The Magna Carta Project

An Exchange of Letters between King and Rebels (January 1216)

January 2016, by Professor Nicholas Vincent

As noted in the Diary entry for 3-9 January 1216, the exchange of letters translated below shows the King in correspondence with Robert de Ros, one of the more prominent 'Northerners' amongst the twenty-five rebel barons named in Magna Carta. The exchange is worth translating here for a number of reasons. It demonstrates both that communications between rebels and the royal court were kept open, and the ease with which the 'Northerners' were brought to surrender in the immediate aftermath of the King's capture of Rochester Castle in December 1215. It also reveals something of the formality governing correspondence between King and rebels. The King himself offers veiled threats to Robert's constable (no.1), and a deliberate slight to Robert himself, greeted (no.2) not with the customary salutation 'with friendship' or 'in the Lord', but merely 'as you deserve'. He nonetheless allows Robert the option of refusing the commands put to him. In turn, Robert's reply (no.3) employs the standard vocabulary used in exchanges between an inferior and a King, placing the name of the addressee above that of the letter's author, and addressing the King as 'Your Excellency' and 'Your Highness'. Depending upon how we read its closing sentence, Robert was here either playing for time (merely pretending not to have received the letters of safe conduct promised by the King and duly entered on the Patent Roll with a date at Durham on 8 January), or had genuinely failed to receive these letters at the time that his reply was written.1 An element of prevarication can perhaps be assumed, both from the fact that Carlisle does not seem to have been surrendered immediately, as promised, and from the fact that, even after the King's progress through the far north of England, Robert is said to have remained one of the few northern barons with a castle still holding out against the King.2 He is to be found earlier, in late September 1215, serving as baronial keeper ('custos') of Yorkshire, charged by his fellow members of the twenty-five with the enforcement of commands to Brian de Lisle to surrender Knaresborough castle to the baronial sympathizer, Nicholas de Stuteville.3 As sons-in-law of the late King William of Scotland, both Robert de Ros and Eustace de Vescy seem to have played a prominent role in negotiations between the rebel barons and the Scots. Lost 'Letters of Robert de Ros and Eustace de Vescy' were amongst the correspondence between the rebels and Scotland still preserved in the Scots royal archive as late as 1282.4

Preserved on the dorse of the Close Roll, on a membrane of the roll otherwise devoted to business between 30 December 1215 and 16 January 1216, Robert's letter translated below is one of the few such letters to (rather than from) the King to have survived from a crucial period in English history. For reasons that are not clear, but perhaps can be associated with administrative disorder, the dorses of the Close and especially the Patent rolls, normally rich in such miscellaneous (especially papal and diplomatic) correspondence, were used only sparingly to record any business after the autumn of 1215.5


1. Letters of the King to Ralph de la Ferté, constable of Carlisle, commanding surrender of the castle and city of Carlisle to Robert de Vieuxpont.   Darlington, 7 January 1216

B = TNA C 66/14 (Patent Roll 17 John) m.10.

Pd (from B) RLP, 163-3b.

Rex Radulfo de la Ferte constabulario Carleol' etc. Mandamus vob(is) quod statim visis litteris istis liberitis dilecto et fideli nostro Roberto de Veteri Ponte castrum nostrum de Carleol' tanquam corpori nostro, quia nos ipsi ad presens illuc ire non possumus. Tantum igitur inde faciatis ut vob(is) grates scire deberamus et ne ad vos et genus vestrum nos capiamus. Et in huius etc vob(is) mittimus. T(este) me ipso apud Derlinton', vii. die Ian(uarii) a(nno) r(egni) n(ostri)

The King (sends greetings) etc to Ralph de la Ferté, constable of Carlisle. We command you that, immediately on seeing these letters, you release our castle of Carlisle to our dear and faithful Robert de Vieuxpont, just as if you were releasing it to us in person, because at present we are unable to go there.  Act in this so that we are obliged to acknowledge our thanks, and lest we take action against you and your people. And in <testimony> of this, we have sent you <these our letters patent>. Witnessed by myself at Darlington, on the 7th day of January in the 17th year of our reign.



2. Letters of the King to Robert de Ros complaining against his failure to surrender the castle and city of Carlisle.    Durham, 8 January 1216

B = TNA C 66/14 (Patent Roll 17 John) m.10.

Pd (from B) RLP, 163b.

Rex Roberto de Ros salutem quam debet. Cum castrum et ciuitatem nostram Carleol' in bona fide vob(is) commiserimus dum fuistis homo noster, miramur multum quod illa nobis non reddidistis. Et ideo vobis mandamus quod si placet castrum nostrum et ciuitatem nostram predictam nobis reddere non differatis. Quod si facere volueritis suscepimus vos in saluum conductum nostrum et illos quos vobiscum adduxeritis in veniendo ad nos, morando et recendendo a die veneris proxima post Epiphaniam in xv. dies et inde litteras nostras patentes vobis mittimus. Si vero illa nob(is) reddere nolueritis, litteras nostras patentes de conductu nob(is) remittatis sign(ific)antes nob(is) voluntatem vestram. T(este) me ipso apud Dunholm', viii. die Ian(uarii) a(nno) r(egni) n(ostri)

The King sends Robert de Ros the greeting he deserves. Since we committed our castle and city of Carlisle to you in good faith whilst you were our man, we marvel greatly that you have not restored them to us. Hence we command you that, if it please, you make no delay in restoring to us our aforesaid castle and city. Assuming that you should wish to do this, we have taken into our safe conduct you yourself and any others whom you may bring with you in coming to us, staying and leaving, from the Friday after Epiphany (8 January) for the next fortnight, and to this end we have sent you our letters patent. However, should you refuse to restore these things, you should send back to us our letters patent of conduct, signifying to us your will. Witnessed by myself at Durham on the 8th day of January in the 17th year of our reign.



3. Letters of Robert de Ros to the King signifying his willingness to comply with the King's commands and to receive safe conduct in visiting the King.  [8 X 16 January 1216]

B = TNA C 54/12 (Close Roll 17 John) m.12d.  C = TNA C 54/13 (Ibid.) m.10d.

Pd (from B) RLC, i, 269-9b.

I(ohanni) Dei gratia regi Angl(ie) domino Hibern(ie) duc(i) Norm(annie) Aquit(anie) et com(iti) And(egauie) Rob(ertus) de Ros salutem. De eo quod michi significauit excellencia vestra de ciuitate et castello Carl' quod michi tradidistis, nouerit celsitudo vestra quod illud libenter vob(is) reddo, et precepi constabul(ario) meo ut illud reddat vob(is) et ad preceptum vestrum. De cetero noueritis quod vobiscum libenter loquerer si saluum et secur(um) conductum habeam quod saluo et secure ad vos venire et ibi stare et de vob(is) saluo redire possim, et super hoc voluntatem vestram michi significate.

To John, by God's grace King of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and count of Anjou, Robert de Ros sends greetings. Concerning that which your excellency signified to me over the city and castle of Carlisle, that you once released to me, your highness should know that I freely restore this, and I have ordered my constable to return it to you in accordance with your command. Otherwise, know that I would freely talk with you should I be able to have safe and secure conduct in coming to you and remaining with you and safely returning, and on this you should inform me of your will.




For the conducts reported in the chancery rolls, see that to Robert himself (RLP, 163b, issued at Durham on 8 January, set to run from 8 to 22 January, and another to Robert's son, William (RLP, 163b), already issued at Thirsk on 5 January, due to run from 6 January to 2 February.


Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum, ed. H.O. Coxe (4 vols., London, 1842), iii, 353, 'quod vix duo municipia, id est Muntsorel et aliud quod fuit Roberti de Ros in Eboracensi prouincia, in potestate baronum remanserunt', specifically referring to Robert de Vieuxpont as one of the royalists newly entrusted with rebel castles seized in the far north. For Carlisle, in the hands of Robert de Vieuxpont long enough for Robert to have effected repairs there by 7 February 1216, see RLC, i, 247b, as noted by J.C. Holt, The Northerners: A Study in the Reign of King John,  (2nd edn., Oxford, 1992), 134, at p.132 nonetheless confusing later collaboration between the canons of Carlisle and Alexander of Scotland (following Alexander's seizure of Carlisle in August 1216) with the events of the previous winter. Robert, and William his son, were issued with further safe conducts in April 1216: RLP, 175-6.


As reported in a letter of the twenty-five, listed (no.5) with other such letters in N. Vincent, 'Feature of the Month: July 2015 - A New Letter of the Twenty-Five Barons of Magna Carta', The Magna Carta Project.


Edinburgh, National Archives of Scotland RH5/8/1, whence printed in Conventiones, Litterae etc., or Rymer’s Foedera, 1066-1383, ed. A. Clarke et al., vol. 1, part 2 (London, 1816), 615-17; The Acts of the Parliament of Scotland, ed. T. Thomson and C. Innes, 12 vols (Edinburgh, 1814-75), i, 107-10; (brief calendar) J. Bain, Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland, 4 vols (1881-), ii, 68-9 no.225: 'Item littera Roberti de Ros’ et Eustacii de Vescy'.


The Patent Roll 17 John is endorsed with 21 entries (RLP 180-3), of which 17 date from May-October 1215, and only four from the six months following. Compare this with the 53 items endorsed on the Patent Roll for 1214-15 (RLP, 139-41b). The Close Roll 17 John is endorsed with 36 entries (RLC, i, 268b-70b), more evenly distributed month by month. Compare this with the 44 items endorsed on the Close Roll 16 John for 1214-15 (RLC, i, 200b-204).


Referenced in

John subdues the Northerners (The Itinerary of King John)

Feature of the Month