Monday, June 15, 2015

Medieval Women & Magna Carta

by Lauren Johnson

On 15 June 1215, Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede. Bad King John – slayer of teenage nephews, executer of hostages and military embarrassment – was forced to recognize that even a king was beneath the law. Of course, he only recognized that fact temporarily, and within ten weeks the treaty of peace (or ‘charter of liberties’ as we now remember it) was metaphorically torn up and civil war broke out between John and his barons.

One of the two Magna Cartas in the British Library:
Cotton MS Augustus ii.106
We all know this story. Eight hundred years of myth-making and, latterly, myth-busting have examined the document and what it meant. Most recently, a brilliant exhibition at the British Libraryin London explored the making, breaking and transformation of this totemic text. The exhibition is almost exhaustively rich, but my abiding feeling on leaving was ‘what about all the women?'

Because frequently forgotten in our narrative of Magna Carta is the half of the population who were not at Runnymede. We don’t know of any queens, abbesses, female barons or labourers being in attendance – there were certainly no female serfs pleading their cause, since the men and women bonded to their master were explicitly excluded from Magna Carta. But in 1215, in an England of roughly 3.5 million subjects, at least 1.75 million of them were female.[1] And many of them had equivalent influence and authority – were treated with similar respect – to their male counterparts.

This absence of women from our narrative of Magna Carta is particularly surprising since women appear right near the top of the charter – in a 63-clause document, the rights of widows are mentioned seventh and eighth on the list.
(7) At her husband's death, a widow may have her marriage portion and inheritance at once and without trouble. She shall pay nothing for [them]... She may remain in her husband's house for forty days after his death...
(8) No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband...

Widows were the most powerful female figures in contemporary life, pursuing their inheritances through law courts and administering their estates independently. They were also among those who had suffered most as a result of the extortion of John’s family, with some being repeatedly forced into unwelcome marriages or paying enormous sums of money to escape them. John’s father Henry II had a list compiled of all the wards and widows in the king’s gift, recording royal rights over land – and conveniently calculating which widows might make the richest gifts to royal friends. Despite earlier promises that widows would be free to marry as they wanted (as long as they didn’t choose to marry the king’s enemies), throughout the twelfth century wealthy widows were forced into unwanted unions. John’s brother King Richard the Lionheart (the famed flower of chivalry) forcibly remarried the widow Hawise of Aumale (d.1213/4) twice. When she refused the first match he made for her, he seized her chattels and threatened to sell them until she gave in. The only way out of this system was for a widow to pay a fine to remain single. In 1212, Hawise did exactly that, paying a staggering 5,000 marks for the privilege of the single state. She was one of 149 widows who paid to remain single or marry whom they chose in John’s reign alone.

John's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, with the tombs 
of her son Richard and daughter-in-law Berengaria. 
Casts of the originals, at London's V&A Museum.
The inclusion of these clauses protecting widows’ rights in Magna Carta suggest that this simply cannot have been a document created without any female influence. Men – even medieval men – were still sons, fathers, brothers and husbands. Even if their interests were self-serving, they would still be concerned about the king’s treatment of their female kin.

It has been claimed that Robert Fitzwalter, self-appointed ‘Marshall of the Army of God’ and leader of the rebels, was finally roused to action against the king because of an attempted – and unwanted – seduction of Fitzwalter’s daughter Maud. One version of events has John locking Maud in the Tower of London and killing her with a poisoned egg. Fitzwalter’s wrath at John certainly seems to have exceeded that of his baronial allies. In 1212, he was implicated in a plot to have the king assassinated.

The Tower of London

In fact, when John learnt of the assassination plot against him, it was a woman who warned him: John’s illegitimate daughter Joan sent him a message at Nottingham Castle. In her capacity as wife of the great Prince Llewelyn ap Iorweth, Joan also acted as mediator between John and the rebellious Welsh lords – an intercessory role that was consistently expected of high-ranking women, but is frequently overlooked in reports of medieval warfare and politics.

Robert Fitzwalter’s ally among the rebels – and widower of the possibly-poisoned Maud – was Geoffrey de Mandeville, who in 1214 had had a similar fate imposed on him as Hawise of Aumale. He was forced into marriage. His bride was Isabella of Gloucester
, not only an heiress to extensive estates in her own right but also John’s ex-wife. For the privilege of marrying Isabella, Geoffrey was forced to hand over an eye-watering 20,000 marks – in modern terms, millions – in a maliciously short period of time. When he briefly failed to keep up payments, John seized Isabella’s lands until the account was balanced. Hardly surprising that Isabella joined Geoffrey in rebellion against her royal ex.

But not all of John’s female subjects had poor relations with him. Nicola de la Haye
, castellan of Lincoln Castle, remained loyal to John through thick and thin. When John rebelled against his brother King Richard in 1191, Nicola held Lincoln Castle for him against royal forces – she endured forty days of siege. In the civil wars that followed John’s renunciation of Magna Carta, she again proved her worth and despite being in her fifties or sixties once more defended her castle from the enemies of John’s cause (by then, his nine-year-old son had inherited the throne). As a reward for her consistent loyalty, John named Nicola Sheriff of Lincoln.

When writing The Arrow of Sherwood
, I was influenced by these real-life medieval women with authority and influence. In fact, the links between real-life Plantagenet figures and characters in the Robin Hood myth have often been asserted: the unfortunate Maud Fitzwalter has sometimes been cited as the original Maid Marion (with a minor name change); Nicola de la Haye’s co-sheriff in Lincoln was the once-Sheriff of Nottingham and despised royal tax-collector, Philip Mark.

My own Sheriff and Marian are inventions connected with the local Peverill family, but in giving Marian a front-row seat at the Siege of Nottingham in 1194, and in creating the powerful Abbess of Newstead – as much a political player as any of her local lords – I was following contemporary example.

The frustrations and necessary subterfuges of Marian and the Abbess were also influenced by the real medieval world. Because even wealthy, influential women did not benefit as much from Magna Carta as we might hope. The most famous clauses of the charter, which are still on the statute book in the UK today, concern the right of every ‘free man’ to justice:

(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 other way… except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

The lawful judgement of equals did not mean much for women, since they had almost no permitted role in contemporary lawmaking. They were not part of the frankpledge system of self-government, they did not act on juries of any sort and they could not be royal justices. Even the ability of women to appeal to law as plaintiffs was limited by Magna Carta – according to clause 54, no one could now be ‘arrested or imprisoned through the appeal (accusation) of a woman for the death of anyone other than her husband’.

So what did Magna Carta mean for women? Perhaps exactly what it meant for most people in the country. The unfree got nothing, the free but poor had their rights limited, and some of the wealthy benefited. But we should not let this document overshadow the reality of the medieval women that we know did
have agency and authority, nor assume that it means that women were completely absent from the thoughts of those who wrote the charter in the first place.


Lauren Johnson
Lauren Johnson is the author of The Arrow of Sherwood (Pen & Sword Fiction). An origin story of Robin Hood, it roots the myth in the brutal, complex reality of the twelfth century. She is currently writing a history of the year 1509 (when Henry VIII came to the throne), to be published by Head of Zeus in 2016.
Lauren will be discussing the Magna Carta as part of the Devizes Arts Festival on 17 June 2015.

[The text of Magna Carta I have used is the recent translation by David Carpenter in Magna Carta: with a new commentary (Penguin Classics, 2015).

Images are either my own, or from The British Library Collection and have been made available for the public domain.]

[1] Figures based on David Carpenter, Magna Carta: with a new commentary (Penguin Classics, 2015).


  1. Fantastic, informative, and timely post, Lady Lauren! Great scholarship and much appreciated.

  2. A Very interesting and thought revoking post.

  3. I concur with the other commentators ...great! Thank you!


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