Next year marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta by King John – one of the least liked monarchs of the Plantagenet dynasty. What is often unappreciated is the role that the Knights Templar played in the background to this momentous occasion.
John was forced by the barons to agree not to use royal powers in an arbitrary manner. Magna Carta also covered a whole range of distinctly medieval issues that have long become irrelevant but this is the clause – buried quite deep in the charter at the time – that excited lovers of liberty in subsequent centuries.
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled . nor will we proceed with force against him . except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
Other more arcane clauses related to a proper system of weights and measures for ale, cloth and corn (no, really!) and the release of hostages John had taken from the Welsh and Scottish royal families.
There wasn’t actually a fully written charter in front of John on the day he was surrounded by angry barons – it was written up afterwards in full by court scribes and then circulated. Four copies exist – two in the British Library in London and one in Salisbury and another in Lincoln.
Magna Carta wasn’t signed as such by King John – but acknowledged with his wax seal…nothing unusual in that. He may or may not have been literate though John did boast to owning a big library, which suggests he may have had some reading and writing ability. It seems astonishing to us now but illiteracy was widespread beyond the clergy and even extended into the upper reaches of society. Though the notion that everybody outside of the church was illiterate before the Reformation is now not accepted as having been the case.
The role of the Knights Templar is shadowy. We know that John stayed with the Templars the night before he had to place himself in front of the barons to agree Magna Carta. Brother Aymeric accompanied John to Runnymede – where the charter was assented to – in his role as Grand Master of the Templars in England. Contrary to the enjoyable but historically inaccurate tosh in the movie Ironclad – the Templars were not opposed to John. They were, after all, his bankers, advisers and played a lead role in the crusades in the Holy Land.
John made a series of gifts to the Templars during his reign and they in turn paid a thousand pounds – then a vast sum – for the confirmation of their privileges in the first year of his reign. John bestowed on the Templars the Isle of Lundy and manors at Huntspill, Harewood, Radenach and Northampton. Hardly the act of a king on bad terms!
As we near the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, I’ll share more insights with you – and happy to hear your views of this seminal historical event. Here we have some glorious historical inaccuracy in Ironclad:
A more considered view of Magna Carta