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This is where it could have begun – but did it? Women and The Magna Carta A Treaty For Control or Freedom

 

 

9781137562340.inddJocelynne A. Scutt

 

 

 

Excerpts from the Introduction and Chapter 1 Women and The Magna Carta : A Treaty  for Control or Freedom

Part 1

Magna Carta Initiated

Magna Carta is generally seen as a statement of rights. A treaty between king and barons, its provisions are often claimed to extend rights and freedoms to ‘ordinary’ British subjects. In 1215 when it was signed at Runnymede the barons had no concept of ‘equal rights for all’; there was no desire to include the masses. The barons’ intentions were twofold. Magna Carta was designed to curb King John’s excesses toward them and theirs: amongst others, clauses limited his power to extract taxes and other emoluments, reduced his prerogative to determine when and whom wards and widows might marry, and denied his right to control absolutely the royal rivers and forests. Equally or even more significantly, the treaty established a council of twenty-five, chosen by and from the barons, to ensure the king’s compliance. The Council of Barons would ‘with all their might … observe, maintain and cause to be observed’ the ‘peace and liberties’ confirmed and granted by Magna Carta, whilst ‘anyone in the realm’ could ‘take an oath to obey the orders of the twenty-five barons’ in enforcing it.

Thus, at its heart, Magna Carta meant that no longer would the monarch exercise independent and complete power over the kingdom. Rather, King John (and, as intended, his successors) would be obliged not only to comply with its provisions, but to follow the barons’ interpretation of them, submitting to their final ‘say’ on whether or not he strayed or disobeyed.

It was not as if kings had never signed ‘agreements’ with nobles before. John’s father, Henry II, did so. Yet there was no suggestion that King Henry ruled at their behest. As it was, John was never expected to rule. Of the eight children Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine produced, William died early, leaving next-in-line Henry as heir. When he died just short of thirty, Matilda, being a woman, was automatically ‘out’. Next, Geoffrey died, so in 1189 upon Henry II’s demise, Richard succeeded him. Ten years on, Richard’s unexpected death meant John reigned.

‘John the Tyrant’ generated such unrest, bitterness and resentment, that barons rebelled. Albeit successful in securing his signature to Magna Carta, they were wary of his readiness to comply. Nor, indeed, should a king be a law unto himself. Fifteen years of his rule had precipitated them into thoughts of shared control. Thoughts transformed into action. Hence, their insistence that twenty-five would serve as a permanent imperial ‘directorate’. All twenty-five were men.

In Magna Carta, not a single woman’s name appears. Women are mentioned, but through their relationships with men, as with heiresses, wards or widows and the Scots’ king’s daughters – John’s hostages. Women were classed according to sexual status. In Medieval Women … Henrietta Leyser observes that men could be considered collectively ‘as knights, merchants, crusaders’. Women were ‘virgins, wives or widows [and] mothers’.[i] None was an archbishop, bishop, abbot, earl, baron, justice, forester, sheriff, reeve, minister, bailiff or ‘faithful man’. Although, as Louise Wilkinson observes in Women as Sheriffs …, on 18 October 2016 John appointed a woman, Lady Nicholaa de la Haye (b. circa 1169-1230) as joint sheriff (with a man) of Lincolnshire and ‘worthy … of God’s protection “in body and soul”’, [ii] she played no part in Magna Carta. Nor did any other woman.

 

[i]  Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women – A Social History of Women in England 450-1500, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, UK, 1995, p. 93.

[ii] Louise Wilkinson, ‘Lady Nicholaa de la Haye (b. before 1169 – d. 1230)’, Magna Carta – Foundation of Liberty, http://magnacarta800th.com/schools/biographies/women-of-magna-carta/lady-nicholaa-de-la-haye/ (accessed 2 July 2015);  LJ Wilkinson, ‘Women as Sheriffs in Early Thirteenth-Century England’ in Adrian Jobson (ed.), English Government in the Thirteenth Century, Boydell and Brewer, London, UK, 2004, pp. 111-24.

[i]  Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women – A Social History of Women in England 450-1500, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, UK, 1995, p. 93.

[ii] Louise Wilkinson, ‘Lady Nicholaa de la Haye (b. before 1169 – d. 1230)’, Magna Carta – Foundation of Liberty, http://magnacarta800th.com/schools/biographies/women-of-magna-carta/lady-nicholaa-de-la-haye/ (accessed 2 July 2015);  LJ Wilkinson, ‘Women as Sheriffs in Early Thirteenth-Century England’ in Adrian Jobson (ed.), English Government in the Thirteenth Century, Boydell and Brewer, London, UK, 2004, pp. 111-24.

Women and the Magna Carta A Treaty for Rights or Wrongs  is available in eBook forma as well as  on Amazon and at book shops.

Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer, writer and commentator.

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