The Magna Carta Project

Simon de Montfort's Changes to Magna Carta in his 1265 Parliament: The reliefs of the earl and the baron

December 2014, by Professor David Carpenter

In this Feature of the Month, Magna Carta Project Co-Investigator David Carpenter shares breaking news from his research on changes apparently made to the text of Magna Carta in 1265, when the Charter was confirmed during the momentous parliament held by Simon de Montfort. A fuller version of this Feature will appear in due course.

It has long been known that the text of the 1225 Magna Carta, as found within Edward I’s confirmation of 1297, witnesses a change in the size of the baronial relief. In all the surviving engrossments of the 1225 Charter, a baron is to owe a relief of £100, the same sum as that found in the Charters of 1215, 1216 and 1217. But in 1297 the relief owed by the baron is only to be 100 marks. This change was the subject of a brilliant article by Susan Reynolds published in 1989. Have historians, however, ever commented on another change also apparent in 1297? It concerns the nature of the relief owed by the earl. In my recently published book on Magna Carta, I asserted that the passage in Magna Carta about the comital relief remained unchanged after 1215. I was wrong.

The change seen in 1297 concerns not the size of the comital relief, which remains at £100, but the entity for which the relief is owed. In all the surviving engrossments of the Charter between 1215 and 1225, the earl’s relief is owed ‘de baronia comitis integra’. But in the engrossments of 1297 it is owed ‘de comitatu integro’, ‘for a whole earldom’. The change is arguably significant. Henry II, as Nicholas Vincent has shown, had never accepted that the title of earl was in itself hereditary and John had acted very much in that spirit. The 1215 Charter seems to make a concession to the king’s view, and has the earl succeeding not to an earldom but to the ‘barony of an earl’. In 1297, by contrast, the earl succeeds to an earldom. This surely means both to the title and also to the attendant estates. A relief owed ‘de comitatu integro’ was both for the title of earl and ‘de baronia comitis integra’. It was very questionable whether that was true the other way round.  

There are reasons for thinking that the changes to both the baronial and comital relief seen in 1297 were not original to that year. Instead, they were made for the first time in 1265 when Simon de Montfort was in charge on the king’s government. On 14 February 1265, during the great parliament Montfort was holding at Westminster, the king’s adherence to Magna Carta was proclaimed in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey. At the end of the parliament, the full text of the 1225 Charter was sent to all the counties in an inspeximus, witnessed by Montfort and his leading supporters, and dated 13 or 14 March. This was the first official circulation of the text of Magna Carta since 1225, official, that is, in the sense that the text was in a document issued in the king’s name and authenticated by his seal.

Excerpt from the register of Bishop Swinfield, showing revisions made to Magna Carta in its 1265 confirmation

Excerpt from the register of Bishop Swinfield, showing the revisions made to Magna Carta in its 1265 confirmation. Image reproduced with kind permission of Herefordshire Archive Service.

No engrossments of these March letters are known to survive, but there are several copies. In the three I have seen so far, the baronial relief is 100 marks and the earl’s relief is ‘de comitatu integro’. Of course, copies can be unreliable guides to engrossments, but perhaps not in this case. The three texts are independent: one is in a statute book (BL Harley MS 489), which probably dates to before 1297; another is in a cartulary of Reading abbey (BL Harley 1708); and the third is in the Register of Richard Swinfield, bishop of Hereford from 1282 to 1317 (now kept in the Diocesan collection in Herefordshire Archives). All are good texts of the 1225 Charter, having none of the mixtures of 1217 and 1225 elsewhere so familiar. The copy in the statute book is particularly impressive since it comes from the letter sent to Somerset and Dorset, and has a complete preamble, and a full list of witnesses to both the 1225 Magna Carta and the 1265 inspeximus. The entry in the Swinfield register was drawn to the attention of Rhys Griffith of Herefordshire Archive Service and Rosalind Caird of Hereford Cathedral by Ian Bass. For images of the Hereford copy I am grateful to Rhys Griffith and Rosalind Caird, who had passed them on to Nicholas Vincent and Sophie Ambler.The Hereford letter does not specify the county to which it was addressed and Sophie Ambler suggests to me it might have reached Hereford through Swinfield’s predecessor, Thomas de Cantilupe, bishop from 1275 to 1282. Cantilupe was chancellor in 1265, and the inspeximus of Magna Carta was given by his hand.  

I am grateful to Katherine Har for images of a fourth text, which may come from the inspeximus of 1265. This is in a statute book of around 1300 preserved in the Bodleian Library (MS. Add. C. 188).  Found here is the 1225 text of Magna Carta but given on 15 February 1265. Since this is the day after the proclamation of the Charter in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey, it may derive, as Sophie Ambler has suggested, from a draft made with the intention of immediately issuing the Charter, although in fact, as we have seen, this did not happen till 14 March. Whatever the truth here, this text of the Charter has both ‘de comitatu integro’ and the 100 mark relief.

If the changes to the chapter on relief were made official in 1265, the idea behind them was of long standing. There are copies of the 1215 Charter made before 1265 where the 100 mark relief and ‘de comitatu integro’ appear. (See my ‘Copies of Magna Carta’ on this website). It is not impossible that both featured in drafts at Runnymede. It may be that their introduction in 1265 was simply due to the initiative of a clerk, either confused as to the genuine text or knowingly making improvements. On the other hand, one cannot rule out the possibility that the changes were made quite deliberately by Montfort and his ministers. Montfort himself and his only certain comital ally, Robert de Vere earl of Oxford, would have welcomed the new wording over earldoms, just as Montfort’s baronial supporters would have welcomed the reduction in the baronial relief. The change was also a sop to the many earls and barons hostile to the regime. 


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