Newsletter 40

Welcome to the March issue of our occasional newsletters for 2015.

Our website has just been revamped – it looks similar to the old one, but has been dragged into the 21st century, making it suitable for portable devices such as tablets and smartphones, as well as full-size computers. Please also take a look at our blogPatterns of the Past’. As we said in a previous newsletter, 2015 has many anniversaries, which is frustrating for publishers, authors, TV programme makers and others. So far, Magna Carta with its 800th anniversary in June is winning the publicity war, and so in this newsletter we are focusing on that topic.


Inevitably, many myths have grown around Magna Carta, such as King John signing the charter on an island in the River Thames at Runnymede, so ensuring the freedom of the individual. Much of this is untrue. Another misconception is that only one copy of Magna Carta exists. Even its name was not used at the outset.


The United States commemorates Magna Carta

with an oak tree at Runnymede

Feudal system…

In 1199 John was anointed and crowned king, giving him divine sanction to rule. The ‘feudal system’ (introduced after the Norman Conquest in 1066) controlled English society – ‘feudal’ was a term coined centuries later from the Latin feudum, meaning ‘fief’ or land granted to a man in return for service. At the top was the king, who laid claim to much of the land in the kingdom. He granted substantial parcels of land and castles to the barons or nobility, who were his ‘tenants-in-chief’. In return, they owed him money and military services, usually by providing a number of armed knights for a certain period each year. In return for their military service, the knights were granted land by the barons. Feudal land grants and obligations were hereditary.

At the bottom were the ordinary people, the unfree peasants known as serfs or villeins (from the medieval Latin for ‘field labourer’). They provided food and services in return for land (which was plentiful as England had a population of a mere 3 million in 1215). Villeins were tied to the land and their lord.

Kings came to rely more on professional mercenary soldiers, who were paid in cash, and so King John demanded more money from his barons for his military campaigns in France – all wasted because by 1206 he had lost the vast majority of the Angevin empire.

King John

… and feuds

John next fell out with Pope Innocent III over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The pope retaliated by placing the whole of England under an interdict and excommunicated the king in 1209. By early 1213 King Philip II of France was set to invade England, but John informed the pope that he would agree to the appointment of Stephen Langton as archbishop and acknowledge the pope as his feudal overlord. Philip’s plans were thwarted, especially when John’s newly formed navy of galleys destroyed his invasion fleet in May 1213.

In July 1213, Langton landed in England and a month later met the most powerful church and secular leaders to discuss how to restore the country. Afterwards, at a secret meeting with a select group of barons, he sowed the seeds of Magna Carta. The story is mentioned in one contemporary source, the ‘Flowers of History’ written by Roger of Wendover, an obscure author of historical chronicles who was probably a monk in the abbey at St Albans. Langton read to them an old forgotten charter of King Henry I, the clauses of which foreshadowed those of Magna Carta.

By February 1214 John was ready to invade France to recover his lost empire, but growing discontent and an atmosphere of rebellion were evident among his barons. Many of them resented the money he was demanding for this campaign, particularly as he was constantly inventing new taxes. The introduction of customs duties on imported and exported goods was especially disliked, because many barons were engaged in trade. Scutage, literally ‘shield money’, was another payment made by the barons instead of providing armed men in time of war, and John raised the rate to an unprecedented level in order to fund his army. Some barons refused to pay or to accompany the expedition, and some gave an outright refusal to provide any military support, ignoring their feudal obligations.

John’s campaign went well at first. By the end of June he had retaken Anjou, but was forced to retreat after the Angevin nobles failed to support him. On 27th July 1214 the bulk of his German and Flemish allies and mercenaries were defeated by Philip II at the Battle of Bouvines in Flanders (now north-east France). Pitched battles were then rare, as most conflicts took the form of sieges that allowed time for manoeuvring and negotiation. As part of the peace negotiations, John was forced to return Anjou to Philip and also pay him compensation.


King John arrived back in England in October, and the barons were ready for rebellion. At his Christmas court in London, John was confronted by a group of barons who demanded that he confirm the laws of King Edward the Confessor and the charter of Henry I. John promised an enquiry, and it was agreed to hold further negotiations on 6th January 1215, but that meeting ended in deadlock.

In March John took an oath to become a crusader, a clever move that strengthened his influence with the pope and guaranteed him legal immunities until his return from the Holy Land. The pope ordered the barons to cease armed resistance or face excommunication, but as it took some six weeks to carry messages from Rome, this papal order only reached them at the end of April. On 3rd May the barons renounced their allegiance to the king and presented him with a list of their demands. England was now in a state of civil war.

On 17th May 1215 rebel forces marched into London and took control. This was such a key stronghold that other barons, who until then had maintained a superficial loyalty to the king, defected to the rebel side. John was cornered, and so he instructed Langton to organise a truce. Royalists and rebels drafted a preliminary agreement called the ‘Articles of the Barons’, which was the forerunner of Magna Carta. John set his seal to this draft agreement, and frenetic discussions continued, turning its 49 clauses into the document that we know as Magna Carta.


On 15th June it was time for King John to formally accept the final version of Magna Carta. He made his way from Windsor castle to a field by the River Thames which, according to the charter, was called Ronimed – Runnymede. The rebel barons came from their base at Staines, a small town on the north side of the Thames. The name ‘Runnymede’ is possibly Anglo-Saxon, meaning ‘the meadow where councils were held’ – a traditional meeting place.

The stone keep at Windsor Castle

This rural landscape had a few scattered hamlets and some larger settlements, like Windsor and Staines. Buildings were of timber, with occasional formidable exceptions in stone, such as the castle at Windsor that was visible for miles around. In sight of Runnymede was the priory of Ankerwycke, founded six decades earlier for Benedictine nuns. Runnymede was then meadowland, where two opposing groups could meet without fear of ambush. Today, the National Trust land has modern memorials, though much of the area between Staines and Windsor is built up and criss-crossed by busy roads, while gravel pits and reservoirs have altered its appearance.

There are no eyewitness accounts of the events at Runnymede, but many writers have tried to capture the mood, including Jerome K Jerome in his Three Men in a Boat, published in 1889:

‘It is noon, and we and all the people have been waiting patient for many an hour, and the rumour has run round that slippery John has again escaped from the Barons’ grasp, and has stolen away … Not so! Far down the road a little cloud of dust has risen, and draws nearer and grows larger, and the pattering of many hoofs grows louder, and in and out between the scattered groups of drawn-up men there pushes on its way a brilliant cavalcade of gay-dressed lords and knights. And front and rear, and either flank, there ride the yeomen of the Barons, and in the midst King John.’

John did not actually sit down and sign the charter. There was no ceremonial sealing, no exchange of contracts. Although the physical document has become a symbol of freedom, at the time it was really the agreement with the barons and the oath-taking by the king that were important. This single day at Runnymede was to be one of the most momentous events in history.


Royal Historical Society

We were recently both honoured to be elected as Fellows of the Royal Historical Society. This prestigious learned society was founded in 1868, and is currently based at University College London. The society’s website is here.

Society of Antiquaries of London

We are also Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of London, which was founded much earlier, in 1707, and is today based at Burlington House in London (next door to the Royal Academy). The Society also owns and manages Kelmscott Manor, the Cotswold retreat of William Morris, which is open to the public from April to October. The Society produces an invaluable fortnightly digest of news from the heritage sector, called Salon, and anyone is welcome to subscribe (see the website here). The ‘of London’ avoids confusion, because there is also a Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, founded in 1780 – see their website here.

Chartered Institute for Archaeologists

We are also Members of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists. A Royal Charter was granted in December 2014 – before then, it was the Institute for Archaeologists. This organisation began in 1982 as the Institute of Field Archaeologists, but its name was changed in order to attract archaeologists working in universities, as well as those specialising in disciplines such as finds or illustration, whose natural home might not be a muddy trench or field. The website is here.

Post-nominal etiquette

Post-nominal letters are the various shorthand letters referring to attainments such as educational qualifications, honours and fellowship or membership of learned societies and professional institutions. There are all sorts of rules governing the order in which post-nominal letters appear after someone’s name (from the Latin post, after, and nomen, name). For the three above, the order is: FSA, FRHistS, MCIfA – the date order of the establishment of each of these organisations.


A wonderful blog about books is called ‘Read Me: great books to read’. Each month Louise Owens in Australia reviews 10 books ‘that are fantastic and inspiring reads’, and she also interviews many authors. Book themes have included Design and Architecture, Fashion, Biographies and much more. Louise only reviews books that she loves and is so informative and positive that you want to drop everything in order to read them all. We strongly recommend this blog (and you can sign up to the ‘Read Me newsletter’).

In December, the theme was ‘10 great books about history and culture’, and we were very pleased that Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England was one of those chosen. “There were many wonderful ‘Ah!’ moments for me reading this book,” Louise writes “when things were explained that I had always wondered about or were mystified by such as the fact that contemporary fiction referred to London as being ‘up’ (no matter where they were) as if the city was located on a peak.” You can read the full review here. Louise subsequently interviewed us both. You can read Lesley’s interview here, and Roy’s here. One response (by Verena Mauldon) was “Great interview – then went to read the review, then bought the book! Now I have to wait for it to be delivered… But half an hour ago I hadn’t heard of this book, so thanks for the heads up!” This is – of course – the sort of enthusiasm that bookstores and publishers need to generate in order to ensure that everyone gets to hear about good books. Thank you, Louise, for your great blog and for spreading the word.


Julian Stockwin, author of the acclaimed Kydd series of naval novels, recently listed six books that he recommends to anyone forming their own library related to the Age of Fighting Sail. We were very pleased that our own book, Jack Tar, was one of those chosen. For details, see Julian’s website here. Jack Tar is available as an e-book and a paperback.


Competition result

In our last newsletter, in a description of our very first book, The Handbook of British Archaeology, we wrote:

In Britain, the historical period is conventionally accepted as starting with the Roman period, and the time before that is known as prehistory. This prehistoric period is divided up into smaller periods named after the predominant type of material used for tools and weapons. So the period immediately before the Roman period is called the Iron Age, because tools and weapons were made mainly of iron. For this competition, please tell us the name of the period that came immediately before the Iron Age. Was it: A. The Bronze Age B. The Bone Age C. The Broker Age D. The Block Age

The answer was, of course, the Bronze Age, and the winner of a copy of our book is Lesley Lidgett.

Discovering prehistory

In the early days of archaeology, even before it was generally called ‘archaeology’, antiquarians realised that the earliest humans had no idea of metals, but used stone for tools and weapons. The first metals were those requiring the most simple technology – copper, gold and bronze. Later on, it was discovered how to produce iron. The antiquarians were faced with the problem of how to organise and record their findings and theories, because they were quite literally working with a blank sheet. They ended up using terms like ‘Stone Age’ and ‘Iron Age’, named after the main materials used for tools and weapons.

This was the discovery of prehistory – ‘before history’ – when our ancestors talked with each other but wrote nothing down, as writing had not evolved. They would have had names for everything from a flint arrowhead to the location of Stonehenge, but these names did not survive and antiquarians had to devise their own terminology. In order to put the prehistoric archaeological artefacts in some sort of order, the ‘three-age system’ was developed by the Danish antiquarian Christian Jürgensen and used at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. The earliest period was the Stone Age, followed by the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age, and this still forms the basis of archaeological research today.

Chest of drawers

The three-age system was also known as the chest-of-drawers system, because museums stored artefacts in different drawers of their big wooden cabinets. Iron implements might be found in the top drawers, bronze artefacts in the ones below and stone tools at the bottom. This organisation provided a crude representation of the actual stratigraphy on an archaeological site, where you might expect to find stone tools at the very bottom of a trench and iron ones at the top.

The most basic form of the chest-of-drawers system of sorting artefacts

The chest soon needed more drawers, as the three-age system was too simplistic. The ‘Stone Age’ could equally have been called the ‘Wooden Age’, because wood was actually a major material, along with bone and horn, as seen in some spectacular excavations of waterlogged sites. The Stone Age came to be divided into three parts – the Palaeolithic period (literally, ‘old stone age’), the Mesolithic period (‘middle stone age’) and the Neolithic period (‘new stone age’). It was recognised that not all bronze tools were made of bronze – some were made of copper without the addition of other metals such as tin and lead. A ‘Copper Age’ (also called Chalcolithic) was therefore inserted between the Stone Age and Bronze Age. Many other refinements have since taken place, such as the terms Early Iron Age, Middle Iron Age and so on, all trying to make the dating of prehistory more precise.

The division into distinct periods was in reality a fluid process, because the adoption of different materials and technologies would have been gradual. A population using stone tools might have encountered traders offering bronze tools, taking them straight into the Bronze Age with no transitional Copper Age. Britain was in the Late Iron Age when the Romans invaded in AD 43, so at a stroke moved from an illiterate prehistoric society into history. The advent of radiocarbon dating and recent developments in other forms of scientific dating have transformed archaeology, but the ‘three-age system’ in its expanded form is still frequently used as a short-hand way of giving a rough date reference for a site or object. It is likely to remain in use for some time to come.


Having to cope with bitterly cold winters and darkness must have seemed as bleak for our prehistoric ancestors as those living in recent centuries. Folklife Quarterly for January 2015 (pp. 43–4) has an article by us called ‘Drive the Cold Winter Away’, the name that is today usually given to a song that has been around since at least the 17th century. It reflects the huge seasonal variations in heat and light, which are not so obvious in these times of electricity and central heating, and the fact that work also had to be seasonal because of poor light in winter. In the deep midwinter little could be done except keep up spirits by eating, drinking and singing by the fireside until the cold winter went away again. Check out the new FQ website here.


At the end of January we gave a morning talk to the South-West branch of the Jane Austen Society in Exeter. Thankfully, the forecast snow came to nothing, and it was a packed meeting. The afternoon session was Amy Frost talking about ‘Living in a Georgian House’. The next event is in March – for further details, see here (you do not have to be a member of the main Jane Austen Society to join).

Our next talk on ‘Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England’ will be on Wednesday 11th March 2015, 2pm, at Pinhoe Library (Main Road, Pinhoe, Exeter, EX4 8HW) [this event has now gone].


The manuscript

Returning to the story of Magna Carta, once King John had sworn the agreement with the barons, the scribes made numerous copies of the charter, probably in the king’s chancery at Windsor castle. This was the government office that created and archived official documents, and it travelled with the king. These copies of Magna Carta were distributed throughout England to inform people what had happened. Four copies have survived, as well as several later versions. In an era long before paper, documents were handwritten with quill pens dipped in ink, on parchment (also called vellum). Parchment is much more durable than paper and was made from sheepskin soaked in a bath of lime, stretched taut as it dried on a frame and then scraped to produce a smooth writing surface.

There is no way of telling what the ‘original’ document was like, since the surviving copies all differ. The best-known one, on display in the British Library, measures 514 x 343mm and has 52 lines of writing. The others are a fraction smaller or larger with up to 86 lines of writing. The text is in medieval Latin, a form of the language of ancient Rome that would continue to be used for centuries in spheres such as the law and the church.

The final addition to each copy was the king’s great seal, which was done by the sealer of the king’s writs. A large carved sealstone was pressed into softened beeswax mixed with resins, leaving behind an impression of the design. This wax seal became hard and was an authentication of the document. The only surviving seal is a blob of wax from a copy of Magna Carta that was later damaged in a fire.

The remnants of the Magna Carta seal

The contents

Magna Carta had 63 clauses covering five main topics – the protection of the rights of the English Church, the feudal rights of the barons, administrative and financial matters, a group of clauses that attempted to force the king to keep his oath, and a group of general principles. Although Magna Carta came to symbolise the roots of freedom, the actual document is preoccupied with concerns that seem strange today, but illuminate medieval life. The 33rd clause states: ‘Henceforth all fish-weirs shall be completely removed from the Thames and the Medway and throughout all England, except on the sea coast.’ Fish-weirs were fish traps of wooden stakes and basketwork laid across tidal rivers, a source of aggravation because they obstructed boats carrying goods upstream, curtailing trade and inflating prices.

It is within the ‘general principles’ that the most important freedoms are contained. For example, one of the shorter clauses says: ‘No man shall be compelled to perform more service for a knight’s fee or for any other free tenement than is due therefrom.’ This and similar clauses were an attempt to guard against oppression and extortion. Other clauses established liberties that are more easily recognisable today, such as: ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice’. Another clause stated that ‘No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land’ – in other words, nobody shall be imprisoned or punished without a fair trial. However, the charter did not guarantee the rights of most men and women of England.


The barons had secured a legally binding document that was both a peace treaty and a charter granting them the freedoms and privileges they had been demanding and curbing the king’s power. John’s response was to send messengers to the pope asking him to annul the charter since the concessions had been forced from him under duress.

The rebels decided to offer the crown to Prince Louis, eldest son of King Philip II of France. They already held London, and a rebel force also took over Rochester castle to delay John advancing on London from his base at Dover. Just 130 days after the agreement at Runnymede, on 13th October 1215, John arrived outside Rochester castle with its huge stone keep. The rebels kept the gates firmly shut, and a long siege began. This was the start of a civil war that would determine the balance of power between the monarch and his subjects for generations to come.

A 19th-century depiction of Rochester Castle

The Rochester rebels surrendered on 30th November, and John next took the fight into East Anglia. He was reluctant to tackle the rebel stronghold of London and delayed too long. The following year, in May 1216, Prince Louis and his army landed in Kent and rapidly took control of the south-east. Within months there was stalemate, with John holding the Midlands and the rebels in command of the south and east, but then fate took a hand. In early October John fell ill with dysentery and died at Newark Castle on 18th October 1216, a year-and-a-half after the events at Runnymede.

More Magna Cartas

The reasons for the insurrection were removed at a stroke. The rebels were happy to accept John’s 9-year-old son as the new monarch, and he was crowned King Henry III on 28th October. Only a month later, Magna Carta was reissued with minor changes on behalf of the underage king in order to bring the civil war to an end. The army of England’s would-be king, Prince Louis, was routed at Lincoln several weeks later.

With peace finally restored, King John’s charter was reissued in November 1217, but it was revised and split in two. The three clauses relating to forest laws were significantly expanded to create a separate ‘Forest Charter’. This was important because the royal forests were subject to a separate law system. The king could afforest (enclose) any land at his will, a process that had started with the New Forest after the Norman Conquest. One-third of all England’s land was deemed to be royal forests, where harsh forest laws prevailed, with terrible penalties for offences like disturbing game animals. King John had been obsessed by hunting, and these royal forests were mercilessly exploited by kings for the income from resources like venison, timber for building and fuel, the sale of grazing rights and rents from newly cultivated land. The 1217 Forest Charter was designed to reform such behaviour.

The remaining clauses of John’s Runnymede charter were also revised, forming a ‘Great Charter of Liberties’. In Latin, this was ‘Magna Carta’ (sometimes spelled Magna Charta), the first time this label had been used, though decades later the name was applied retrospectively to John’s original charter.

As the young Henry III grew up, he dreamed of restoring the continental empire of his ancestors, but he needed to raise more money. In 1225, when asked to confirm the Forest Charter and Magna Carta, he agreed only after the barons had conceded a tax on every householder of one-fifteenth of the value of all their personal goods. Even though Magna Carta, along with the Forest Charter, would be confirmed many more times, it was this 1225 version that became the definitive Magna Carta in the centuries to come, not John’s original charter.

The story of Magna Carta did not end there, but continued its fascinating progress. If King John could have looked forward 800 years, he would have been astonished to see Magna Carta as the most celebrated manuscript of all time. Far from being a failure after his treacherous rejection of the document, it has provided a constant symbol of freedom through the ensuing centuries, and its influence was carried by the colonists to the United States of America. The concept of Magna Carta is a linking thread throughout British history and beyond – a worldwide icon of liberty.

Part of the monument at Runnymede
erected by the American Bar Association