2015 brings the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta. Sadly Northamptonshire’s key role in the events leading up to Runnymede have been all but forgotten or ignored by the local council, the media and modern historians. So to redress the balance, if only in a small way, this is what happened:
When John first took the throne, it was Northampton that he chose for where his Barons should assemble and swear fealty to him. For the rest of his reign, Northampton was always one of King John’s favourite castles and as such witness to many of his excesses. When John did decide to indulge, it was often the poor of Northampton that benefited. On one occasion a thousand people from the town were fed fish or meat, bread and beer after he ate meat and drank wine on a fast day. In 1208 he moved his treasury to Northampton after falling out with the people of London. Even Shakespeare sets the opening scene of his play King John in the castle, and has John throwing his brother from its walls.
One of John’s disagreements, was over the appointment of Steven Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, after which the clergy was outlawed and the Archbishop and the monks of Canterbury were banished. On 12 January 1209, the Pope Innocent III wrote to the bishops of London, Ely and Worcester instructing them to excommunicate the king if he did not repent within three months. He also sent a copy to John.1 John began to negotiate with the Pope but after nine months nothing had been resolved. By this time however, all the Bishops except Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester had fled the country, and Roches was one of John’s supporters. So there was no one left to publish the excommunication.2 In October, the Pope published the excommunication in France, however John made sure he did not receive the notice in person. So, as far as he was concerned it had not been carried out.3
In July 1211, Pope sent his legate Pandulf, and a Templar Knight named Durand to England so ” that they might restore peace between the Crown and the clergy.”4 John met them at Northampton on 30 August. In the Great Hall which was packed with Barons, Pandulf demanded Langton’s reinstatement. John refused and furious row broke out between the two. Then, before the assembled barons, Pandulf finally carried out the excommunication on John. But, Pandulf did not stop there, and absolved all John’s subjects from their allegiance, telling them to be ready to join any army which the Pope might send to England. To show his own power, John ordered that all the prisoners held in the castle were to be brought before them. Then one by one John metered out his punishments which were carried out immediately. One was blinded, another, his hands and feet chopped off, another was hanged. Finally a priest was brought out to whom John pronounced the sentence of hanging. Pandulf rose saying only a priest may judge a priest, and threatened to ex-communicate anyone who touched the hapless priest. Pandulf then went to find a candle with which to perform the act. John finally relenting, followed and gave the priest over to Pandulf’s custody, who then set him free. 5
Despite his excommunication John continued to defy the Pope. In January 1213, Innocent III wrote to King Phillipe of France, inviting him and the other heads of Europe to invade England and take the crown for himself.6 France did not waste a moment and began to prepare for war, whilst John began to prepare for England’s defence. At the same time, probably realising he could not withstand the combined might of Europe; John re-opened negotiations with Innocent III. Finally, in May 1213, the two reached an agreement. According to the chronicler Roger of Wendover, in the house of the Knights Templars at Ewell, near Dover, and in front of the archbishop of Dublin, the chief justiciars of England and Ireland, seven earls, and three barons, John freely surrendered to God and His holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and to the Holy Mother
Church of Rome, and to Pope Innocent and his Catholic successors.7 However, he would have to wait for the return of Steven Langton in July to be absolved of his excommunication.
On the day after his absolution, John instructed the sheriffs in England to send four men and the
reeve from each town to meet at St. Albans on 4 August. They were met by Justiciar Geoffrey Fitz Peter, and Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, and in a great ceremony, the laws of Henry I were reaffirmed and peace proclaimed.8 John, in the meantime was preparing to launch an expedition against Poitou and ordered the northern barons to join him. However, they refused, claiming they were not bound to follow him and that they were “worn out and impoverished by expeditions within the realm.”9 John sailed anyway around 5 August, expecting the barons to follow. He finally realised they were not behind him when he reached Jersey a few days later. Furious at the insult, he returned to England.10 As soon as he landed, John headed north with a mercenary army to deal with his rebellious barons. When the newly returned Steven Langton heard this, he raced after him to try and avert a bloodbath. He caught up with John at Northampton on 28 August where another furious row erupted. The Archbishop telling John that he would bring contempt upon the oath which he had sworn before his absolution if he made war upon any man without a legal sentence.John told the Archbishop to mind his own business and early on the morning of 31 August set of for Nottingham via Sauvey Castle. He had not got far when Langton caught up with him again. This time the Archbishop threatened to ex-communicate the whole army and said he would not leave the King alone until he agreed to give the barons a fair trial and set a date. It was enough to force John to back down although he would not return to London until the end of September. 11
Soon after his return, Cardinal Nicolas of Tusculum arrived in England to discuss plans for a pecuniary settlement between the Crown and the clergy. Then on 3 October, the council assembled in St. Paul’s. At the foot of the high altar, in the sight of clergy and people, John placed his crown into the legate’s hands, received it back from him, and swore fealty to him as the Pope’s representative.
Although things seemed to be finally settled with the Pope. Matters at home were entirely the opposite. John had effectively created a system of royal extortion and nothing and nobody was safe. Exorbitant tolls were exacted from merchants, rivers were blocked so that John could take the profits of fishing, even Monasteries were taken into the king’s custody. Men were forced to give up without compensation their corn, horses and wood as the king and his supporters required. Free men could be arrested, imprisoned, ejected from their lands, or even exiled or outlawed, without a fair trial. John, and his favourites could impose taxes as they saw fit ignoring the limits of feudal custom. And, in all this chaos, it was only the barons who could oppose John’s corrupt rule. Despite his settlement with the Pope and the affirmation of Henry I’s charter at St. Albans, John continued to oppress his own people. At the end of November 1214, the Barons met in secret at St. Edmunds Abbey in modern Bury St. Edmunds. Here they all swore on the high altar that if the king continued to flaunt the laws set out in Henry I’s charter they would withdraw their fealty and declare war on John until he sealed the charter and gave in to their demands.. 12
At the beginning of January 1215, the Barons met John in London and gave him their ultimatum. John, playing for time as always, asked that he might have until Easter to consider their demands. The Barons reluctantly agreed and Steven Langton, William Marshal and the Bishop of Ely agreed to stand as surety for John. However, as soon as the meeting ended, John began to raise a mercenary army. He also shrewdly wrote to the Pope offering to go a crusadethereby gaining special papal protection. During this time Steven Langton held several meetings with the Barons. Early in February, the Barons wrote to the Pope begging him for his support.
However, it seems that John’s messenger had got their first for on 19 March 1215, the Pope wrote to the archbishop of Canterbury and the other English bishops, expressing his surprise that they had not stopped the quarrel between the king and “certain magnates and barons”. In the letter he also condemned the “conspiracies and conjurations” which the barons were reported to have made, and ordered the bishops to quash all such conspiracies. At the same time he wrote to the barons, informing them of the contents of his letter to the bishops.13 Then on 1 April, the Pope wrote to the Barons again warning them to agree to the King’s demands.14
Concerned over John’s warlike preparations and Papal support, the Baron’s held another meeting. They decided that they could no longer wait for their appointed meeting with John and agreed to muster at Stamford near Peterborough during Easter week (19-26 April). Five Earls and forty Barons, mostly from the north, are mentioned by name as being present at the muster,” with many others”; they all came with horses and arms, and brought with them ” a countless host,” estimated to comprise about two thousand knights, besides other horsemen, sergeants-at-arms, and foot soldiers.15
From Stamford they marched to Northampton, and from there to Brackley. John was in London when he heard of the uprising and sent William Marshal and Steven Langton to obtain a list of their demands. They met with the Barons on 27 April, who “presented to the envoys a certain schedule, which consisted for the most part of ancient laws and customs of the realm, declaring that if the king did not at once grant these things and confirm them with his seal, they would compel him by force.”16 It was this list of demands that became the Magna Carta.
Langton and the Marshal returned to the king, now in Wiltshire, with the list of demands. One by one the articles were read out to him by the Archbishop. According to Roger of Wendover, after he had heard them all John said ” Why do these barons not ask for my kingdom at once ?… their demands are idle dreams, without a shadow of reason” Then he burst into a fit of rage, and swore that he would never grant to them liberties which would make himself a slave.17 He then sent the two back to the Barons and instructed them to repeat his words verbatim. On hearing this, the Barons immediately renounced their fealty to the King and chose Robert Fitz-Walter as their leader, to whom they gave the grandeous title of ” Marshal of the army of God and Holy Church.”18 They then marched back to Northampton, occupied the town and laid siege to the castle.19 However, they had not brought any siege equipment and after two weeks, were forced to give up, but not before many had been killed including Fitz-Walters standard bearer. The Barons moved to Bedford where William de Beauchamp readily gave up his castle and then to London.
The townsfolk of Northampton had also risen against the royal garrison of the castle and slain several of them. Although the King’s men had sallied out and burnt half the town. Finally, sometime at the beginning of June, John despatched William Marshal to the Barons in London saying “…that for the sake of peace and for the welfare and honour of his realm, he would freely concede to them the laws and liberties which they asked ; and that they might appoint a place and day for him and them to meet, for the settlement of all these things.” In the words of Ralph of Coggeshall, ” By the intervention of the archbishop of Canterbury, with several of his fellow-bishops and some barons, a sort of peace was made.”A meeting was arranged where John would agree to the Barons demands. The meeting was set for 15 June, and the place, a meadow between Staines and Windsor called Runnemede.20
1 Innoc. III. Epp. 1. xi. No. 211.
2 R. Wendover, vol. iii. pp. 222, 228, 229 ;Gerv. Cant. vol. ii. pp. 100, 103, 104 ; Ann. Waverl. and Dunst. a. 1208.
3 Ann. Dunst. a. 1209.
4 R. Wendover, vol. iii. pp. 235, 236.
5 W. Coventry, vol. ii. p. 204 ;R. Wendover, vol. iii. p. 235 Ann. Burton, a. 1211
6 R. Wendover, vol. iii. pp. 241, 242.
7 R. Wendover, vol. iii. p. 252.
8 R. Wendover, vol. iii. pp. 261-262
9 R. Coggeshall, p. 167
10 R. Wendover, vol. iii. p. 261
11 R. Wendover, vol. iii. pp. 262-263
12 R. Wendover, vol. iii. pp. 293, 294. Cf. R. Coggeshall, p. 170.
13 Foedera, vol. i. pt. i. p. 127
14 Foedera, vol. i. pt. i. p. 128
15 R. Wendover, vol. iii. pp. 297, 298 ; M. Paris, Chron. Maj. vol. ii. p.585.
16 R. Wendover, vol. iii. p. 298.
17 R. Wendover, vol. iii. p. 299
18 W. Coventry, vol. ii. p. 219. R. Wendover, vol. iii. p. 299
19 R. Coggeshall, p. 171 R. Wendover, vol. iii. p. 299
20 R. Wendover, vol. iii. p. 301.