This is my 600th post, so I thought I ought to do something special for it. I thought about the fact that June 15 is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta–a date which is almost upon us. But October 25th is the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, which obviously ties in perfectly with it being my 600th post.
Eh, why not feature both? I’m an over-achiever anyways, and you can never have too much history.
(This is an article I originally wrote for my local SCA group’s newsletter.)
June 15, 2015 will be the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. But, while you may have heard of it, you may not know what it did or why it’s gone down in history as one of the most important documents in Western civilization.
From the time of its formation, England was unlike the other kingdoms of Europe. The Anglo-Saxons brought to Britain an idea of kingship by election or right of arms. A king was only king so long as he had the support of his people and he was answerable—at least in some way—to them. If he failed them, then another powerful leader would emerge and challenge his right to the throne. There was no idea of divine right before the coming of Christianity.
In Anglo-Saxon times, kings made promises to their people in their coronation oaths. Later, the Normans—desperate to maintain their control over the Anglo-Saxons—began writing these oaths down as charters. They spelled out and made legally binding (theoretically, anyways) the rights of the nobles, and sometimes also addressed the rights of the Church and even freemen of the realm. Rather than rule with absolute authority—as the kings of France would later do—the kings of England had to barter with their people for their power.
In 1093, William II (the Conqueror’s son) issued a deathbed charter. It’s been lost, but it’s believed that it granted pardon, forgave debts, and promised that his heir would maintain all the currently-existing laws—in short, that he would not renege on anything his father passed which was beneficial to the people. William ended up not dying, though, and it appears that he himself reneged on the charter.
Later, in 1100, his nephew, Henry I, took the throne, even though his older brother was presumably still alive (albeit on Crusade). The previous king, his eldest brother, William Rufus, had not been popular, and the barons—the most powerful nobles in the kingdom at that time—were distrustful of Henry and his motives. So Henry created the Charter of Liberties (also known as the Coronation Charter) as a peace offering. In return for their support, he guaranteed certain protections:
- The king would not take or sell any property from a Church upon the death of the abbot or bishop.
- No baron or earl would have to purchase his inheritance.
- While the barons and earls were supposed to consult with the king regarding the marriage of their kinswomen, the king was not allowed to block any “prudent” marriage. Widows were likewise to consult him regarding their remarriage, and likewise he would not block them if their choice was reasonable. The only thing he barred outright was the marrying of any of his “enemies.”
- A baroness or countess who was widowed was not to be denied her dowry. The men appointed to oversee the inheritance of minor children were not be impeded.
- Barons had a right to give away their possessions to charity, so long as they didn’t impoverish their heirs.
- If barons committed a crime, they were not allowed to buy their way out of it by paying off the crown; they had to stand trial and answer for it as legally proscribed.
- Knights who rendered military service and provided their own horses were not be required to also give grain and farm goods as a tax.
With the one exception made for the Church, all of Henry I’s guarantees were for nobles only. But it did limit the power of the king by enshrining certain rights. Rather than everything belonging to the king—to give and take at his pleasure—it allowed that at least some people (and the Church) had a legal right to their property—both real and personal; they could give it away or they could freely leave it to their heirs. They also had a right to their own bodies, as evidenced by the fact that the king could not marry the women against their will (“she [the widow] shall be allowed to remarry according to her wishes”), nor could he block a marriage unless it was beyond reasonable.
Unfortunately, the Charter of Liberties was forgotten until King John (of Robin Hood infamy) took the throne and drove a significant number of his barons to the brink of war in 1215 by excessively taxing them for a war in France which he subsequently lost. Also, like his immediate predecessors, he ruled with the idea that he was above the law and could therefore change laws arbitrarily as it suited him. This led to a lack of stability in the kingdom, since no one knew how to plan or act, since what might be legal now may be made illegal tomorrow without warning.
Runnymeade. (The monument was actually placed by the American Bar Association)
At Runnymeade, the Archbishop of Canterbury persuaded the two sides to meet and create a new charter that would avert open rebellion. However, both sides quickly reneged on their promises, the Pope (an ally of the king) revoked the charter, and a revolt happened anyways.
When King John died, his son, Henry III, was still in his minority. The regency government (under the leadership of William the Marshal) reissued the charter (minus a few of the most controversial bits) in 1216, and when peace was finally established in 1217, it officially received the name we now know: Magna Carta. In 1297, Henry’s son, Edward I (Longshanks), reissued the charter and declared it a permanent part of English statutory law.
King John is forced to sign Magna Carta
After Parliament was established and began to issue laws, Magna Carta gradually lost its legal relevancy, although it gained a near-mythic status. When James I and Charles I, in the seventeenth century, tried to claim an absolute monarchy, such as the kings in France had, Magna Carta became a rallying cry for everyone who wanted to keep the power of the king in check. When Charles I refused to accept any limits on his sovereignty, he was executed. The monarchy was restored after the Commonwealth period, but all subsequent kings ruled with the knowledge that they were only there by the will of the people, and the people could withdraw their support if the king didn’t hold up his end of the social contract.
The idea of a government that was limited and that guaranteed certain rights to its citizens was the spark that began the fire of the American Revolution and subsequently generated the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. That is why a copy of one of the Edward I versions of the Magna Carta is housed in our capital alongside our other important documents. Although nowhere near the scope of our own founding documents, it certainly was the seed for all of them.
A Selection of Magna Carta Guarantees and Regulations
- Guaranteed the freedom of the Church
- Forbade the exploitation of a ward’s property by his guardian
- Forbade guardians from marrying a ward to a partner of lower social standing
- Guaranteed the rights of a widow to promptly receive her dowry and inheritance.
- Forbade the forced remarriage of widows (also renewed the right of the king to forbid the remarriage of baronesses, within reason)
- Protected debtors from having their lands seized, so long as they had other means with which to repay their debt
- Prohibited lords from levying an “aid” (a one-time tax levied solely for the benefit of the lord) on their freemen, except to ransom themselves, pay for their oldest son to be knighted, or pay for their oldest daughter’s wedding.
- Established a permanent location for the kingdom’s court of law (instead of having court wherever the king wished it)
- Defined the authority and frequency of county courts.
- Set standard measurements for wine, ale, grains, and cloth
- Forbade the trial of anyone based solely on the word of a royal official
- Forbade the sale of justice, its denial, or its delay
- Guaranteed the safety and right of free entry and exit to foreign merchants
- Permitted freemen the right to leave England for short periods of time (wartime being excepted)
- Encouraged the lower lords to adhere to the same laws as the king
And compare our Constitutional Amendments with these from Magna Carta:
Articles 28, 30, 31: No constable or other royal official shall take corn or other movable goods from any man without immediate payment, unless the seller voluntarily offers postponement of this. No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall take horses or carts for transport from any free man, without his consent. Neither we nor any royal official will take wood for our castle, or for any other purpose, without the consent of the owner.
Amendment 3 and 5: No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law. …[N]or shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Article 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 way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.
Amendment 6: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
Article 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 villein 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.
Amendment 8: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
As part of the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, all four remaining copies of the original 1215 version will be on display at the British Museum this year.
Agincourt is the battle which features in Shakespeare’s Henry V.
When Henry V came to the English throne, he made a claim to the French throne as well–as most of his predecessors had done. And, like his predecessors, he was willing to waive his claim to the throne in exchange for money, recognition that English holdings in France were indeed English, and, in his case, a marriage contract with Princess Catherine (which included a hefty dowry). But when the French countered with a marriage contract at half the amount of dowry asked for, no payment of gold, and no recognition of any English lands beside the Aquitaine, Henry was insulted and his Council and Parliament granted his request to declare war against the French.
In the middle ages, wars were almost exclusively waged in the summer when the weather allowed armies to move, food was readily available, and there was little for men to do on their farms. Campaigns generally ended in the fall when it was time to allow the men to go back to their land to get in their harvests. But Henry’s campaign into France didn’t start until rather late in the summer–August–and it began by besieging the port city of Harfleur. The city held for a little over a month, and by the time the English army had come to terms with the city and broke camp, it was October 8. But Henry couldn’t be sure that Parliament would grant him war taxes again the following year for another campaign–especially as taking only one city was hardly the sort of stuff to inspire people to endure another year of war and taxes. So instead of returning home, he headed towards Calais, seeking a richer prize before winter.
But the siege had created disease in his army (as sieges often did, mainly due to poor sanitation), and his army–which had never been terribly large–lost a lot of men along the way to dysentery, poor rations, and the hard marching conditions in increasingly bad weather. In fact, many of the men were so plagued by “the runs,” they stopped wearing underwear and rolled their hosen down to their knees or ankles so that they could squat on the side of the road and go without impediment.
Henry’s army had only 6,000-9,000 men when they were stopped by 12,000-36,000 French soldiers in a narrow strip of farmland between two forests and the road to Calais. There was nowhere for the English to go and there were even more French troops on the way. There was nothing for them to do but fight.
But, while it initially looked like the French had bottled up the English–giving them no choice but to stand and fight while still weak–the terrain actually worked in favor of the English, because–like the Spartans holding Thermopylae–the great numbers of French troops were funneled into a relatively small front, keeping them from outflanking the English army and negating their superior numbers.
Also, Henry’s army was made up primarily of longbowmen–anywhere from 3/4ths to 4/5ths of the soldiers were archers. The French were forced to come at the English while under constant arrowfire. The average English archer was capable of shooting up to 10 rounds per minute. Imagine, if you will, some 48,000 arrows flying through the air every minute, and you will understand why medieval witnesses to such battles said that the sky was darkened by arrows.
The French sent in their cavalry (as in most medieval battles, the bulk of the French knights fought on foot, so the cavalry was just a small portion of their army), but they found the English archers were well-protected behind a wall of sharpened stakes, which kept the knights from mowing down the lightly-armored archers. The French horses, however, were also lightly armored, and it was they who took the brunt of the archerfire. Wounded, the horses panicked, and the ones who didn’t go down, taking their riders with them, bolted back towards the French lines, where, instead, they mowed down their own troops as the first line of French infantry were moving up.
The horses also tore up the ground–which had been plowed post-harvest–and made even muddier by heavy fall rains. The French infantry found themselves trying to slog through mud said to have been knee-deep in places–all while under a constant rain of arrows. Then, to compound matters even worse, additional French foot soldiers were sent in too soon behind the first wave. The first men, slowed by the mud and their own dead and wounded, were soon joined by even more men trying to walk through even worse mud and even more dead and wounded. The press of the living and the dead slowed them up even more and sapped them of their strength. The heavily-armored French knights began to literally drown under the weight of their own armor as they were knocked down or struck by an arrow and found they were not able to get out of the mud under their own power. Contemporary French chroniclers said that there were knights who drowned in their own helmets because they became stuck, face-down, in the mud.
Those who survived the 300 yard death march found themselves in a meat grinder–engaging the English men-at-arms at the center of the English lines while the longbowmen on the edges of the line continued to fire at their flanks at near point-blank range. At such a short distance, the arrows were able to pierce all but the hardest and thickest pieces of armor (typically the helmet and breastplate), making the armor all but useless.
When the English archers ran out of arrows, they switched to their side swords, axes, maces, etc. hand weapons, and pushed in to the fray. Their light armor made it easier for them to cross the muddy fields and the French were so exhausted by this point, it was easy for the archers to hack down the flower of French chivalry.
The battle lasted approximately three hours. In that time, it is estimated that 7,000-10,000 French soldiers were killed while only 112 Englishmen were said to have died. And a portion of those dead were the members of the baggage train, who were attacked by a small French unit which managed to get behind the English army.