Cunabula Legis
Cradle of the Law
St Edmundsbury and the
Magna Carta

1199 King John took the throne and reigned until 1216. He inherited the kingdom from his brother King Richard who had been king for 10 years, but of this time spent only six months in the country. Their mother was Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, their father was King Henry II. Richard had bled England white to finance the crusades and considered himself ruler of the Angevin Empire, of which England was only a small part. He taxed the whole Empire, but England, with a widespread and efficient tax system, suffered worst.
Immediately after his coronation King John came to St Edmund's "impelled by a vow and out of devotion" (Jocelin of Brackland). He immediately blotted his copybook with the Church by not making a sizeable donation, as expected, but gave only a silk cloth which his servants borrowed from the abbey's sacrist, and thirteen shillings.
1200 By 1200 the glory days of the monasteries were past. The coming of the Friars and the rise of universities were to challenge both the monks' pastoral role and their intellectual supremacy. Yet despite this, there arose at St Albans a notable school of history which persisted for three centuries. By 1219 the well known Roger of Wendover began his work there, and was to become important to the story of Bury St Edmunds.
1201 At this time you might have thought that King John was popular with the Abbot of St Edmunds as he issued a charter forbidding anyone other than the Abbot from holding a market within the area of the Liberty of St Edmund, now known as West Suffolk. However, this arose because John had infringed the Liberty's existing rights by granting the Prior of Ely the right to a market in Lakenheath.
1202 The Angevin Empire began to crumble. Philip of France invaded Normandy. At Bury the Chronicle of Jocelin of Brackland ended abruptly, possibly, but not necessarily, with his death.

St Edmunds Abbey in olden times
by Arthur Lankester
from the St Edmundsbury Museums collection
1203 King John visited St Edmund's Abbey and scandalised the monks by borrowing the jewels his mother had previously presented to the church.
1204 King John was finally driven out of Normandy when Chateau Gaillard fell to the French. After John killed Arthur of Brittany, the Bretons also attacked him from the West. Philip of France began to mould a French consciousness, and in England the Anglo-Norman Barons were forced to choose between the new France and their estates in England. Most chose England.
Eleanor of Aquitaine died but John arranged a truce with Philip and managed to retain these lands and the rest of the Angevin lands.
1205 The Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, died. John now quarrelled with the Pope over his successor, but the real issue was the old one of the boundaries of power between Church and King.
1207 King John introduced a tax of one thirteenth or 1s on each mark (13s 4d) of income from rents and moveable property. He is said to have doubled his income to £60,000 by this measure. It was the first income tax, of about 5p on every 67p income in today's coinage, or 7.5%. Within the Liberty of St Edmund, however, taxes were due to the Abbot, not to the King.
1209 John was excommunicated because he would not make terms with Pope Innocent III over the Canterbury issue. England suffered a papal interdict.

Abbot Sampson & Brother Jocelyn
a postcard from a series of paintings by Rose Mead to commemorate the 1907 pageant.
1211 Abbot Sampson died at Bury, and the local consequence of the Papal interdict was that he could not be buried in the Abbey grounds. It was to be three years before his body could be re-interred in the chapter house. If this was not enough to upset the local monks, the King also refused to approve the Abbot's successor for three years, events recorded in Electio Hugonis, a record made of these events at the time. Meanwhile, without an Abbot, all revenues due to him from the Liberty (ie West Suffolk) now went to the Crown.
1212 The surviving records of the main Bury Chronicle end by 1212. This may be significant in that there is today a grave lack of corroborating evidence for the part the Abbey of St Edmund was to play in the next few years.
1213 John finally accepted Stephen Langton, the Pope's nominee as Archbishop of Canterbury, and in return, he was received back into the Church.
According to Roger of Wendover there was a big meeting at St Pauls, in London on 25th August 1213 concerning the ending of the papal interdict. Archbishop Langton is said to have called the barons to one side and revealed that he had discovered a Charter of King Henry I whereby they might achieve their liberties. Wendover says the Barons swore in Langton's presence to fight for these liberties unto death. Like his record of a meeting in Bury St Edmunds, this is felt to be an implausible idea by many modern historians.
Because history at this time was written in monasteries, John's quarrels with the Pope meant that he would never again receive a favourable report in these quarters. The English Barons had supported King John against the Pope, although he had to suppress the Scots, Welsh and Irish who did not. As John was concentrating on home matters he spent a lot of time on the affairs of the kingdom. The Barons particularly in the North, saw this as interference as for many years John, and Richard before him, had concentrated their efforts abroad.
John reorganised the tax system, introduced a property tax and encouraged civic life, granting charters to many English towns. He was aiming to raise revenue but in the process extended the power of the state.
John had built up the navy and this proved its worth when the French invasion fleet was smashed in 1213, aiming to conquer the excommunicated England, which was fair game under the international (i.e., Papal) law of the time.
1214 John attacked France to regain the lost parts of his Empire. He was stopped in his tracks by a defeat at Les Bouvines, and the cost of this latest French war was to finally goad the Barons into open resistance.
The Barons resented the King's Chief Justiciar, Peter Des Roches, because he was from Poitu, and the Barons decided to see him as a foreigner. But what they really resented was the increased scutage money the king demanded to pay for the war. Scutage was the established method by which those who were liable for feudal military service, could pay a fee to avoid it and stay at home. Had he won the war, the glory and booty resulting would have settled them down, but the Barons were arming their castles in resistance.

On 13th October, according to David Carpenter, King John landed back in England. At about that time, possibly on 19th October, Carpenter suggests that the famous Barons meeting took place at Bury St Edmunds, rather than on the oft quoted date of 20th November. The October date seems to fit in much better with what happened next.

The events concerning the meeting of barons at Bury St Edmunds are considerably muddied by a continuing dispute between the abbey and the king over the election of a new abbot. This post had been vacant since the death of Abbot Sampson in 1211, and the candidates in contention by this time were Robert, the Sacrist, and Hugh de Northwold. Hugh had already been selected for the post by the convent, but rejected by the King. Hugh had even travelled to France to press his case, but was again given the royal brush-off.

By 23rd October, Hugh was back in the Abbey at Bury, and he looked out all of the ancient charters supporting the right to a free election of abbot at Bury. By the 28th October he had taken these to the King in London. The Sacrist and some of his supporters had meanwhile beaten Hugh to reach the King, and by putting their case, had prevented Hugh from getting a favourable response from the King. The King saying, "You have stirred up rebellion against me from which you can expect no good result.... I do not say this with reference to you in particular but on account of certain others as well." This reference may have been to the Archbishop and Bishops who supported the Pope on the issue of free elections, and who favoured the Baronial cause. Carpenter suggests that, in fact, the King was referring to the Barons' meeting at Bury, and that he had heard about it from his supporters.

In November 1214, King John visited the Abbey of St Edmund, and this was recorded in the Electio Hugonis, a detailed chronicle probably written by a monk at the Abbey. This chronicle related to the disputed election of an abbot following Samson's death in 1211 and contains no obvious reference to a gathering of rebellious Barons.

However, the Chronicle of the Election of Hugh does contain veiled references to activities contrary to the King's interests. On 5th November, 1214, the abbey's sacrist, Robert of Graveley, attempted to denounce Hugh of Northwold's activities to the king. The 'Electio' uses these words, as translated by R M Thomson,

"My Lord King, this man assisting you and conducting himself as abbot elect, is working with might and main to deprive you of your royal crown. And unless he is quickly persuaded by the royal provision to abandon this wicked idea, it is to be feared that within a short time he will accomplish what he has already set in motion against the royal dignity."

The Sacrist was personally jealous of Hugh because he had expected to become Abbot after Samson. Nevertheless this would be an extraordinary statement to make about a fellow priest unless Hugh and the Abbey had been involved in some way in the baronial plot.

Hugh's reply to the accusation was to say:

"All cunning and falsity turned in upon itself harms its own lover dreadfully with the blows of its perverse intention. Do you not realise how many others you harm by treating one as near you as your own self with manifest falsehood? For in this you are only wounding yourself, aggravating what you are trying to prevent, just as you are right now. And know this, that over the years I have repeatedly been of more use in all the king's business and realm than you; and I have no intention of letting you get your own way today."

This denial is not exactly as full and wide ranging as one might expect if absolutely nothing at all had been going on behind the king's back. After this exchange, the King left the Abbey and town of St Edmund on his other royal business.

There is no other record of the Barons gathering at Bury St Edmunds except for a detailed account produced some years later at St Albans by another Benedictine monk.
The Bury St. Edmunds connection is related in Flores Historiarum (The Flowers of History), a chronicle written by Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), a monk in the Benedictine monastery of St. Albans. Unfortunately, Roger is regarded as a rather unreliable historian but in the words of Lord Bingham, Lord Chief Justice, speaking in 1996, "It is not easy to think of a good reason why he should have recorded this story unless he heard it from someone, and not easy to imagine how he came to hear the story if it was entirely false ... there is likely to be at least a germ of factual justification for the story."
The meeting has been attributed to St Edmund's Day, 20th November 1214, but Wendover's account reads as follows:-

blank "About this time the earls and barons of England assembled at St Edmund's as if for religious duties, although it was for some other reason; for after they had discoursed together secretly for a time, there was placed before them the charter of King Henry first, which they had received, as mentioned before, in the City of London from Stephen, Archbishop of Canterbury. This charter contained certain liberties and laws granted to the holy church as well as the nobles of the kingdom, besides some liberties which the king added of his own accord.
All therefore assembled in the church of St Edmund the king and martyr, and commencing from those of the highest rank, they all swore on the great altar that, if the king refused to grant these liberties and laws, they themselves would withdraw from their allegiance to him, and make war on him, till he should, by a charter under his own seal, confirm to them every thing they required; and firmly it was unanimously agreed that, after Christmas, they should all go together to the King and demand the confirmation of the aforesaid liberties to them, and that they should in the meantime provide themselves with horses and arms so that if the king should endeavour to depart from his oath, they might by taking his castles compel him to satisfy their demands; and having arranged this, each man returned home."

The historian R.M. Thomson considers that a great pilgrim shrine would offer the rebels a good cover for their meeting. He also observes that Wendover’s account receives some support from another contemporary source, the Chronique de l’Histoire des Ducs de Normandie, which describes a meeting of the barons before the sealing of Magna Carta although it does not say where it took place.

In the winter of 1214-1215 scribes were set to work to copy out the Coronation charters of previous English kings probably in London. They used the charter of King Henry I, the charter of King Stephen issued in 1135 and a charter of King Henry II. These were translated from Latin into Anglo-Norman, as the barons lacked a classical education. They wanted to establish the affirmation of existing rights and good practices and not to appear new or revolutionary.

1215 In January, the Barons met the king with their draft charter at the Temple, but negotiations failed. By May 1215 the Country was in a state of Civil War. The northern Barons were mostly united against the King. Elsewhere he was not so solidly opposed. On 17th May the Barons seized London giving themselves a decisive bargaining counter.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, mediated between the parties and a parley was arranged for 15th June in a meadow called Runnymede, on the banks of the Thames and 'a sort of peace' was concluded. This peace treaty meant little at the time and was not regarded as Magna Carta, the cornerstone of English liberties until the 17th Century.
Archbishop Langton worked hard to make the 63 clauses acceptable to both sides while ensuring that the Church's interests were fully safeguarded. It was a last minute amendment that made it applicable not to 'any baron' but 'any freeman'.
In August 1215, John appealed to the Pope, who denounced the Charter, annulling it by a papal bull and excommunicated the Barons who tried to press for its clauses to be carried out. The original Magna Carta was thus in force for only two months. By September, civil war had broken out again because of this.

King John's tomb in
Worcester Cathedral
1216 John marched through the eastern rebel territories. The barons even asked France for help and Prince Louis landed in England and had himself proclaimed King. John relieved his loyal town of Lincoln in September and marched on Kings Lynn. While crossing the Wellstream which flowed into the Wash, his baggage train got lost in the mists and swallowed by quicksand. His royal jewels and treasures were lost.
In October 1216, John died in Newark and was buried in Worcester Cathedral. He had caught dysentery in the Fens and died at 49 years old. He was the first king in the 150 years since 1066 to be born and buried in England.
The country was in chaos, with about two thirds of the Barons up in arms, and Louis of France claiming the throne. King John's 9 year old son, King Henry III came to the throne and ruled until 1272. In November 1216 the charter was reissued in an interim form of 42 clauses.
1217 The Charter was again modified and reissued in 1217 along with a Charter of the Forest. Roger of Wendover mistakenly attributed this version to King John and 1215.
1219 At about this time, Roger of Wendover began his history of the world in the Abbey at St Albans. He continued to write until his death in 1235, and his reports of the events surrounding Magna Carta were therefore somewhat after the event and without any first hand knowledge.

1225 The Charter was amended and issued again by Henry III and this is the final version which has become so important today, with only minor changes in 1297.
1235 Roger of Wendover died, and his work was carried on at St Albans by Matthew Paris. Paris, however, returned to Wendover's history and embellished or re-wrote it as well as carrying it on to about 1259 when he himself died.
1297 The 1225 charter was reissued with minor changes by King Edward I and became law as Chapter 25 Edward I.
Magna Carta in Modern Times

Please click here to see the continuing importance of Magna Carta in modern times, and what it came to mean worldwide and to local people.

Prepared for the St Edmundsbury website
by David Addy, August 1998

Go to Magna Carta
Last updated 11th May 2015 Go to Home Page