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It is in 1214, under the reign of King John, that the event that gave rise to the second half of the motto ‘cradle of the law’ is supposed to have taken place. This post looks at the reasons why Bury St Edmunds would be a suitable location for the meeting and any other relevant information.
This event is recorded in Roger of Wendover’s (d. 1236) ‘Flores Historiarum’ (Flowers of History);
...the earls and barons of England assembles at St Edmund’s as if for religious duties although it was for some other reason; for after they had discussed together secretly for some time, there was placed before them the charted of King Henry the First, which they had received, as mentioned before, in the city of London from Stephen, Archbishop of Canterbury. This charted contained certain liberties and laws grated to the holy church as well as to the nobles of the kingdom, besides some liberties which the king had added of his own accord. All therefore assembled in the church of St Edmund the King and Martyr, and commencing from those of highest rank, they all swore on the great altar that, if the king refused to grant these liberties and laws, they themselves would withdraw from their allegiance to him and make war on him, till he should, by a charter under his own seal, confirm to them every thing they required; and finally it was unanimously agreed that, after Christmas, they should all go together to the king and demand the confirmation of the aforesaid liberties to them, and that they should in the meantime provide themselves with horses and arms so that if the king should endeavour to depart from his oath, they might by taking his castles compel him to satisfy their demands; and having arranged this, each man returned home.
This is the only record of the meeting taking place in Bury St Edmunds, an unusual occurrence as events tended to be recorded by many chroniclers. Roger of Wendover’s chronicle has also been disputed and considered unreliable in its records of other events so looking into the circumstantial evidence for the meeting at Bury St Edmunds becomes vital.
The twenty-five barons who stood surety for Magna Carta and then rebelled against King John are the most likely ones to have attended the meeting at Bury St Edmunds. Within these barons there are strong ties to East Anglia through eight of the barons;
Geoffrey FitzGeoffrey de Mandeville 2nd Earl of Essex 6th Earl of Gloucester
Robert FitzWalter, Lord of Dunmow Castle
Richard de Montfitchet who held land in Essex
William de Lanvallei, Lord of Walkern and Standway Castle and governor of Colchester Castle
Hugh Bigod (3rd Earl of Norfolk and Suffolk, Roger’s heir)
Roger Bigod 2nd Earl of Norfolk and Suffolk
William De Huntingfield, Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk
Robert de Vere (4th Earl of Oxford) who through his mother held Castle Hedingham and lands in Essex.
Through these barons’ connections to East Anglia and their links to the other barons through familial links makes the abbey at Bury St Edmunds a valid option as a meeting place.
Bury St Edmunds’ Abbey and Norwich Cathedral were both being developed at similar times throughout the 11th and 12th centuries. Due to their proximity they competed over size and style. The Abbey Church at Bury St Edmunds once completed was 6.8 metres longer than Norwich Cathedral and the West Front of the Abbey was unparalleled anywhere else in Britain at that time.
The bishops of Norwich at the time of the events surrounding Magna Carta were both supporters of King John and would not have sanctioned the actions of the rebels. Bishop John de Gray was an active supporter of King John until he died on the 18th October 1214. The seat was left vacant until July/August 1215 when Pandulf Masca was appointed as Bishop of Norwich. Prior to this he had been Papal Legate to King John’s court. He is also listed as a witness to Magna Carta. In comparison in 1193 Abbot Samson excommunicated John and his followers when they rebelled against the absent King Richard I. In March 1208 King John confiscated the property and revenues of the Abbey of St Edmund, along with those of his other ecclesiastical tenants, in retaliation against the papal interdict on England.
One thing that made Bury St Edmunds such an appealing location was its special status. Edward the Confessor’s charter exempted the Abbey of St Edmund’s lands from all royal taxes and impositions and made the abbot acted the king’s representative in the area. Every aspect of royal government had to go through the abbot and his agents. This meant that it would be his responsibility to apprehend rebels and criminals within his lands.
On 30th December 1211 Abbot Samson died. It took until the 7th August 1213 before the monk Hugh of Northwold was elected abbot by the monks of St Edmund’s. However it wasn’t until 10th March 1215 that they gained papal confirmation of this appointment and until 10th June 1215 before King John confirmed the election. So at the time of the barons meeting in November 1214 there was no confirmed abbot of St Edmund to act as King John’s representative. I will look at this crisis at the Abbey in more detail in a later post.
The belief is that the meeting at Bury St Edmunds took place on 20th November 1214. This is the Feast of Saint Edmund and it would fit with Roger of Wendover’s account that the barons assembled ‘as if for religious duties’ and would provide a good cover story for them. However, King John visited the abbey on 4th November 1214. He was then at London, New Temple from the 16th until the 22nd November. This makes it possible that they met closer to the 4th November, whilst King John, and his court, of which the barons were a part, were in the area.
Ultimately there have been demonstrated plenty of reasons why the meeting would have taken place at Bury St Edmunds but until further evidence comes forward we cannot be entirely certain of it. New research work is taking place and we hope to have a positive announcement soon on this.
Keep reading this blog to find out more about the people and events surrounding Magna Carta, including more on the Bury St Edmunds connection.