Magna Carta in Essex
In 1215 all of Essex was designated ‘forest’. Forest could be wooded or agricultural land or just plain heath or scrub and could even include towns and villages. It was where ‘Forest Law’ applied to all who lived and worked there. The forest had separate courts in which the monarch’s word was arbitrary, final and brutally applied.
The Magna Carta’s (or Great Charter’s) most famous clause included the words:- No free man shall be seized or imprisoned……except by the lawful judgment of his equals. This was ranked number 39 of the 63 clauses.
Yet the agreement at Runnymede, on June 15th, between England’s most powerful barons and King John made little difference to the ordinary people of Essex. Most men (and women) were not ‘free’ but serfs or tied labour bound to their feudal overlords.
Five Essex Barons were among those who pushed hard for the Magna Carta. Robert Fitzwalter, Lord of Dunmow, was their leader and he was joined by 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. These barons were then joined by twenty others to oversee the enforcement of the charter.
Yet, within three months England was at war. The charter was effectively dead. Essex was racked by conflict. Hedingham, Pleshey and Colchester castles were seized by King John’s forces. Stansted Mountfitchet Castle was completely destroyed and later Colchester Castle was retaken by the rebels and ransacked.
King John possessed a number of hunting lodges (small royal palaces) in Essex. There was one in the north of Writtle where the Agricultural College is now. The lodge comprised a series of buildings enclosed by a moat. Two other lodges (now long gone) were built in the south of the county in Benfleet. Nowadays the King John School is in the same vicinity although its construction didn’t begin until 1938. Perhaps more curious is Runnymede Chase, beside the Castle Point Borough Council Offices, and Runnymede Hall and Runnymede Swimming Pool behind it. The hall wasn’t officially opened until December 1965. There are Runnymede Roads on Canvey Island and in Stanford-le-Hope as well.
We shouldn’t forget two other Essex connections. Ralph the Abbot of Coggeshall, was one of the great chroniclers of the day. His writings are one of the most important primary sources of information for the events at Runnymede and the later death of King John in 1216, the catalyst for bringing the Magna Carta back to life. It should be noted that Richard de Montfitchet actually owned the land at Runnymede where the Magna Carta was sealed.
Whilst the Magna Carta was written down 800 years ago, England (and its successor the United Kingdom) still has no written constitution or singular bill of rights.
Magna Carta in Essex
© Essex Hundred PublicationsFrom Leyton in Metropolitan Essex to rural Woodham Walter to Bocking and from Braintree to Harlow to Saffron Walden, we highlight Essex connections and tragedy.