It went something like this – the king was supposed to fight wars. To fight any sort of war, a king needed soldiers. Back in the days of William the Conqueror, a lord got his land in return for a promise to fight for his king, usually bringing along some other knights and foot soldiers with him. This was a great theory for the time, but it fell down pretty quickly. The lord could be too old to fight, or sick or injured. He could have died and the heir would be too young to fight or, shockingly, a woman. So the lord paid up something called scutage or shield money, so that the king could hire someone to fight in his, or her, place.
When it comes to humans, theory and practice very rarely run along the same rails. As the theory of warfare evolved and changed, having the local squire turn up with his father’s sword and a few likely lads from the village wasn’t enough. The king now needed skilled archers and well trained cavalry. They needed people who spent their lives training for battle, like professional soldiers. In those days, that meant mercenaries, and good mercenaries were expensive. Kings started asking for scutage even if the local lord was willing to fight. It was much easier to pay regular soldiers than have someone turn up in second hand armour, serve for the regulation forty days and disappear again.
King John had managed to get bad blood between him and practically every noble around him. He took hostages and forced loans. He extorted every tiny corner of feudal custom to pull in every penny. He couldn’t rely on the barons to fight for him, as he had managed to annoy, insult or fine most of them, so he needed those expensive mercenaries.
King John exploited every loophole. Under feudal law, he had control of those too young to manage their lands, and he plundered those lands, leaving them a shell. He married off those he could to his mercenaries as a way of payment. He also married off wealthy widows, forcing them to wed the man of his choice who would be anyone who could bribe the king. It was an easy way to pay his important mercenaries but it made him even less popular. Rich barons did not like seeing well born ladies married to thugs for their dowries. They may have had eyes on those dowries themselves, but there was also a sense that forcing someone to marry ‘beneath them’ was a step too far. The first clause of the Magna Carta was to give freedom to the English Church, but the next eleven clauses are concerned with protecting those vulnerable to extortion and financial abuse by the king under feudal law and clauses six and eight are protections from forced marriage in this context. The often quoted habeus corpus or freedom from imprisonment without due process is down at clause 39.
I’ve often wondered what it was like for the great ladies, perhaps mourning their first husband, who were bundled swiftly into marriage with someone who had been born little more than a peasant. There must have been times when the gulf was wide. And the sort of man that could rise from being nothing to a place where a king marries you to a great heiress may not have made a comfortable husband.
One of those mercenaries was Falkes de Bréauté or Fawkes de Bréauté. He married the recently widowed Margaret Redvers, and got control of a lot of land, plus control of her son, the heir to the Earl of Devon. According to Wikipedia, he was not of noble birth and could well have been born a peasant. It doesn’t sound like it was a happy marriage – Margaret tried for a divorce later on and fought to regain control of her lands. Fawkes may not have been a good husband but he was, however, very loyal to John and his son, Henry III. Looking over the Wikipedia entry it sounds like his life was complicated but not boring!
Part of the property that Fawkes got through marrying Margaret was a manor in London, south of the Thames, which became known as ‘Fawkes’ Hall’ which became ‘Fox Hall’ which then became ‘Vauxhall’. This became the site of the Vauxhall Motor Company. So the name that started as a forced marriage between a high born lady and a low born mercenary became the name of a competitively priced British car. History can be quirky like that.
The clauses that prevented widows being forced into a marriage or wards being married to someone below their station have been repealed and replaced with more suitable legislation. I wonder, though, about the stories behind these clauses. I wonder about men and women struggling to deal with that forced relationship and whether they flourished or failed. I wonder if they managed to be happy, regardless.
For me, the Magna Carta isn’t a dusty document. It is a point in time which shows the stresses and strains and perhaps utter desperation of real people. It shows how rights and liberties come from pushing back against injustice and unfairness. It may have been a privileged class pushing back against a king, but that first step to make a government accountable to law started on a path that led to freedoms that we take for granted. And I am grateful for it.