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.
Magna Carta (Essex)