Was Maid Marion an Essex girl?
- Credit: Archant
Steven Russell hears about the part Essex played in Magna Carta
Life wasn’t great in the English countryside 800 years ago if you’d been born on the wrong side of the tracks. Ninety percent of the very rural population lived and worked on land owned by the other 10%, says a new book looking back at an explosive time. “Some, on small tenanted farms, scraped a living from their crops plus the few animals they kept. For most it was at best a meagre subsistence…” explain Andrew Summers and John Debenham in Magna Carta in Essex.
To make matters worse, King John was uppity. Keen on laying claim to lands in France, he put the squeeze on the English barons to fund his adventures. They in turn tightened the metaphorical screws on those further down the food chain.
“New burdens fell upon tenant farmers and their dependants,” write Andrew and John. “There had been a steep rise in inflation in the early years of John’s reign, which apart from significantly raising prices had also led to a new class of professional revenue collectors who were often only paid by results.”
Many mercenaries who had backed the king’s failed land-grabs found themselves as tax collectors, with teeth and without much mercy.
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“As a consequence, in the space of a few years John had managed to transform the norms of government from reluctant acceptance into a resented and hated tyranny.
“No-one ever liked paying taxes and royal officers were always viewed with a degree of suspicion and fear, but this new band of heavy-handed foreign enforcers united the peasantry, landowners and nobility in opposition as never before.”
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Then we have this confusing business of forests, with their own laws. Eight centuries ago, almost all of Essex was designated “forest”, apparently. “The origin of the word forest comes from the Latin, forestis, meaning outside. Forest then did not simply mean an area of densely wooded oak and beech, picturesque glades and clearings... The medieval ‘forest’ was an area of unenclosed countryside.
“Forest land could be wooded, part agricultural with meadows, or just plain heath or scrub land, and could even include towns and villages.
“Perhaps more sinister, it was an area where ‘Forest Laws’ applied. These were laws separate and distinct from those of the central administration and outside the common law, and where the monarch’s word was arbitrary and final. All who lived and worked in the forest were subject to the ‘Forest Laws’, which were superior to all other courts of the land.” The concept had developed since Norman times. “Forest resources and the zealous application of ‘Forest Law’ was one of the most profitable ways to raise money for the crown... Everybody was subject to a complex set of regulations, implemented by royal officials who were answerable only to the king... The king could designate which areas of the country could be forest on a whim and extend them at will.”
This spread “absorbed neighbouring manors on an arbitrary basis. Lords of manors within the forest were not allowed to convert their land from pasture into arable, nor could they cut down their woods, or put up fencing or make any enclosures to prevent forest animals or vermin eating crops. Fencing interfered with the royal huntsmen’s rights to chase their prey freely in the forest and they thought little of riding roughshod over cultivated gardens.”
The severity of the forest laws and the intolerable hardships, “united lords and forest dwellers as never before in opposition to the king”, say Andrew and John. And there, at the front of the queue, were five Essex barons.
The confrontation that had been brewing came to a head in 1215 when King John refused to agree to rebel barons’ demands to confirm a charter issued by Henry I more than a century earlier. This had pledged to “abolish all the evil customs by which the kingdom of England has been unjustly oppressed” ? a clause that would have nicely shackled John. In theory.
But he refused. In the May, a number of barons withdrew their allegiance, appointed Robert Fitzwalter, Lord of Dunmow (also known as fitz Walter) to lead them, and took London. The monarch knew the game was up. For the moment. He had talks at Runnymede, near Windsor, and on or about June 15 granted the Charter of Liberties, which later became known as Magna Carta, or The Great Charter. It established the principle that everyone, from king to pauper, had to obey the law. There were 63 clauses ? most there to rein in King John, but others more timeless, such as the right of free men to a fair trial. Although substantial amounts were cut out or redrafted before a decade was up, historians say this epic moment is still a cornerstone of our constitutional make-up.
The other four Essex figures who helped tame the king were Richard de Montfitchet, Sheriff of Essex; Geoffrey de Mandeville of Pleshey; William de Lanvallei, the Governor of Colchester Castle, and Robert de Vere of Castle Hedingham.
Of course, John, being a slippery customer with a taste for power and other people’s money, failed to keep his word. “Shortly after the Magna Carta was sealed, King John reneged on it, supported by the pope who not only annulled it but excommunicated the twenty-five barons,” say Andrew and John.
“King John now felt he was no longer the absolute king in England. His status had been relegated to that of just another overlord like the 25 barons. This was unacceptable for a medieval monarch.”
Less than three months after the council at Runnymede, Magna Carta was effectively dead.
The book charts the events that followed the start of the First Barons’ War.
To cut a long story short, the king and his forces travelled as far as Scotland. “He laid waste to all before him in a reign of terror wherever he encountered resistance...”
Early in 1216 he began moving south, and by spring was heading for Suffolk, “determined to bring those East Anglian castles which were still in rebel hands to heel. Framlingham Castle was the first objective. It was held by the Bigod family, major East Anglian landowners. Both Roger Bigod, 2nd Earl of Norfolk, and his son and heir Hugh were among the 25 council of barons opposing the king.” Roger, hearing the king was on his way, left for London, with some of his treasure. He left his constable, William Lenveise, in charge of the castle, with just 50 men.
When the king’s envoys arrived to negotiate, Lenveise weighed up the odds and agreed to surrender.
After this easy victory, the royal forces headed for Colchester Castle. That was taken. “King John’s next move was to seize Castle Hedingham, less than a days’ ride from Colchester and home of Robert de Vere, another rebel baron on the council of 25.”
The 3rd Earl of Oxford had many grievances against King John, including having to pay large inheritance fees.
“Despite its sturdy outwards appearance, Castle Hedingham could not have withstood a determined siege. There was no moat and, with the main keep standing on dry land, the structure could easily be undermined.” The army arrived on March 25, de Vere came out to talk, “parley”, with the king, and three days later the castle was in the monarch’s hands. Robert de Vere had to swear allegiance to escape with his life. (Five years later he’d get his castle and lands back, from Henry III.)
“This phase of the war came to an end. The king’s winter and spring campaigns so far had seen the restoration of royal authority over most of the castles of the rebels in England and especially those of the East Anglian barons.”
In the summer, though, Prince Louis’s vast French forces landed in Kent. The king fled to Winchester; Louis took Sandwich and Canterbury. “At Rochester many of the rebel barons, including Robert Fitzwalter, Robert de Vere, William de Mandeville and Hugh Bigod, came to pay homage to the man they hoped would be their new king.”
John later that year curved round to East Anglia, in a campaign “wide ranging, energetic and noted for its brutality... During late September and early October the king’s forces rampaged through Bedford, Cambridge, Peterborough, Lincoln and as far north as Boston and Grimsby.”
In October he left King’s Lynn, “and took a short cut at low tide across the five miles wide River Nene estuary, where it empties into the Wash”, says the book.
“During the crossing the heavy baggage train became bogged down. Despite desperate efforts to pull the pack animals and carts free, nearly all of the king’s household goods, as well as the crown jewels, were lost as the rising tide engulfed them.”
John, already seriously ill, “struggled on in great agony to arrive at Newark castle on the 18th October. On the 19th October King John was dead”.
In late 1217, a new document was issued. The Charter of the Forest gave some rights and protections to “the ‘common people’ from the abuses inflicted on them by their feudal overlords or royal officials”. It “resulted in numerous tracts of Essex forest lands being returned to their ancestral owners and a process of disafforestation throughout the county was begun”.
Then, in February, 1218, the term Magna Carta appeared in a royal proclamation for the first time ? dealing mainly with the rights of barons. Andrew and John don’t see it as unrestrained celebration, though. “...despite two years of warfare and fine new charters being issued, it is debatable how much the lot of the ‘common man’ improved. Most were still tied to their feudal overlord with no realistic means of escape... Whilst the Charter of the Forest imposed some curbs on royalty within the forest, it gave the barons an unprecedented degree of freedom to do as they wished with the forest under their control. Over time the fate of the forest would prove to be determined not by the pleasures of a privileged few but by hard commercial interests.
“The forest was no longer a rich man’s playground or a means of survival for the poor. It was a resource to be exploited and from which to make money.” They argue: “Today the once-great forest of Essex has all but disappeared. From 1215 onwards the forest was gradually squeezed and pushed into the south and the south western corner of the county. Epping Forest is the nucleus which remains.”
n Magna Carta in Essex is from Essex Hundred Publications at £7.99. www.essex100.com
It was from the chaos and banditry of the time just before John became king, or during his early reign, that the legend of Robin Hood was born, says the book.
“There is a legend that Maid Marion was the daughter of the leader of the Magna Carta barons, Robert Fitzwalter (the Lord of Dunmow).
“Matthew Paris, in the 13th century, wrote in his diary: ‘FitzWalter had a daughter, Matilda the Fair, called ‘Maid Marion,’ said to have been poisoned by King John’.
“The legend has it that Matilda (Marion) married Robin Earl of Huntingdon (Robin Hood) after rejecting the advances of King John. John, not one to accept rejection, allegedly poisoned Matilda by sending her a poisoned bracelet which killed her.
“Marion, or Matilda, is buried in the Priory Church in Little Dunmow in Essex.”
THE REBEL ESSEX BARONS WHO STOOD FIRM:
Robert Fitzwalter: Lord of Dunmow, leader of the council of 25 and self-proclaimed Marshal of the Army of God and the Holy Church. He witnessed the confirmation of the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest in 1225. Died in December, 1235, aged about 55. Buried at Dunmow Priory.
Richard Montfitchet: Also witnessed Henry III’s reissue of the Magna Carta in 1225. Had been captured after the rebel defeat at Lincoln. After Prince Louis left England, Montfitchet swore loyalty to King Henry and got back his lands and rights, including his ancestral claims to Essex forest. Was over 70 when he died in 1267.
William de Lanvallei III: Lord of Walkern in Hertfordshire and hereditary Constable of Colchester Castle. Got back most of his titles and lands, but not Colchester Castle, after his “return to obedience”. During the barons’ war, the castle changed hands five times. “It was never captured as a result of an armed siege. All handovers were achieved by parleys (negotiations),” says the book. William died in 1217, aged 25.
Robert de Vere: the 3rd Earl of Oxford. Castle Hedingham had been the baronial seat of the de Vere family since the Norman Conquest. Robert stayed loyal to the cause of Prince Louis until the end. He then regained his castle and lands by swearing allegiance to Henry III in November 1217. He died in 1221.
Geoffrey de Mandeville: 2nd Earl of Essex. Inherited Pleshey Castle. “Geoffrey was the only rebel baron to meet an untimely end, in February 1216, and eighteen months before hostilities ceased. He was accidentally killed in a tournament by one of his allies...”
Men of Essex:
Andrew Summers was born a Cockney ? just! ? and has lived in the south of Essex for 25 years. He’s bought books, sold books, exported them, printed them, written them and published them.
John Debenham was born in Romford. After retiring from engineering he did a history degree and then an MA in intellectual history, studying civilisation and barbarism!