The Magna Carta Project

Drama and jokes at Bury St Edmunds

by Professor Nicholas Vincent

2 November 1214 - 8 November 1214


1-2 Nov 1214

Havering (Essex)

Foedera, 126; RC, 202; RLP, 112b; RLC, i, 173b-4, 202b

2-3 Nov 1214

Writtle (Essex)

RLC, i, 177

Hardy ('Itinerary') locates the King at Writtle on 4 November, source untraced.

4 Nov 1214

Long Melford (Suffok)

RLC, i, 177

4-5 Nov 1214

Bury St Edmunds

RLP, 123; RLC, i, 177; The Chronicle of the Election of Hugh Abbot of Bury St Edmunds and Later Bishop of Ely, ed. R.M. Thomson (Oxford, 1974), 117-27

5 Nov 1214

Nayland (Suffolk) (Leyland)

RLC, i, 177

5-7 Nov 1214

Colchester (Essex)

RLC, i, 177b

At Westminster, on 7, 12, 14, 27 and 28 November, the King's administration issued writs, apparently in the King's absence, presumably under the great seal whilst the King was away with the privy seal: RLC, i, 176b, 180.

7-8 Nov 1214

Rayleigh (Essex)

RLC, i, 177b, 181b, 182b

From Havering atte Bower, on Sunday 2 November, the King moved northwards via Writtle and Long Melford to arrive at Bury St Edmunds on Tuesday 4 November.  He then turned south again, retracing his steps via Nayland to Colchester and Rayleigh.  Sport vied with politics during this tour.  Autumn was a great season for hunting.  Havering and Writtle were both favoured hunting parks, and from Writtle, the King's hounds were sent to hunt in the park of Nayland.1  Several writs of this week concern the activities of royal hunting packs or falconers, including provision for the King's huntsmen to take two or three wild pigs each day in the Sussex forest of Knepp.2 A hundred pigs were to be taken from Pickering forest, to be salted, with their heads preserved in wine or beer for the use of the King and his men.3  As for politics, the detour into East Anglia had one principal concern. 

Ruins of Bury St Edmunds Abbey

Ruins of Bury St Edmunds Abbey

Since the death of abbot Samson in 1211, the great monastery of Bury St Edmund's had been without a head.4  The election staged by the monks there had led to an acrimonious dispute from which one candidate, the monk Hugh of Northwold, had emerged with what many judged the best claims.  Hugh had travelled to Poitou in 1214, to seek confirmation from the King.  But despite interventions on his behalf by the French legate, Robert Courson, no firm decision had yet been announced.5  Judges delegate meeting in late September to adjudicate the election had been ordered by the justiciar, Peter des Roches, to meet again at Royston on 7 November.6  In the meantime, Hugh had once again sought an interview with the King, this time in London.  Armed with copies of his abbey's charters from kings Edward the Confessor and Henry II, he had sought to argue the right of free election on behalf of the Bury monks.7 

For King John, this attempt to use ancient privileges in support of present claims to liberty may have been all too reminiscent of the contemporary arguments, advanced by the barons and by archbishop Langton, that John should respect the coronation charter of Henry I and the 'Laws' of Edward the Confessor.  Certainly, it met with a firm royal rebuff.  According to the chronicle of the Bury election (a source rich in anecdote), Hugh eventually approached the King on 29 October, after Mass in the royal chapel (a favoured occasion for petitioners to approach an otherwise hyperactive and closely guarded sovereign).  He met with a brusque and angry greeting:

'What do you want me to say to you?', the King demanded, 'I had better see to my own affairs and those of my realm, than to concern myself with you or your honour.  You have raised up war against me, from which no good can be expected'. 

Hugh denied the charge, whereupon the King spoke more gently, claiming that his words were not directed specifically against Hugh but against 'certain others'.  Hugh then left for Bury once more, the King following him in time to arrive there by 4 November.8

What are we to make of these exchanges?  Various modern commentators, including Antonia Gransden, Rodney Thomson, and most recently David Carpenter, have sought to link the King's reported speech about stirring up 'war' to ongoing baronial discontent.  In particular, they have suggested connections to a meeting alleged to have taken place at Bury, following the King's return from France in the autumn or winter of 1214, at which the barons pledged to stand together in defence of their liberties.  Roger of Wendover is our only contemporary source for this meeting, and Wendover claims that the barons gathered at Bury 'as if for prayer', suggesting a meeting close to the feast of St Edmund on 20 November.9 

Seal of Robert fitz Walter

Seal of Robert fitz Walter, future rebel

But Roger of Wendover is not, in general, a reliable guide either to specifics or to chronology. Nor is there any evidence at this stage that the chief baronial malcontents had as yet abandoned the King.  On the contrary, at Havering on 2 November 1214, on the eve of his departure for Bury, the King issued a charter witnessed by Saher de Quincy, Robert fitz Walter, Geoffrey de Mandeville and William de Aubigny, all of them future leaders amongst the baronial twenty-five.10  At Bury, on 4 November, Saher de Quincy not only accompanied the King in procession into the monastic chapter house but was judged sufficiently loyal to be entrusted with hostages released by the earl of Pembroke, William Marshal.11  The royal letters governing this transaction were witnessed at Bury by another of the future twenty-five, Roger Bigod earl of Norfolk.12  If these men were already rumoured to have leagued against the King, by the time of his encounter with Hugh of Northwold on 29 October, it is surely remarkable to find them, on 2 November, called upon to act as witnesses at the King's court, and on 4 November still at the King's side.

Much more likely, the King went to Bury not to suppress baronial rebellion (as yet, only a vague shadow), but in an attempt to resolve the ongoing election dispute.  Here, the chronicle of the election itself demonstrates that the Church, and the question of free election, was paramount amongst the King's concerns.  Entering the chapter house in solemn silence, the King was accompanied by Saher de Quincy, earl of Winchester (a future rebel), and by Philip of Oldcotes, sheriff of Northumberland, who carried the King's sword aloft before him (a potent symbol both of royal justice and of brute royal power).13  The chronicler reports what he claims were the exact words of John's speech to the monks.14  The King began with what was probably intended as a joke ('Unaccustomed as I am to entering the chapter houses of monks ....'), continuing in typical style with a request backed by threats.  The monks, he argued, should proceed to a new election, acting in accordance with the King's customary rights (seruato iure meo semper usitato procedatis).  This is best interpreted as an insistence that abbatial elections, as had been customary under Henry II, should be held in the King's presence.  It also alluded to the fact, subsequently prominent in debate, that only those rights that were customary or 'used' (usitato) could be considered worthy of respect.  In other words, rights that had gone unused, as with Bury's claims to free election or potentially the wider claim to baronial liberties under the laws of Edward the Confessor or Henry I, had no such validity.  If the monks failed to act as he wished, the King warned them that they faced three distinct threats: financial ruin, loss of reputation amongst their fellow religious, and the King's personal hatred (odium principis). 

Hugh of Northwold was then asked to resign his election and to withdraw whatever appeals he had launched.  Hugh, with considerable verbal skill, made a provisional resignation, admitting that 'all our belongings are placed in our lord King's hand, whose rightful prerogative is to maintain the liberties of the Church unharmed and inviolate' (libertates ecclesiasticas indemnes seruare et illibatas), hereby promising 'freely' (libenter) to obey the royal will, 'saving ecclesiastical privilege' (saluo iure ecclesiastico).15  The references here to ecclesiastical liberties and right are particularly interesting.  The reservation of ecclesiastical privilege (saluo iure ecclesiastico) is reminiscent of the negotiations of the 1160s between Thomas Becket and Henry II, in which Becket had sought to insert a highly significant reservation of his rights, 'saving the honour of God' (saluo honore Dei).16  Meanwhile, although professing obedience to the King, Hugh managed to infer that the King himself was acting in contradiction of the liberties of the Church.  Words here belied intentions.

Image of Christ before Pontius Pilate, BL Arundel MS 83 f.125

Image of Christ before Pontius Pilate, BL Arundel MS 83 f.125

The outcome was an election by the monks, gathered in the chapter house.  The King clearly expected the monks to abandon Hugh.  On the contrary, if we are to believe the chronicler, Hugh's party emerged as not only the larger, but by a significantly greater majority.17  This represented a direct challenge not only to the opposition party amongst the Bury monks but to the King himself.  Turning to the monks who had persuaded him against Hugh, the King now rebuked them, according to the chronicler in words reminiscent of Pontius Pilate's at the trial of Jesus, 'Do you hear how this man speaks against you' (En, audistis quanta ista proposuit contra vos, cf. Matthew 27:13, Non audis quanta adversum te dicant testimonia?).18  There followed a series of angry exchanges between King and monks both in the chapter house and in semi-private audience.  At one point, to preserve his own rights against the charters of Edward the Confessor and Henry II cited against him, the King is said to have declared that 'an unused charter is valueless' (carta inusitata nullius valoris est): a declaration in accordance with the law, but highly contentious in the specific circumstances alleged at Bury, where 'free election' was clearly written into the privileges ascribed to King John's father.19  Confronted by another of the monks, who spoke in favour of Hugh's party, commending Hugh as a defender of royal liberties and the King's peace, rather than reply in person, the King allowed Philip of Oldcotes to speak for him: 'Oh man, constrained on all sides by the King's peace, have no fear!': yet another statement in which words belied intentions, with the King's peace here held up not so much as protection but as threat.20 

'Muttering threats', the King eventually left the chapter house.  The exact chronology remains unclear.  According to the chronicler, 'when morning came' (which could imply either the morning of the day of his arrival, 4 November, or that the King stayed in the abbey overnight), Hugh offered to lead him out of the town in honour and reverence.21  Instead, warned by another of the monks that Hugh was in reality plotting to deprive the King of his crown (coronam regiam nititur a vobis auferre), John set off, without any public acknowledgment of Hugh as abbot-elect.22  To the judges meeting at Royston on 7 November, including his old familiar, William of Cornhill, bishop-elect of Coventry, the King sent letters ordering them to postpone any decision until the King himself had completed his 'unfinished pilgrimage': a reference, apparently, to the abrupt way in which he had been obliged to leave Bury.23

The drama of the King's visit to Bury merits attention, not least because this was one of the rare occasions for which we have a detailed report of the King's spoken words.  To the proponents of the theory that Bury St Edmunds hosted the first stirrings of baronial rebellion, the election chronicle, with its references to 'war' and threats to deprive the King of his crown, remains a mainstay of argument.  In 1847 (at the height of Chartist agitations), the ruins of the abbey at Bury were adorned with a carved monument proclaiming this to be the spot where Langton and Robert Fitz Walter first pledged themselves to the liberties of England: 'Near this spot, on the 20th November A.D. 1214 Cardinal Langton and the Barons swore at St Edmund's altar that they would obtain from King John the ratification of Magna Charta', followed by a verse elegy by J.W. Donaldson, headmaster of the Bury grammar school:

Monument to meeting of barons in November 1214 at Bury St Edmunds

Monument erected at Bury St Edmunds to commemorate the meeting of the barons recorded by Roger of Wendover

Where the rude buttress totters to its fall,

And ivy mantles o'er the crumbling wall;

Where e'en the skilful eve can scarcely trace

The once high altar's lowly resting place -

Let patriotic fancy muse awhile

Amid the ruins of this ancient pile.

Six weary centuries have past away;

Palace and abbey moulder in decay -

Cold death enshrouds the learned and the brave -

Langton - Fitz Walter - slumber in the grave.

But still we read in deathless records how

The high-soul'd priest confirm'd the barons vow;

And Freedom, unforgetful still recites

This second birth-place of our native rights24

The Bury meeting and the Bury 'oath' may be figments of Roger of Wendover's imagination.  Certainly, as we have seen, there is little support for Roger's account to be obtained from a close reading of the chronicle of the election.  Much more interestingly, what that chronicle reports is a prolonged debate over royal charters, ecclesiastical liberties, and the King's right, all of them themes that were to loom large at Runnymede.  The chronicle's account of Hugh's speech, proclaiming the King's obligation to uphold the liberties of the Church (libertates ecclesiasticas indemnes seruare et illibatas) is, indeed virtually a dry run both for the wider charter of free elections conceded to the English Church by John, a fortnight later, on 21 November, and for the claims set out in Magna Carta clause 1 that the Church in England should be free and have its liberties intact (Anglicana ecclesia libera sit, et habeat iura sua integra et libertates suas illesas).  Just as was argued at Bury, Magna Carta clause 1 proclaims freedom of election to be 'the English Church's very greatest want' (libertatem electionum que maxima et magis necessaria reputetur ecclesie Anglicane).  To this extent, the modern claims of Bury to be a 'Magna Carta Town' are amply justified, albeit not for the reasons generally alleged.  We should leave to one side the entirely unsubstantiated account of a baronial meeting at Bury.  Meanwhile and instead, the King's visit to Bury, the demand for free election first aired there on 4 November, two weeks later enshrined in the King's general charter of free election granted to the English Church, reiterated at Runnymede in June 1215, form an essential component of the campaign that culminated in Magna Carta.

After such drama, what else occurred during this week?  There are indications, both at Havering on 2 November and at Bury two days later, of recent events in the Channel Islands.  At Havering, on 2 November, the King ordered the restoration to the men of Jersey and Guernsey of hostages taken from them, commending the islanders for their loyalty.  The hostages had previously been held in a variety of places (Winchester Cathedral Priory, Windsor Castle, the abbeys of Gloucester, St Albans and Ramsey, and the county gaols of Northampton and Nottingham), supplying some indication of the sheer number of hostages in royal custody.25  The concessions to Jersey and Guernsey may reflect the easing of tensions more generally in the Channel Islands following the capture of a group of mercenaries and pirates operating out of the Island of Sark.  At Bury, on 4 November, the King commanded that fourteen of these men be transferred from Porchester to the dungeons of Winchester castle.26  The brother and knights of Eustace the Monk, also taken in the Islands by the King's recently appointed steward, Philip d'Aubigny, were to be held at Porchester pending negotiations with their kin.27  Eustace the Monk was himself a notorious pirate and the subject of vernacular romance.  Having seized Sark after the French conquest of Normandy, and having served John as a freebooter against the French, in 1212 he had switched sides and henceforth served Philip Augustus.  He was eventually brought to justice off Sandwich, in 1217, whilst providing naval escort to the French.28  Clearly, following the defeat of the King's continental expeditions in 1214, there were fears that the Channel Islands would be the next target for French aggression.

Interior of God's House, Portsmouth

Interior of God's House, Portsmouth

The sea and its defence loomed large again, at Havering on 2 November, when the King issued a charter confirming property at Portsmouth to a hospital, 'God's House', recently founded there, and endowed by William of Wrotham, archdeacon of Taunton.29  Hospitals were closely associated with ports, not only because of the prevalence of poverty and the need for hospitality in such places, but in order to supply the particular needs of voyagers keen to seek confession before committing themselves to the perils of the sea.  William of Wrotham, a long-serving royal clerk, had been established as de facto keeper of the King's navy.  As such he played a significant role in the emergence of Portsmouth as England's principal naval station.30  Earlier in 1214, on the eve of the King's sailing for Poitou from Yarmouth in the Isle of Wight, he had been confirmed in his possession of the manor of Sutton at Hone, near to his birthplace at Wrotham in Kent, granted to him by Geoffrey fitz Peter and intended for the foundation of a hospital for paupers.31  The grant to the Portsmouth hospital was perhaps intended as compensation for the failure of William's plans for Sutton.  An interesting feature of the King's charter for the Portsmouth hospital, apart from its witness list (naming several future rebels, cited above), is that it specifically excludes all property belonging to the King.  In other words, an act advertising royal magnanimity was projected at the least possible cost.32 

The charter's survival shows that at Havering the King still had access to his own great seal.  Shortly afterwards, however, he left the great seal with the chancellor, Richard Marsh, and set off into East Anglia with only his privy seal.33  It was under the privy seal that he authorized writs dispatched over the next two weeks.  For example, at Rayleigh on 7 November, he sent a warrant under the privy seal to the chancellor, commanding the issue under the great seal of a charter and letters patent granting a fair to a hospital newly founded at Berden in Essex.34  If such a charter was ever issued, it was not copied onto the surviving charter roll which, as has already been noticed, is particularly thin for this period.  No charters whatsoever are recorded in the charter roll as having been issued between 2 and 22 November, and thereafter for nearly two months, until 9 January 1215.35  There is no doubt that charters were issued during this period, most famously the charter of free election for the English Church granted on 21 November, so what we have here may well be signs of inefficiency or disruption in chancery practice rather than evidence for a slowing in chancery activity.36

Other business transacted during this week included orders for homage to be rendered to the Poitevin, William de Forz, now granted control over the English estate of the count of Aumale.  These homages were to be performed before Robert de Ros.  Both Forz and Ros were later amongst the baronial twenty-five, which perhaps supplies further proof that, as yet, the King had little idea of the baronial conspiracy growing against him.37  On 2 November, it was announced that the King was sending the abbots of Reading and Waverley into Flanders to recover money deposited before the Bouvines campaign with the authorities of Ghent, Ypres and elsewhere.  This mission was accompanied by a clerk, Robert Passelaw, himself making his first appearance in what was to prove a long and prominent career in royal service.38  At Havering, on 2 November, the manor of Tolleshunt in Essex was promised to Alan Martel, a Templar, himself to play a leading role in the King's diplomatic negotiations over the next few months.39  There were also discussions over the custody of Ludlow and its castle.  Here the King was anxious to keep to the terms of an earlier agreement with Walter de Lacy, brother of the exiled earl of Ulster, and a baron whose attachment to the court had long been suspect.40  From Havering, the King issued commands to the sheriffs of London, Leicestershire, Warwickshire and Nottingham to send carpenters to repair the royal houses and quays at Westminster.  What was envisaged here seems not to have been the preparation of Westminster for siege, but something more like winter cleaning.41  This in itself is a sign that, despite the garrisoning of castles, tensions were not yet at fever pitch.  Silver plate was sent for safe-keeping at Reading Abbey, and there were instructions for the guarding of the Queen on her journey from Freemantle to Berkhamsted.42  Meanwhile, the dispatch of wine to a series of the King's midland castles and hunting lodges was intended not so much for defence as for the King's entertainment should he choose to hunt there.43


RLC, i, 177.


RLC, i, 177, 181b


RLC, i, 181b-2.


For all that follows, see The Chronicle of the Election of Hugh Abbot of Bury St Edmunds and Later Bishop of Ely, ed. R.M. Thomson (Oxford, 1974).


Chronicle of the Election, 106-13


Chronicle of the Election, 108-11


Chronicle of the Election, 112-15.  The charters in question are described (p.114) as those of St Edward (Sawyer no.1045) and the 'gloriosus' King Henry, which could refer to either Henry I or Henry II, but which most likely refers to the charter of Henry II printed by D.C. Douglas, Feudal Documents from the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds (London 1932), 105 no.101 (Letters and Charters of Henry II, forthcoming, no.368), issued at Colchester c.1157, specifically including right of free election (et concedo quod prefata ecclesia et conuentus eiusdem loci habeant liberam electionem suam in abbate eligendo sicut antecessores mei rex Edwardus et rex Henricus auus meus predictam libertatem concesserunt iamdicto conuentui et cartis suis quas vidi confirmauerunt).


Chronicle of the Election, 114-17.


For a wide-ranging discussion here, see J.C. Holt, Magna Carta (2nd edn., Cambridge, 1992),  406-11.  David Carpenter's views were aired at a conference held in Bury on 20 September 2014. Further discussion can be found in the Feature of the Month for Novemeber 1214.


RC, 202.


Chronicle of the Election, 118-19; RLP, 123.


RLP, 123, where Roger witnesses royal letters at Bury on 4 November.


Chronicle of the Election, 118-19.  David Carpenter suggests that Oldcotes' presence at Bury on 4 November suggests an attempt to muster support against the first stirrings of rebellion in the north.  More likely, as sheriff of Northumberland, Oldcotes had come south to render his annual accounts at the Exchequer.


Chronicle of the Election, 118-19.


Chronicle of the Election, 118-21.


Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, ed. J. C. Robertson and J. B. Sheppard. (7 vols., Rolls Series, 1875-85), iii, 419-23, 427, 446-7.


Chronicle of the Election, 120-1.


Chronicle of the Election, 122-3.


Chronicle of the Election, 124-5.


Chronicle of the Election, 126-7, 'O homo, regia pace undique constipatus ne pertimescas'.


Chronicle of the Election, 126-7.


Chronicle of the Election, 126-9


Chronicle of the Election, 128-9.


For the author, John William Donaldson (1811-1861), controversialist and philologist, from 1841 to 1855 spectacularly unsuccessful as headmaster of King Edward's School, Bury St Edmunds, translator, with G.C. Lewis, of Müller's History of the Literature of Ancient Greece, responsible for an attempted reconstruction (in Latin) of the lost Biblical book of Jashar (1854), see ODNB.


RLP, 122b.


RLC, i, 177, and for these fourteen men, named on the dorse of the Close Roll together with other prisoners taken on Sark, see RLC, i, 202b.


RLC, i, 177.


For Eustace, see H.L. Cannon, 'The Battle of Sandwich and Eustace the Monk', English Historical Review, 27 (1912), 649-70; G.S. Burgess, Two Medieval Outlaws: Eustace the Monk and Fouke Fitz Waryn (Woodbridge, 1997); Li Romans de Witasse Le Moine, ed. D.J. Conlon (Chapel Hill, 1972).


RC, 202, whence the witness list including several future rebels, noted above.


For William, see H.M. Thomas, The Secular Clergy in England, 1066-1216 (Oxford 2014), 74, 76, 136; W.R. Powell, 'The Administration of the Navy and the Stannaries, 1189-1216', English Historical Review, 71 (1956), 177-88, and for the rise of Portsmouth, J. Gillingham, 'Galley Warfare and Portsmouth: the Beginnings of a Royal Navy', Thirteenth Century England VI, ed. M. Prestwich and others (Woodbridge, 1997), 1-15.


Cartae Antiquae Rolls, ii, 48-9 no.362, and for the subsequent transfer of this estate to the Hospitallers, cf. no.363; VCH Kent, ii, 175-6.


RC, 202: ita scilicet quod nichil <quod> ad nos vel donationem nostram pertineat sub donationibus supradictorum comprehendatur.


For specific references to the privy seal here, from 2 November onwards, see RLC, i, 177-177b.  For letters issued at Westminster, apparently under the great or Exchequer seals, on 7, 12, 14, 27 and 28 November, whilst the King was away with the privy seal, see RLC, i, 176b, 180.


RLC, 177b, and cf. VCH Essex, ii, 143-4.


RC, 202-3, the charter dated at the New Temple on p.203 being properly of 22 November rather than 22 December as copied.


For charters granted to the Church on 21-22 November, including the charter of free election, see below, week beginning 16 November.


RLP, 122b.


RLP, 122b.


RLC, i, 177, and cf. RLP, 123


RLC, i, 173b, and for Walter, see in general, C. Veach, Lordship in Four Realms: The Lacy Family, 1166-1241 (Manchester, 2014).


RLC, i, 174.


RLC, i, 177.


RLC, i, 177b, orders to the chancellor to supply wine to King's Cliffe, Geddington, Rockingham, Silverstone and Sauvey Castle, followed by similar orders for Nottingham and Brill.

King John's Diary & Itinerary