How Essex influenced the Magna Carta


EXG JUN 15 MAGNA - Credit: Archant

As Britain prepares to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, Adam Jones from Visit Essex looks at the key role Essex played in this pivotal moment of English history and the landmarks that survive today

Reluctantly pressing his great seal into the molten wax on June 15, 1215, you can imagine King John looking into the eyes of the 25 barons surrounding him, with a mixture of utter contempt and complete bafflement. After all, how could he, a king anointed by God, be made to sign-up to the terms forced upon him by his social inferiors?

Essex, that’s how. Admittedly, this is a somewhat bold statement — rather like saying John was a smashing chap who just happened to be rather misunderstood — but four of those barons present at Runnymede were from Essex.

Only Yorkshire could claim to wield a greater numerical influence, with five nobles, but it was Robert FitzWalter, from Little Dunmow, who led the rebellious barons. Indeed, in letters he wrote at the time, Robert styled himself as the ‘Marshal of the Army of God’. He was supported by Robert DeVere from Hedingham, Geoffrey De Mandeville of Pleshey and Richard De Montfitchet, whose family gave its name to Stansted Mountfitchet. Together, these four formed part of what was the most influential bloc of the rebel alliance — the Anglian barons — so it could be said that Essex played the lead role in shaping what we still refer to with its original Latin name, Magna Carta.

Today, a faithful recreation of a Norman wooden motte and bailey defensive structure is a popular visitor attraction on the site of Richard’s original castle. The grounds also feature a Norman village that vividly brings to life the sights, sounds and smells of the Middle Ages. You can still see some remains of the original 12th Century castle as you explore the 10-acre site.

The magnificent keep that forms Hedingham Castle dates back to 1140 and would still be familiar to Robert DeVere if he was alive today. Hedingham was built by Aubrey De Vere II, whose father had fought alongside William the Conqueror during the Norman invasion of 1066. Down the years, the De Vere’s would forge a reputation for loyalty to their king and fierceness in battle. Consequently, scions of the dynasty would be lauded for their exploits alongside Richard the Lionheart during the Crusades and with the Black Prince at Crecy and Poitiers. The 11th Earl led forces at Agincourt and the family was later embroiled in the War of the Roses, fought under Henry VIII in the Battle of the Spurs and was with him at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

To commemorate the anniversary of Magna Carta and the close involvement of Robert de Vere, Hedingham Castle will stage a spectacular day full of history, rebellion and battles.

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Featuring knights on horseback, close-quarter fighting and even excommunications, there will also be a medieval camp site giving an insight into the lives of ordinary people, traders and craftsmen. Visitors will also be able to transport their tastebuds back in time with food stalls galore selling all manner of delicious victuals and provender. The event also promises guided tours of the keep, while Riotous Assembly will provide a musical documentary to add to the experience.

In the south of the county, the romantic ruins of Hadleigh Castle, just outside Leigh on Sea, also have a direct link to ‘Bad’ King John. In 1215 he gave the area of land, known as the manor of Hadleigh, to Hubert de Burgh, his chief minister or justiciar.

Hubert was a trusted follower of the king and was the custodian of two important royal castles at Windsor and Dover. At Dover he was soon to prove his great military skill by successfully defending the castle during a fierce siege in 1216.

Effectively ruler of England during young Henry III’s childhood, Hubert built this large turreted castle as a statement of his power. However, his successful career came to an end after quarrels with the king and he was forced to return his lands, including Hadleigh, in 1239. After that, the castle remained in royal hands, but it was not until the time of Edward II, nearly 100 years later, that Hadleigh Castle was more formally used as a royal residence.

Sadly, all that remains of Pleshey Castle today are the substantial earthworks. However, it does appear in Shakespeare’s Richard II. In the play, Thomas of Woodstock’s widow asks for a visit from Edmund of York: ‘Bid him — O, what? With all good speed at Plashy [sic] visit me. Alack, and what shall good old York there see, But empty lodgings and unfurnished walls, Unpeopled offices, untrodden stones?’

Geoffery De Mandeville held the title of Earl of Essex and, as such, was an important landowner and Robert FitzWalter’s son-in-law. The pair was evidently close, as a murder trial proved. Geoffrey was charged with killing a servant at court in a dispute over lodgings. When John threatened to hang him for his crime, FitzWalter arrived with 200 knights and forced the King to back down.

When the great charter had been signed, the barons duly carved up the kingdom among themselves and Geoffrey was given the stewardship of Essex. A year later, he was dead, killed during a tournament in London by a visiting French knight and is buried in Aldgate.

Robert FitzWalter is surely the most enigmatic of the Essex barons. Having inherited a substantial barony of more than 66 knights’ fees from his father, he increased this by another 32 when he married Gunnora, the daughter of the Duc de Valognes, making him one of the most powerful men in England.

The foundations of his quarrel with John lay in the mysterious, bloodless surrender of Vaudreuil castle in Normandy to France’s King Philip in 1203. Vaudreuil was owned by the English king but commanded by FitzWalter and another future member of the 25 barons, Saer De Quincy.

In 1212, FitzWalter was accused of plotting to kill the King and he duly fled to France. The root of this claim is mired in uncertainty. One story suggests that John had attempted to seduce Robert’s daughter, Matilda — Geoffrey De Mandeville’s wife — prompting his murderous ire. Although he was briefly reconciled with John in 1213 and returned to his lands, their fractious relationship continued.

Robert attended the barons’ meeting at Bury St Edmunds, where they swore to compel the King to confirm the coronation charter of Henry I. In January 2015, Robert was again one of those present at a meeting with John, in which they aired their increasing grievances. In April, dissatisfied with John’s inaction, FitzWalter renounced his oath of allegiance to the King and in May was chosen by the rebels as their leader. On June 19 he was named first among the barons with whom John made a treaty declaring that, unless he violated the charter, London would be yielded to him by August 15.

When John eventually rejected the terms of Magna Carta, it was FitzWalter who stood fast and carried the fight to the king. The chronicler Matthew Paris, wrote on Robert’s death in 1235: ‘He could match any earl in England: valiant in arms, spirited and illustrious… generous, surrounded by a multitude of powerful blood relatives and strengthened by numerous relatives in marriage.’

He was buried in front of the high altar of Dunmow Priory and you can visit the church today, albeit in a much reduced form, as all bar the Lady Chapel was razed to the ground during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

One of Britain’s pre-eminent academics on medieval history, Professor Nigel Saul, agrees that Essex can lay claim to having the greatest influence on Magna Carta. Just as today, where it boasts a greater GDP than that of Belgium, Essex in the 13th Century was a financial powerhouse. The four barons; FitzWalter, DeVere, De Mandeville and De Montfichet, all held lands elsewhere, but chose to base themselves principally in Essex. Professor Saul confirms: ‘Essex was the heartland of the opposition to King John. The lords at the forefront of the 25 were indeed from the north and east of England but Essex had the most extraordinary concentration of power and influence.’

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