Magna Carta: The Medieval Context and the Part Played by William Marshal
By Lord Igor Judge
Given at Gresham College on January 14, 2015
Modern understanding of Magna Carta has begun to mythologize the creation and signing of the charter. Lord Igor Judge, Former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales places Magna Carter in its historical context as simply another Charter in an age when charters “created like confetti”. As well as the byzantine politics and open warfare that lead to the creation of Magna Carta, Lord Judge highlights the real hero of 1215, William Marshal, who’s tireless campaigning and statecraft lead to the adoption of Magna Carta, ejected the French from British soil and secured the Plantaganet dynasty’s hold on the throne.
Excerpt: In all this story, notice the singular feature which was never drawn to our attention when we learned our history at school. These events were consequent on actions or inaction by large numbers of people, each with his own personal characteristic, strength and weaknesses. Each reacting to an unfolding situation, sometimes predictably, sometimes not. Not all the rebel barons were equally committed to the rebellion, and not all the supporters of the king felt the same depth of allegiance to him. Llewellyn of Wales would have been unlikely to want to compromise with the king who had ordered the execution of fourteen sons of the Welsh nobility which he held as hostage against the good behaviour of the Welsh. And William Marshal himself, to whom I shall come, had been declared a traitor by King John in about 1205, and effectively banished from court, only as John’s situation became increasingly hazardous, summoned back to assist him.
If there is a hero of this event it is the virtually unknown William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. Having summoned him to return to England to assist him, John regarded Marshal as his key envoy in the discussions and negotiations. Importantly, he was seen as the only civilian (as opposed to clerical) guarantor of John’s good faith. So close was he to the centre of the discussions, that some historians suggested that he, together with Langton, was one of the joint authors of the terms of the first charter (notice the deliberate use of the word “first”). That is regarded as improbable, but gives an indication of how close to the heart of the discussions he was. And, as the June 1215 Charter itself makes clear, he was the first of the “illustrious” magnates from the baronial class to be named. When the charter was annulled and civil war broke out, Marshal, acknowledged to be one of the foremost campaigners of the age, supported the king. But with the French invasion the outcome was uncertain.