The Magna Carta Project

Magna Carta and the Politics of the Reign of Richard II

March 2015, by Professor Nigel Saul

Richard II placed in Tower of London

Richard II being placed in the Tower of London, detail of a miniature from BL Harley MS. 4380 f.181v

As increasing numbers of early copies of Magna Carta are identified in fourteenth- and early fifteenth century registers and cartularies, so we are becoming more aware of the close interest taken in the document by lawyers and political actors in the late Middle Ages.1 Of especial interest in this connection are the copies of the Charter made at two Gloucestershire monasteries at the end of the fourteenth century. Both copies attest to the revival of interest in the Charter at a time when Richard II’s bold autocracy was raising vital questions about how royal authority might legitimately be constrained and how such constraint might be maintained in the long term.

The fewest questions are raised by the copy of the Charter transcribed into a register of St Peter’s Abbey, Gloucester, now Gloucester Cathedral.2 This is a fair copy of the version of the Charter issued at Runnymede on 15 June 1215, its wording close to that found in the Salisbury engrossment. The initiative for making the copy was taken by Walter Frocester, abbot of Gloucester from 1382 to 1412, a reforming prelate who both set his house’s chaotic finances in order and took measures to preserve and consolidate its collection of muniments. The register in which the copy of Magna Carta was entered, one of two which the abbot ordered to be compiled, was put together in 1397 and consists principally of grants made to the abbey by important benefactors and royal confirmation of the same. One remarkable aspect of the transcription is the attention drawn in the rubric to the appointment of the committee of Twenty-Five to enforce the Charter: ‘Carta Johannis Regis de libertatibus anglie at de XXV baronibus’. This is a somewhat surprising heading to find in a document drawn up in 1397 of all years, when Richard was reasserting his authority over his critics, not the latter asserting or reasserting theirs over him. A possible explanation for the heading might be that the clerk was working from a copy in the abbey archives, now lost, which had itself been annotated in this way. The implication of such a suggestion would then be that the clerk was working not from an original of the Charter, but from a copy entered into a register or legal collection, an hypothesis in any case suggested by the downgrading of divisions between the chapters, a characteristic of the copies in such collections. No one at St Peter’s abbey itself would have had any interest in drawing attention to the security clause. Unlike, for example, the fellow Benedictine house of St Albans, St Peter’s, Gloucester, was not a community which had any links to or sympathy with baronial oppositions. Throughout its history, the house had been noteworthy, rather, for the strength of its links with the crown. In the Anglo-Norman and early Angevin periods it had been the setting for one of the three seasonal royal crown-wearing ceremonies held each year.3 At the Christmas court of 1085 it had been at the royal palace of Kingsholm, close to the abbey, that William the Conqueror had ordered the compilation of Domesday Book.4 In 1216, shortly after the death of King John, it had been in the solemn surroundings of the abbey church that the king’s son, the nine year-old Henry III, had been crowned, Westminster being in rebel hands. A little over a century after that, in 1327, it was in the same abbey church that the murdered Edward II was laid to rest under an elaborate tomb constructed on the north side of the presbytery. In October 1390 Edward’s great-grandson, Richard II, was to visit the tomb as part of his campaign to secure his predecessor’s canonisation.5 Given the strongly royalist traditions of their house, it is unlikely that the monks of Gloucester would have had any interest in drawing anyone’s attention to a document in their possession which constrained royal authority. Yet, at the same time, by dint of the sheer antiquity of their house and its historic links with the crown, they found themselves in possession of an archive, a number of documents in which did actually codify and record such constraint. Frocester had most of these documents transcribed in his Register. Alongside the 1215 version of Magna Carta we find the reissue of the Charter made by Henry III’s regency government in 1217, Edward I’s reissue of the Charter and its partner, the Forest Charter, both of 1297, and the so-called Little Charter of Henry III published in 1237.6

In quite different circumstances, an interest in the Charter was also taken in Richard II’s reign at the neighbouring house of Llanthony, an Augustinian community just outside the walls of the town. Sometime in the late 1380s, in the time of Prior William de Cheriton, a series of extracts from the 1215 Charter were entered into the prior’s register alongside some documents of more topical political concern.7 The fact that the entire portfolio of documents was apparently transcribed at the same time suggests that whoever assembled them all saw a connection between them. The documents were first brought to public attention nearly three-quarters of a century ago by H.G. Richardson.8 To date, they have not received the attention they deserve from those with an interest in Richard II. Yet all are potentially of great importance to an understanding of the politics of the king’s reign.

Richard II and Duke of Gloucester at Pleshy

The duke of Gloucester receiving Richard II at the castle of Pleshey, detail of a miniature from BL Harley MS. 4380 f.117

The documents alongside which Magna Carta sits all relate to the prolonged political crisis of 1386-1388. In this two-year period a sustained assault was mounted on Richard II’s authority, which began with the impeachment of Chancellor de la Pole and the appointment of the so-called ‘continual council’, both in the parliament of October-November 1386, and which was to culminate in 1388 in the meeting of the so-called Merciless Parliament, at which an appeal of treason was brought against the king’s leading advisers. The first document, entered on folios 121v-123r (115v-117r) of the register, is a copy of the statute appointing the ‘continual council’ for twelve months, in the form it which it was issued in letters to the sheriffs on 1 December 1386.9 This document is immediately followed on folios 123r-v (117r-v) by an incomplete transcription of the ‘Carta de Rounkemede’ as it is termed – the 1215 Magna Carta - consisting of the opening address, clauses 1 and 2 and the security clause. After this, on folios 123v-124r (117v-118r) comes what the heading calls the ‘false indictment made by the duke of Ireland and others against the duke of Gloucester and other faithful nobles at Nottingham on 25 August 1387’: a document which on inspection turns out to be a copy of the notorious questions to the judges of that month.10 Next, on folios 124v-125v (118v-119v) comes what purports to be an edited version of the statute roll of the Merciless Parliament of 1388, but which is actually an abbreviated copy of the king’s letters of November 1386 appointing the ‘continual council’, as recorded on that roll, with the names of the earls of Nottingham and Derby illicitly interpolated among those nominated to the council.11 Finally, after the interruption afforded by a general procuration by Prior Cheriton, there is a copy of the appeal of treason brought by the five Appellants against the king’s favourites and prosecuted in the Merciless Parliament.

It is not difficult to guess who could have been responsible for the assembling of this highly-charged portfolio of documents and their subsequent transcription into the register. That person can only have been Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, the king’s youngest uncle, a leading member of the Appellant coalition, and the patron of Llanthony priory by virtue of his marriage to Eleanor de Bohun, descendant of the house’s founder, Miles, earl of Hereford. Llanthony had been established as an offshoot of the original Llanthony priory – Llanthony Prima - in 1136 on land granted to the community near Gloucester by Earl Miles, the constable of Gloucester castle. Duke Thomas resided principally at Pleshey in Essex, a property brought to him by his wife, and one which had the advantage of being relatively close to London. Nonetheless, he is known to have paid frequent visits to Gloucestershire, and in July 1381 he was active in suppressing an insurrection in the town of Gloucester itself. On that occasion, as an account of the episode records, he stayed at the priory, and he and his wife were received into its confraternity.12

The duke of Northumberland's oath

The duke of Northumberland swearing an oath, detail from a miniature from BL Harley MS. 1319 f.41v

The background to the transcription of the documents is probably to be found in the political difficulties which the Appellants faced in the last weeks of 1387 and early months of 1388.13 In the autumn of 1387, as the expiry of the continual council’s term of office drew near, Gloucester and his allies were turning their attention to the matter of how they were to sustain their position in the face of the expected royalist revanche. As the Westminster chronicler records, over the summer the king had been actively strengthening his position in the eastern counties, while in the autumn his ally Robert de Vere, duke of Ireland, began mobilising a force in Cheshire which he intended bringing south to liberate his royal master. Three of the king’s adversaries – Thomas of Woodstock himself and the earls of Arundel and Warwick - responded by bringing an appeal of treason against de Vere and other leading associates of the king, and before Christmas they had been joined by the earls of Nottingham and Derby. To eliminate the threat posed by de Vere and his force, the allies – the Appellants, as they are generally known today - put a series of forces into the field, one of which under the command of Henry of Derby defeated de Vere at Radcot Bridge (Oxon.). The problem which the Appellants then faced was: how were they to proceed after that? The five were concerned as far as possible to act within the bounds of the law. One possibility was to revive the old ‘continual council’ of 1386, investing it with authority for a fresh term and creating a body rather on the lines of the Council of June 1258: the fact that the commission establishing the continual council was transcribed twice over in the Llanthony register suggests that the lords did actually give serious thought to this possibility. In the end, however, they dismissed it. Their preferred solution was to rely on the appeal of treason, a device which had the especial attraction of solving the problem of excess royal power by eliminating all those around the king to whose presence the Appellants took exception. The appeal, a procedure unknown to the common law while at the same time unrecognised in the Court of Chivalry, could only be heard in a public assembly such as parliament. Accordingly, at the beginning of January, on the Appellants’ initiative, writs were issued for the summoning of a parliament, appointed to convene at Westminster on 2 February. Although, when the assembly opened, only one of the accused, Nicholas Brembre, the Lord Mayor of London, was present to stand trial, all the defendants were found guilty, and their non-entailed lands seized and taken into royal keeping. By the beginning of March, as the first batch of parliamentary prosecutions drew to a close, the Appellants, by now increasingly worried about their personal security, began to take measures to ensure that their political achievements were properly safeguarded. What they initiated, to this end, was an elaborate programme of oath-taking. On 20 March they arranged for the members of both houses of parliament to swear a solemn oath affirming their backing for the five lords, while simultaneously arranging for the sheriffs to exact the same oath from the leading gentry and townsmen of their bailiwicks. A month-and-a-half later, as the session drew to a close, they went through the same procedure again to ensure the permanence of their legislative enactments. All those present, both lords and commons, processed to Westminster Abbey, where they were to swear to uphold the acts and judgements of the parliament; and again, simultaneously the sheriffs were required to exact the same oath in their bailiwicks. On both occasions, the sheriffs were ordered to make a return to the Appellant government listing those who had taken the oath and those who had refused. One such return survives to the March oath, that for Lincolnshire, and one to the June oath, that for Sussex.14

By the time the Merciless Parliament ended in June, the Appellants had attained virtually all their main political objectives. They had cleansed the augean stables of the court, with such key figures such as Burley, Brembre and Tresilian all sent to the executioner’s block, and others, such as de la Pole and de Vere, driven into exile. At the same time, many clerks and lesser-ranking figures had been obliged to abjure the court. The Appellants, despite the scale of their triumph, however, would have been well aware that so ruthless and relentless a pursuit of the royal favourites would expose them to the danger of revenge once the king had recovered power. It was precisely to guard against such an eventuality that they inaugurated the country-wide programme of oath-taking. What has to date received little attention is the matter of where they got the idea of the oath-taking programme from. There was no obvious precedent for it in the great early fourteenth-century baronial movement in which both sides in Richard’s reign took such interest, namely that of Edward II’s reign. Now that we are apprised of the close interest which Thomas of Woodstock developed in the ‘Charter of Runnymede’, however, we have an answer. The model was to be found in Magna Carta.

In order to secure King John’s compliance with the terms of the Charter, what the barons had done in 1215 was provide for the appointment of the Twenty-Five, a group of senior lords whose principal task was to oversee the restitution clauses of the agreement – that is to say, those clauses in which the king pledged the restoration to their rightful owners of the lands which he had unjustly confiscated. To ensure local co-operation with the Twenty-Five, the barons took the extraordinary – and, to John’s mind, utterly offensive – step of providing for the group to exact oaths from ‘anyone in the land who wished to take an oath to obey the orders of the Twenty-Five’. Thanks to a recent discovery by Nicholas Vincent, we now know that this programme of oath-taking was put into effect. In a cartulary of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, there survives a copy of the letter implementing the oath, written in the names of Robert FitzWalter and the earls of Clare, Essex, Norfolk and Winchester, and addressed to the sheriff of Kent informing him that four knights were being sent to him to receive on behalf of the earls and their colleagues the oaths due to be sworn according to the king’s letters.15 There can be little doubt that the ambitious programme of oath-taking envisaged under clause 61 of the Great Charter was the model for the not dissimilar programme set in motion by the Appellants in 1388.

Llanthony Secunda Priory, Gloucestershire

Llanthony Secunda Priory, Gloucestershire, in an eighteenth-century engraving

This evidence of a connection between the Appellants’ oath-taking programme and the provisions for oath-swearing in clause 61 of Magna Carta takes us back to the collections of documents at Gloucester and Llanthony, which we have been considering. How, in particular, we may ask, are we to account for the portfolio of politically-charged documents assembled at Llanthony? One possibility might be to suppose that the portfolio was put together not at Llanthony at all, but rather at Pleshey, Thomas of Woodstock’s Essex seat, and on Duke Thomas’s initiative was sent to Llanthony, where it was transcribed into the register. Such a reconstruction would appear to correspond to Richardson’s view that ‘evidently the [Llanthony] documents were circulated together’; and it must certainly be allowed a possibility.16 Against the hypothesis, however, must be set the matter of what on earth Duke Thomas could have gained from despatching the portfolio to Llanthony. It is at least conceivable that he promoted the portfolio in the shires as part of the Appellants’ well-attested and well-organised propaganda offensive, and that it was picked up by the Llanthony writer as an odd set of stray documents. Attractive as the possibility may appear, however, it has to be deemed unlikely, as the portfolio was transcribed and recorded nowhere else. In the light of these problems, there may be an argument for an alternative hypothesis, namely that the portfolio was actually put together at Llanthony. What might have happened is something on these lines. The Appellants, faced with the difficulty of how to guarantee the permanence of their achievements, instituted searches of monastic archives for any convenient documents from earlier crises which could suggest what they might do in the present. They would have been especially interested in those monasteries with which they had family ties or which they knew to have a strong sense of history. At Llanthony the search is likely to have been undertaken by Prior Cheriton or, at the very least, by someone working for or alongside him.17 The most significant document that the prior and his men came up with was a copy of the Great Charter of 1215. This may have been a copy preserved in the archive at Llanthony itself. Since Llanthony, a relatively minor house, is unlikely to have had a copy of its own, however, it is more likely to have come from an unofficial copy or a near-final draft drawn up and then discarded in the course of the negotiating process of 1215. David Carpenter has recently identified the Llanthony text as a member of the family of copies of the Charter which includes the draft discovered in the 1960s by V.H. Galbraith at the Huntington Library, California.18 The crucial evidence for this is found in its place-dating at Windsor, as in the Huntington copy, and not at Runnymede. If Carpenter’s identification is correct, as it surely is, then an explanation is immediately afforded for some of the peculiarities of wording of the security clause, which are not found in most of the surviving ‘original’ engrossments of the Charter.

On this same hypothesis, later on, as the crisis unfolded, perhaps in the early months of 1388, various other documents of importance to the Appellants, such as the questions to the judges and the appeal of treason, would have been deposited at Llanthony by Duke Thomas and transcriptions made of these. If the hypothesis is accepted, then it is quite possible that a similar process of searching, deposit and transcription could have gone on at Walden Abbey in Essex, another house with which Duke Thomas was connected through his wife’s family. The Appellants have sometimes been criticised by scholars for their relative lack of creative political thinking, at least by comparison with the boldness shown by the thirteenth-century opposition movements. It is certainly beyond challenge that they showed themselves hesitant in contemplating any new scheme of conciliar supervision. Of one thing at least, however, we can now be reasonably certain: the Appellants were well aware of the measures that their thirteenth-century predecessors had taken to shore up their own constitutional achievements, and they looked to the model of the oath-taking programme of 1215 for ideas on how to make their own achievement permanent. The Appellants appear to have given rather more thought to the matter of how the king might be constrained than perhaps they have generally been given credit for.


I am very grateful to David Carpenter for his comments on an earlier draft of this article.


Gloucester Cathedral Library, Frocester Register 1397 (formerly Reg. A).


M. Biddle, ‘Seasonal festivals and residence: Winchester, Westminster and Gloucester in the tenth to twelfth centuries’, in Anglo-Norman Studies, VIII. Proceedings of the Battle Conference, 1985, ed. R. Allen Brown (Woodbridge, 1986), 51-72.


Simultaneously with this court Archbishop Lanfranc held a council of the English church which, being an ecclesiastical gathering, may be assumed to have been convened at the abbey.


The Westminster Chronicle, 1381-1394, ed. L.C. Hector and B.F. Harvey (Oxford, 1982), 436.


The Henry III reissues are noted in Historia et Cartularium Monasterii Sancti Petri Gloucestriae, ed. W.H. Hart (3 vols., Rolls series, 1863-7), i, 225, 348.


The National Archives, C115/78, fos. 123r-v (117r-v).


H.G. Richardson, ‘The morrow of the Great Charter’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 28 (1944), 422-43, at 440 n3.


For text and commentary, see Westminster Chronicle, 166-76.


The Questions to the judges, and the judges’ answers to them, are reproduced in two chronicle narratives, those of the Monk of Westminster (Westminster Chronicle, 196-202) and Henry Knighton, the Leicester writer who gained much information from the Appellants (Knighton’s Chronicle, 1337-1396, ed. G.H. Martin (Oxford, 1995), 394-8).


Statutes of the Realm (11 vols., London, 1810-18), ii, 44-6.


R. Holt, ‘Thomas of Woodstock and events at Gloucester in 1381’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 58 (1985), 237-42.


For contemporary narratives of the events of these years, see Westminster Chronicle, 167-343; Knighton’s Chronicle, 353-505; The St Albans Chronicle, I, 1376-1394, ed. J. Taylor, W. Childs, L. Watkiss (Oxford, 2003), 797-853; for modern discussion, see N.E. Saul, Richard II (New Haven and London, 1997), chaps. 8 and 9.


For the oath-taking, see N.E. Saul, ‘The Sussex gentry and the oath to uphold the acts of the Merciless Parliament’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 135 (1997), 221-39.


D.A. Carpenter, Magna Carta (London, 2015), 382-3.


Richardson, ‘Morrow of the Great Charter’, 440 n3.


Llanthony evidently kept a chronicle, now lost, because the account of Thomas of Woodstock’s visit to the priory in 1381, to which we have referred, is found in the much later register of Prior Hayward (1457-65) and must therefore have been lifted from a chronicle which has not survived: Holt, ‘Thomas of Woodstock and events at Gloucester’, 237.


V.H. Galbraith, ‘A draft of Magna Carta (1215)’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 53 (1967), 345-60.

Referenced in

The Copies at Lincoln and Salisbury of the 1215 Magna Carta (Features of the Month)

Feature of the Month