Una mensura vini sit per totum regnum nostrum, et una mensura cervisie, et una mensura bladi, scilicet quarterium Londoniense, et una latitudo pannorum tinctorum et russetorum et halbergettorum, scilicet duae ulnae infra listas; de ponderibus autem sit ut de mensuris.
There is to be one measure of wine throughout our kingdom, and one measure of ale, and one measure of corn, namely the quarter of London, and one breadth of dyed, russet and haberget cloths, that is, two ells within the borders; and let weights be dealt with as with measures.
Uniformity of weights and measures was something English kings had been trying to achieve since well before the Norman Conquest, in attempts to overcome local variations which hindered the effectiveness of government and hampered trade. It was an uphill struggle, and even very recent efforts sometimes failed. The clauses relating to the measuring of cloth in an enactment of 1196 were abandoned in 1202, while King John’s attempt to fix the price of wine in 1199 met so much resistance that this, too, was given up. But although such initiatives could be intrusive or over-ambitious, it would appear that inLondon, in particular, they represented aspirations that were generally welcome. In fact Clause 35 was one of the elements in Magna Carta which instead of pointing to resistance to recent developments in governmental practice, show that there was a demand for more of it. Its recommendation for weights was vague, and nothing was said about prices, but it demonstrates that where measures were concerned the interests of the crown and of English merchants coincided.
Successive English kings began trying to impose uniformity of weights and measures in the tenth century, and continued doing so at intervals up to the time of Magna Carta. Henry I decreed that the ell should be the length of his own forearm, Henry II issued ordinances (`assizes’) controlling the sale of corn, wine and bread, Richard I added regulations for the size and sale of cloth, and John attempted to fix the price of wine. Not all these enactments were equally successful – the last two were given up under pressure from merchants who found their terms too restricting – but Clause 35 shows that there was no objection in principle to such enactments. Rather it demonstrates that in some quarters – and especially inLondon, which was probably where a rather vague first draft was reshaped to give it its final form – they were actually welcomed, as likely to make trading less complicated and expensive.
Both Clause 35, and the twelfth of the Articles of the Barons on which the clause is based, occur in a group of short entries of varying scope, and there seems to be no particular reason why either appears where it does – the issue was simply one regarded as needing attention. Possibly it was taken up by the barons at a relatively late stage, and was then worked over during the negotiations of June 1215, for there is a notable difference in clarity and precision between the two versions, at any rate where measures were concerned (weights, perhaps because there was so much variety across the kingdom, were effectively left on one side). The influence of the city of London, looking to safeguard its own interests, may be suspected in this - hence the specific naming of the quarter of London – but the final version of the Clause was more than a demand for advantage, for it also upheld royal aspirations and rights which had developed over several centuries. Where the Article called for improvement, the Clause spoke of uniformity, something that English kings had been trying to impose since well before the Norman Conquest.1 The Clause’s requirements for cloth looked back less far, to the assize of Richard I issued in 1196. That had been largely given up, but the fact that the Charter repeated its terms, and went beyond it in defining the types of cloth it affected, suggests that the assize’s failure had come to be regretted, and perhaps that the Clause as a whole should be regarded less as part of a critique of Angevin government than as – like Clause 18 – a call for more of it, with the king fulfilling his responsibilities in ways that benefited all his subjects, both those who made their living by trade and also those who bought the necessities of life in shops and markets. In protecting the latter, the Clause would also have been in line with current thinking among theologians and moralists (Archbishop Langton doubtless among them) in Paris, where attacks on fraudulent weights and measures appeared frequently in sermons and treatises.2
The English monarchy was precocious in its insistence on uniformity of measures. After Æthelstan’s Grately code (?928x939) had commanded that there be one coinage for his whole realm,3 Edgar’s Andover code (959x963) laid down that `there shall be one system of measurement and one standard of weight’; the latter was at first to be that of Winchester, but in a revision of the code London was quickly added (probably by Archbishop Wulfstan of York).4 Laws issued by Æthelred (1008) and Cnut (1020x1023)5 demanded action against false weights and measures, with which later kings also associated themselves – not only did Henry I take savage action against dishonest moneyers,6 but he also, according to William of Malmesbury, `punished the false ell in use among merchants, introducing his own forearm as a standard measure for all throughout England ...’.7 Pressure for uniformity was maintained after 1154. When Henry II granted Fairwell Priory forty acres of land cleared in Cannock Forest, he stipulated that they were to be measured by `the royal perch’ (ad mensuram perticae regiae),8 and according to Glanvill false measures came under the general heading of falsifying – de crimine falsi – an offence which it was the king’s responsibility to prevent and punish.9 Henry had an interest which went beyond the maintenance of his regality, however, through his attempts to encourage trade (shortly after his accession he granted commercial privileges to the men of St-Omer)10 and through the demands he made on English suppliers for provisions for his court and his armies – he needed to be sure of obtaining the quantities he required.
In this respect Henry’s Irish expedition of 1171 may have been a turning point. Not only did he draw heavily on several counties for food, drink and equipment, but money was also spent on buying measures – in Wiltshire two measures were bought, specifically for corn.11 Whether they were intended to weigh the goods as they were delivered, or to control the distribution of food and drink afterwards, is unknown, but in either case it seems unlikely that they differed in capacity, and their use may have had the effect of drawing attention to the variety of measures prevailing in the realm - accounts for the stocking of Norwich and Windsor Castles in 1174 contained payments for corn according to `the measure of Norwich’ and `the measure of Abingdon’.12 Probably this was regarded as unsatisfactory, for no later than 1176 an assize was issued regulating the sale of wine;13 no details have survived, but the pipe rolls record numerous amercements for infringements up to the end of Henry’s reign, extending over the whole of England, from Northumberland to Kent. It is highly likely that this assize, like those issued in the thirteenth century, prescribed basic maximum prices for wine, while the fact that two amercements imposed in 1186 involved the measure of wine, with one man being specifically amerced `because he sold wine by a false measure’,14 shows that the assize was concerned with this aspect of the vintner’s trade as well. Penalties were usually modest, between 10s. and two marks, but could be as much as twenty marks. Other references to amercements pro falsa mensura may refer to this assize – the burgesses of Chichester were mulcted of ten marks under this heading in 118015 – or there may also have been a more general campaign against dishonesty and error, one which by 1187 had been joined by a directive concerning grain. In that year Ailmund of Hereford accounted for £100 `for a false measure of corn’, while a year later the Surrey township of Reigate paid three marks for the same offence.16 These last offences should perhaps be associated with an ordinance ascribed to Henry II which fixed the weight of loaves of bread, white and wholemeal, in proportion to the price of wheat, so that the weight of the loaf rose as the price of the grain fell.17
The government of Henry II’s sons aspired to be no less ambitious, and intrusive, where weights and measures were concerned. At the very beginning of Richard I’s reign it was proclaimed that `all dealings in things for sale throughout the whole realm are appointed to be of one weight and measure’18 (an order quite possibly connected to Richard’s planned crusade), though as if in counterpoint to this nationwide decree, and to show the difficulties the government faced in hoping to implement it, at exactly the same time the Norfolk priory of Horsham St Faith received an annual grant of quantities of salt `according to the measure of Maltby le Marsh’,19 a village near the Lincolnshire coast (perhaps the measure was a variant of the Yarmouth quarter, which was much larger than the standard one).20 Among the articles of the eyre issued in 1194 was one inquiring `Concerning wines sold contrary to the assize, and false measures of both wine and other things’,21 and that year’s Wiltshire eyre duly received presentments of wine sold in breach of the assize and of corn sold by a false measure.22
But more must have been felt to be necessary, for a comprehensive assize was issued by Richard I on 20 November 1196, acting, according to the preamble, `by the petition and counsel of the bishops and of all his barons ...’.23 Again, the king’s needs for supplies, and, perhaps, for the money to be raised from penalties for infringement, may have been at least partly responsible. It commanded that for basic foodstuffs all the measures in England should be the same, with `one good horse-load’ as their yardstick. (The fact that the measure was ordered to be struck level – rasa – rather than heaped suggests that it was less vague in 1196 than now appears, and was capable of being understood in concrete terms by those who received it.) Measures for wine, ale and other drinks were likewise to be identical, albeit `according to the diversity of liquors’, meaning that although the measure for wine, for instance, was to be the same everywhere, it would be measured in quantities differing from those for ale and other liquids. Hence, no doubt, the directive that measures were to be nail-marked to prevent deceit – the marks were presumably placed at different heights to show the quantities relevant to particular commodities. Weights, too, were to be the same throughout the kingdom. These clauses may have been only restating existing regulations, but the assize’s more detailed rulings on cloth appear to have been new. The breadth of woollen cloth, wherever it was made (the regulation would appear to have applied to foreign as well as English-made cloth), was now fixed at two yards within the borders (`selvedges’), and was to be measured using an iron rod. Moreover the cloth was to be uniformly good, in the middle and at the sides, a requirement which, along with others intended to protect potential buyers from dishonesty on the part of weavers or merchants, was to be policed by groups of four or six men, and offenders against the assize were to be arrested and imprisoned, while their chattels were to be seized into the king’s hand.
To enable the assize to be observed, £11. 16s. 6d. were spent on the authority of the justiciar, Hubert Walter, `on making measures and gallons and iron rods and weigh-beams and weights for sending to all the counties of England ...’; special measures were also made for Winchester and Portsmouth, and perhaps Lincoln.24 The new measures were to be exclusively used after 2 February 1197, while cloth which was less in breadth than the assize allowed was not to be sold after 16 March following. These regulations were enforced. Some time after Easter 1198 cloth was taken to Westminster from St Ives fair, having been arrested for contravening the assize,25 and the articles drawn up for a nationwide eyre which began in autumn 1198 show that serious efforts were made to discover how far the assize had been observed, and whether the men appointed to uphold it had fulfilled their responsibilities. All the wine of anyone found to have sold it contrary to the assize, and not just the offending liquor, was to be taken on the king’s behalf, and its owner, as well as the sellers, was to be in mercy.26 It must have been under this assize that errant vintners were amerced at the Staffordshire eyre held in autumn 1199.27 References from around this time to `the king’s iron rod’ at Gloucester, and `to the iron yards of King John of England’ in London, suggest that the reform of linear measures, too, was made effective.28
The assize of 1196 was concerned with measures, an assize for wine issued by King John at the beginning of his reign attempted to fix prices, both wholesale, by the barrel (252 gallons), and retail, by the sester (three or four gallons).29 Perhaps the king and his advisers failed to take into account the rise in prices of the years around 1200,30 for according to Howden the assize led to protests that rates had been set so low that merchants could make no profit, with the result that the minimum price of the sester (he says nothing about the barrel) had to be raised again. Presumably the merchants importing the wine found that they could not pass it on to vintners who were encountering sales-resistance provoked by the higher prices, and were therefore left with large quantities on their hands of a liquid which (as with all medieval wine) did not keep for long. The very fact that there were objections shows that the assize had an effect, but since Clause 35 said nothing about prices it is possible that the failure of John’s bid to fix those of wine made the king’s government, and the barons who in 1215 aspired to direct its workings, reluctant to involve themselves with price controls for the time being.
The reach of Angevin government, though often impressive, was in fact apt to exceed its grasp, and the regulations set out for cloth in the 1196 assize, too, could not be maintained, though according to Howden this was due less to over-ambition or miscalculation than to venality. When Hugh Bardulf and other justices went to Boston fair in 1201 intending to enforce the assize, the merchants assembled there prevailed on them to abandon it, both for the breadth of cloths and the measurement of corn, so that in future they could make their cloths broad or narrow, as they pleased: `whereby those justices gained a great deal of money on the king’s behalf, to the detriment of many ...’.31 There can be no doubt about the financial return, for the 1202 pipe roll records payments by the men of twenty-seven towns and cities, usually acting for themselves, though occasionally the sheriff accounted for them, to be allowed to buy and sell dyed cloths `as they used to do in King Henry’s time’.32 Given the close correlation of these entries with Howden’s account of the abrogation of the assize, it seems impossible to doubt, though the pipe rolls do not specifically say so, that these payments related to the measurements of the cloths thus sold. Geographically they ranged from Newcastle and York in the north to Exeter in the south west, and extended through the midlands to Winchester and west to Gloucester, but especially affected East Anglia and Lincolnshire, with Lincoln itself paying £40. Towns which did not pay, however, may have had been expected to continue to enforce the assize - amercements for failing to observe an assize on cloths were imposed at the 1203 Staffordshire eyre on the towns of Stafford, Tutbury, Lichfield and Burton-on-Trent, none of which paid for exemption in the previous year, while the jurors for Newcastle-under-Lyme were penalised because `they said that no cloth was cut [sertus] in their town and later they admitted that deficient [debiles] cloths were cut there.’33
The well-nigh universal reference to dyed cloths, and the fact that the 1196 assize had forbidden dyeing (except in black) outside cities and important boroughs, suggests that a high-quality and – since most dye-stuffs were imported - probably expensive product was involved, one whose production was largely monopolised by the leading citizens of cloth-producing towns. A return to the procedures of Henry II’s reign need not have entailed the abandonment of all controls, but it is likely enough that the abandonment of the 1196 regulations led to a decline in the quality of cloth, and perhaps also to an increase in its price. It did not, however, mean that John’s government ceased to concern itself with weights and measures. In 1202 an assize of bread was issued, at most points identical with that of Henry II but with a few variations.34 It was proclaimed generaliter, but two years later an assize fixing the weight and price of white and black bread was apparently issued for Winchester alone,35 while in January 1207 there was even an attempt to regulate the price of lampreys.36 In between these two ordinances came an assize of money,37 while an assize of wine (presumably that of 1196) continued to be enforced. But at the same time the local variations which it was the object of such legislation to eradicate persisted, as, indeed, they continued to do long after the thirteenth century – in 1211 the sheriff of Dorset and Somerset accounted for 3000 measures of canvas thread, needed for making ships’ ropes, `according to the weight of Bridport’.38 King John himself, moreover, appear sometimes to have been careless about the observance of measures, in October 1213 telling the constable of Bristol not to trouble merchants from certain parts of Wales over the weighing of their wool, `since it is perfectly lawful for them to have more or less in their sacks as they please ...’.39
Clause 35 can probably be best seen as the result of the interests of London combining with the centralising thrust of Angevin government, as represented by the 1196 assize, in an attempt to overcome the effects of local variety and royal caprice. As far as cloth was concerned, it was socially wide-ranging in its application, for whereas dyed cloth and haberget (so named from its resemblance to chain-mail)40 were fine and expensive weaves, russet was a cheap, undyed cloth, much worn by country-people. The clause’s insistence on a two-yard width for cloth may in fact have been impracticable, requiring the use of double looms when a narrower cloth could be much more easily, and cheaply, woven on the more widely available single loom, but it probably arose from an awareness of the benefits of quality-control as well as of standardisation. The fact that the clause remained unchanged in all the reissues suggests that this was understood.
For the background see, in particular, R.D. Connor, The weights and measures of England (1987).
J.W. Baldwin, Masters, princes and merchants: the social views of Peter the Chanter and his circle, 2 vols. (Princeton, 1970), i, 265-6.
F.L. Attenborough (ed.), The laws of the earliest English kings (Cambridge, 1922), 135.
A.J. Robertson (ed.), The laws of the kings of England from Edmund to Henry I (Cambridge, 1925), 29; P. Wormald, The making of English law: King Alfred to the twelfth century, i: legislation and its limits (Blackwell, Oxford, 1999), 314.
Robertson, Laws, 87, 101, 179.
C.W. Hollister, Henry I (Yale, 2001), 297-8.
J. Hudson, The Oxford history of the laws of England i: 871-1216 (Oxford, 2012), 257.
Sir William Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum, 6 vols. (1817-30), iv, 111-12.
G.D.G. Hall (ed.), The treatise on the laws and customs of England commonly called Glanvill (2nd edn., Oxford, 1993), 62.
C.N.L. Brooke and G. Weir, London 800-1216: the shaping of a city (1975), 270.
PR 17 Henry II (1171), 34-5, 84, 89, 91; PR 18 Henry II (1172), 123.
PR 20 Henry II (1174), 37, 112.
PR 22 Henry II (1176), 54, 57, 126, 184 are the earliest references.
PR 32 Henry II (1186), 8, 176.
PR 26 Henry II (1180), 31.
PR 33 Henry II (1187), 132; PR 34 Henry II (1188), 26.
W. Cunningham, The growth of English industry and commerce during the early and middle ages, 3 vols. (5th edn., Cambridge, 1903-17), i, 567-9.
H. Ellis (ed.), Chronica Johannis de Oxenedes (Rolls Series, 1859), 65.
L.F.Salzman, English trade in the middle ages (Oxford, 1931), 46.
A.R. Bridbury, England and the salt trade in the later middle ages (Oxford, 1955), 159.
W. Stubbs (ed.), Chronica Rogeri de Houeden, 4 vols. (Rolls Series, 1868-71),iii, 264.
F.W. Maitland (ed.), The rolls of the king’s court in the reign of Richard the First, A.D. 1194-1195, Pipe Roll Society 14 (1891), 85, 99, 111, 113.
Chronica Rogeri de Houeden, iv, 33-4. For the date see PR 9 Richard I (1197), xxj-xxij.
PR 9 Richard I (1197), 17, 24, 94, 160.
PR 10 Richard I (1198), 161.
Chronica Rogeri de Houeden, iv, 62.
G.Wrottesley (ed.), `Staffordshire suits extracted from the plea rolls temp. Richard I and John’, Collections for a history of Staffordshire 3 (1882), 38, 40, 45.
W.H. Prior, Notes on the weights and measures of medieval England (Paris, 1924), 22-3.
Chronica Rogeri de Houeden, iv, 99-100. The twentieth-century equivalents are those of Salzman, English trade, 378.
P. Latimer, `Early thirteenth century prices’, S.D. Church (ed.), King John: new interpretations (Woodbridge, 1999), 41-73.
Chronica Rogeri de Houeden, iv, 172.
Details in PR 4 John (1202), passim.
Wrottesley, `Staffordshire suits’, 97-8.
H.R. Luard (ed.), Matthaei Parisiensis ... Chronica Majora, 7 vols. (Rolls Series, 1872-83), ii, 480-1.
T.D. Hardy (ed.), Rotuli Litterarum Patentium 1201-1216 (Record Commission, 1835), 41.
PR 13 John (1211), 221.
T.D. Hardy (ed.), Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum i, 1204-1224 (Record Commission, 1833), 152.
P. Walton, `Textiles’, J. Blair and N. Ramsay (eds.), English medieval industries (1991), 332-9.
The Copies at Lincoln and Salisbury of the 1215 Magna Carta (Features of the Month)
Please note: commentaries are presently available only for clauses marked with *; more commentary to be added in due course.