Magna Carta – a feminist charter?

There’s been plenty of talk in the UK about the 799th anniversary of Magna Carta this month – with the 800th anniversary looming next year. Politicians have been banging on about the need to use this ancient document to re-instil “British values” in our multicultural land.  The thing is – if any of these parliamentarians actually took the trouble to read the document they claim to know so much about (prime minister David Cameron famously couldn’t translate the latin when asked to do so on the Letterman show), they’d find some very surprising things.

For example (with supporting quotes):


(7) At her husband’s death, a widow may have her marriage portion and inheritance at once and without trouble. She shall pay nothing for her dower, marriage portion, or any inheritance that she and her husband held jointly on the day of his death. She may remain in her husband’s house for forty days after his death, and within this period her dower shall be assigned to her.

(8) No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband. But she must give security that she will not marry without royal consent, if she holds her lands of the Crown, or without the consent of whatever other lord she may hold them of.


(41) All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear, and may stay or travel within it, by land or water, for purposes of trade, free from all illegal exactions, in accordance with ancient and lawful customs.


(56) If we have deprived or dispossessed any Welshmen of lands, liberties, or anything else in England or in Wales, without the lawful judgement of their equals, these are at once to be returned to them. A dispute on this point shall be determined in the Marches by the judgement of equals. English law shall apply to holdings of land in England, Welsh law to those in Wales, and the law of the Marches to those in the Marches. The Welsh shall treat us and ours in the same way.


(38) In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.

+ (39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.


(23) No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.


(35) There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russett, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly.


(20) For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a husbandman the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court. None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable men of the neighbourhood.

I’m sure these aren’t the British values that prime minister David Cameron intended!


The Templars and Magna Carta

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



Christmas: The Visitation – a medieval depiction

This is one of a series of Christmas posts showing medieval depictions of the birth of Christ and an insight into how a Knight Templar might have celebrated the season. So here goes with The Visitation – the event sacred to Catholics when the Virgin Mary visited Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Both women were pregnant with the son of God and the Baptist respectively. According to the church, the unborn baby John knew Jesus was in the other womb and leaped for joy. Elizabeth, suffused with holiness, announced that she knew Mary was going to have a very special birth.

The statue was made in about 1310, shortly after the destruction of the Knight Templar order. Look closely at it. There are two cavities on each woman’s tummy covered in rock crystal. In the past, it’s believed that there were images of the babies under the crystal. This kind of imagery was not uncommon in German speaking Europe where this statue came from.

A medieval depiction of The Visitation
A medieval depiction of The Visitation

Unfortunate child deaths in the Middle Ages

It was tough for kids making it out of infancy, let alone childhood with untreatable disease, hunger, war and plague.  But often death occurred for the most mundane of reasons, as it still does today. Trawling through English coroner’s Rolls for the early 14th century, a number of fatalities involving children crop up. Some of them give us bizarre insights in to life in medieval England.

There was a boy called Richard, son of John le Mazon, who was only eight years old and after a meal was making his way to school, walking across London Bridge – in the year, 1301.  On a sudden impulse, he decided to grip a beam on the side of the bridge and just hang there by his finger tips. Regrettably, he couldn’t keep his grip and fell down in to the river Thames and drowned.

In 1322, on the Sunday before the feast of Saint Dunstan, a group of boys were laying on a pile of timber. One was a seven year old called Robert, son of John de Saint Botulph and they continued to mess around until a heavy piece of wood tumbled on to Robert’s leg.  His mother, Johanna, arrived and managed to release her son’s leg which was fractured. Now, breaking a leg is not the end of the world in our modern age, but in the 14th century, this was a medical disaster. The child lingered on until the Friday before the Feast of Saint Margaret, at which point he died.

This is a rather odd story – in 1324, a five year old called John, son of William de Burgh, was at the property of Richard Latthere when he got it in to his head to steal a small amount of wool and try and hide it in his cap.  Richard’s wife, Emma, saw what he did and cuffed him hard round the ear.  He clearly made quite a din as a result and bawled his eyes out.  John’s mother raised the hue and cry – that is, she alerted other townsfolk to her plight by screaming her head off – and the boy was carried away.  At around the curfew bell of the same day, John died.  Emma fled though subsequently surrendered herself to the prison at Newgate.

Why did England expel the Jews in the Middle Ages?

Medieval Jews forced to wear special hats
Medieval Jews forced to wear special hats (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
1250 French Bible illustration depicts Jews (i...
1250 French Bible illustration depicts Jews (identifiable by Judenhut) being massacred by crusaders (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not the most pleasant episode in English medieval history to look back on but it happened during the Templar period and we can’t ignore it.  Fortunately, we have an excellent book by Robert Winder called ‘Bloody Foreigners’ to fall back on.  The title of the book is not to be taken literally – his contention is that the English have always been ambivalent or outright hostile to immigration and yet it’s a country very much forged by migrants and where, curiously, in spite of the initial negative feelings towards new arrivals, England has a strong record of assimilation and absorbing other cultures – seemingly effortlessly.

Norman England in the 12th century was surprisingly cosmopolitan though not necessarily for the nicest of reasons.  French settlers were encouraged by England’s overlords to dilute the old Saxon ruling class.  Winder says that it was noticeable that foreign merchants could obtain royal permits to trade with relative ease compared to the local Saxons who were still mistrusted. Through the ports of London, Bristol and Southampton came goods – and people….from Flanders, France, Genoa and Venice.  Flemish masons worked on cathedrals and castles while German copper miners instructed locals how to dig for the precious metal. The Germans and Dutch were also very prolific in the beer trade.

Edward III was so impressed by the contribution being made to the country’s well-being by the foreigners that he even joined a Flemish guild.  However, lower down the social scale, there were plenty of English folk who resented the obvious wealth of these merchants who had come from strange lands overseas. To the Saxon poor, it looked like they were literally fleecing the country – benefiting from the great wool industry run by the Cistercian monks who then sold their produce to the Flemish weavers.  This did lead to what we might call in modern parlance ‘race riots’ against merchants from Europe and that did include lynchings and pogroms. England wasn’t the only country to see this kind of xenophobia – but it certainly shocks many English today to know it happened.

One community though suffered from growing hatred and suspicion more than any other. Initially brought over and nurtured by the Norman kings after the conquest of 1066, they found that success came at a cruel price.  The Jews of England engaged in what we might call ‘usury’ but was a primitive form of banking finance.  They did this partly because they were barred from other professions and also because of Christian prohibitions on the flock earning interest from transactions – similar to Islamic prohibitions still in force today.  So the Jews set up a network of financing that would be the germ of what London is today – the financial capital of Europe, if not the world.

Aaron, a moneylender in Lincoln, financed the building of the local cathedral – which remains a glory on the skyline.  He lent to the King of Scotland, the Archbishop of Canterbury and several Cistercian monasteries.  When he died, his estate was taken over by the king and an entire department of state – the Scaccarium Aaronis – was required to work its way through his holdings.

The Jews were effectively the property of the King and harming them was in effect, damaging the king’s property. Rates of interest were undoubtedly high – though comparable to some credit cards today!  Typically, a noble might expect to pay back double the original loan by the end of the year. However, money was needed and wasn’t always readily available in the medieval economy so the Jews were on to something of a winner.

Some of the most prolific moneylenders, according to Winder, were women.  Licoricia of Oxford gave two thousand, five hundred pounds towards the building of Westminster Abbey.  Did she care about such a building? No. But it certainly helped her relations with the King, who was after all her protector. Fund his pet projects and life could go on as usual. Belaset of Wallingford was another women in the usury game and her name is assumed to mean ‘nice assets’ – a little bit of medieval humour there!

It’s crucial to point out that not every Jew in England was a moneylender. Some were, needless to say, rabbis but there were also doctors and shopkeepers and artists.  But it’s the money lending that brought them most in to the public eye.  Certainly the king’s eye.  Increasingly, the Norman and then Angevin kings decided that it would be far more advantageous to tax the Jews instead of borrowing from them.  After all, a king can do that kind of thing.  So the Jews suffered an ever growing tax burden – which they no doubt passed on in part to their increasingly disgruntled customers.

Even a king like Henry II – a friend to both the Jews and the Templars – drained Jewish finance for his own needs.  His son Richard the Lionheart was brutal in squeezing the Jewish community – and the rest of England – to fund his crusades against Saladin.  In fact, it was in the year of Richard’s coronation – 1189 – that the first serious outbreaks of violence against Jews in England erupted.  Most appallingly was the death of 150 Jews in York herded in to a castle tower and murdered.  Elsewhere, the Jews were able to take refuge in castles and nobles felt obliged to extend the King’s protection over them.  But the writing was on the wall – things were going to get a lot worse.

Matters were not helped by a series of so-called ‘blood libel’ incidents across northern Europe.  In Norwich, a child called William was found crucified and his blood drained allegedly by the Jews. Similar cases occurred elsewhere.  I think it’s safe to say these were completely fabricated but they gave the mob a very good excuse to attack Jewish property.

The nail in the coffin was a hardening of attitude on the part of the Angevin kings.  John badly needed finance and even had one Jewish moneylender in Bristol tortured till he handed over ten thousand Marks.  The method of torture was to have a tooth extracted every day until he agreed.  He apparently got to the seventh tooth before giving in!

Henry III personally attended the torture of a Jewish man – Copin of Lincoln – accused of another blood libel against a child called Hugh.  Torture extracted the required confession and he was dragged through the town then hanged.  This legitimised assaults and murders on Jews and in 1263 on Palm Sunday in London, about four hundred Jews were slaughtered.  Winder makes the point that this event hardly figures in most England history books.

The kings were simply moving towards confiscation of Jewish wealth – no more borrowing or taxation – just seizure.  The Templars, of course, would also see opportunistic monarchs grab their holdings and eventually terminate the Order.  In 1275, the final act in this tragedy unfolded as Edward I issued his Statutus de Judeismo which stated:

Forasmuch as the King hath seen that divers evils and the disinheriting of good men of his land have happened by the usuries which the Jews have made in time past, and that divers sins have followed thereupon albeit that he and his ancestors have received much benefit from the Jewish people in all times past, neverthless, for the honour of God and the common benefit of the people the King hath ordained and established, that from henceforth no Jew shall lend anything at usury either upon land, or upon rent or upon other thing.

So Edward basically said – thanks for everything you’ve done in the past but I’m now ending it all for you.  Already Jews had been banished from several towns, now they would be forced to wear identification badges – so the Nazis weren’t the first to invent this:

And that each Jew after he shall be seven years old, shall wear a badge on his outer garment that is to say in the form of two tables joined of yellow fait of the length of six inches and of the breadth of three inches.

Measure by measure was enacted against the Jews, eventually banning their religious customs. In 1290, they were given a deadline of the first of November, All Saints Day, to leave England.  One captain ferrying a boat load of Jews across the wide Thames estuary hit a sandbar and invited his passengers to get out and stretch their legs.  He then sailed off, leaving them stranded, shouting obscenities to the effect that they could pray to Moses to save them.  All of the passengers drowned.

It would take four hundred years and the rule of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century for Jews to be  re-admitted to England.

More about violence in the Middle Ages

English: Steven Pinker
English: Steven Pinker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I mentioned Steven Pinker‘s new book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature‘ on the history of violence and his view that contrary to what many believe, violence is actually on the decline – relatively speaking.  To illustrate his point, he gives examples of random acts of brutality in the Middle Ages that appear to have been everyday occurrences.  Some are truly awful while others almost make you laugh in disbelief.

What are we to make of this, re-quoted from historian Barbara Tuchman, describing a ‘sport’: “Players with hands behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal’s claws…”  And that was nothing compared to the more bizarre spectacle of a pig being clubbed to death for popular amusement.

Then there is the angry medieval shopper that Pinker re-quotes from a book written by historian Barbara Hanawalt: “It happened at Ylvertoft on Saturday next before Martinmass in the fifth year of King Edward that a certain William of Wellington, parish chaplain of Ylvertoft, sent John, his clerk, to John Cobbler’s house to buy a candle for him for a penny. But John would not send it to him without the money wherefore William became enraged, and, knocking in the door upon him, he struck John in the front part of the head so that his brains flowed forth and he died forthwith.”

Historian Valentin Groebner has written an article called ‘Losing Face, Saving Face: Noses and Honour in the Late Medieval Town’. It deals with the prevalence of nasal mutilation in the Middle Ages as a punishment and as a way of exacting revenge on an enemy. So common was this activity that medical textbooks of the period even speculated whether a severed nose could grow back!!  Cutting off your nose to spite your face referred to real attacks on noses.  In case you think this practice has died out – I’m afraid to say the Taliban think it’s acceptable to do this to young girls in today’s Afghanistan.

Telling the time in the Middle Ages

Family Life in the Middle Ages (Germany)
Family Life in the Middle Ages (Germany) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine you had no watch, no mobile phone….basically, no way of telling the time.  Further imagine that you are in the middle of a field with your plough and oxen, working on the lord’s desmesne – then how do you know what time it is?  Yep, you’re in the Middle Ages and who knows whether it is 2.30pm or 4.15pm.  Who knows what day it is.  And frankly, who even knows what year it is!

Such were the vagaries of timekeeping for a medieval serf – so how they did do it? Well, two things to bear in mind. Religion and the seasons. Peasants knew when it was a holy day because….that’s where we get “holiday” from….and you know always know when your holidays are.  Then there were the seasons – a time to sow seeds and a time to harvest crops.  A time when animals breed and a time to slaughter them and salt the meat for winter storage.

How does this all translate in to practical timekeeping.  I’ve read some fun stuff online around this subject. I’m happy to be informed whether a lot of this is total garbage or true. This website claims peasants carved sundials in to the bottom of their clogs – which they took off and held up to the sun to tell the time. I have never heard of that before! This site says that the first mechanical clock was invented in the late 13th century – so within the Templar era.  But peasants would have had no access to clocks in our era – not as if you could take one in to the fields.

So let’s look at how peasants told the time. Winter stretched from Michaelmas in late September to Christmastide.  And you were out sowing at that time. November was known as the blood month because you slaughtered the animals to keep you in meat during the cold months ahead. Of course there were the 12 days of Christmas to cheer up the wintertime.

From the Epiphany to Easter Holy Week was the Spring when fields and gardens sprang back in to life and animals got down to some serious mating. Plough Monday was a strange ritual shortly after Epiphany where young lads dragged ploughs round the village asking for money. Candlemas in early February was when oats, barley and beans were sown.

Two weeks after Easter was Hocktide which stretched to Lammas in August. Hocktide was when the May Queen was crowned – undoubtedly a throwback to pre-Christian fertility rituals or worship of pagan goddesses that encouraged crops to grow.  Midsummer was marked by the feast of St John the Baptist and on St John’s Eve in June, a wheel of fire might be rolled down the hill – another pagan hangover. Lammas to Michaelmas was harvest time.

Monks – and Templars – had a more precise form of timekeeping based around prayer.  Lauds got you out of bed at the crack of dawn or before, Prime came in the early morn, Terce in mid-morning, Sext at midday, None in mid-afternoon, Vespers after dinner and Compline was just before bed, etc.