The Magna Carta Project

Original Latin


Et civitas Londoniarum habeat omnes antiquas libertates et liberas consuetudines suas, tam per terras, quam per aquas. Praeterea volumus et concedimus quod omnes aliae civitates, et burgi, et villae, et portus, habeant omnes libertates et liberas consuetudines suas.


And the city of London is to have all its ancient liberties and free customs, both on land and water. Moreover we wish and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns and ports are to have all their liberties and free customs.

Audio commentary

Commentary for academic researchers

The city, the clause and the crown

Clause 13 of Magna Carta originated as the last section of no. 32 of the Articles of the Barons, which is placed in a small group (31-33) implicitly or explicitly devoted to the interests of London.  The first section of the Article, which was of very wide significance by virtue of its being concerned with the imposition of the levies known as scutages and aids, acquired a London connection through the sleight of hand which attempted to have the tallages and aids which were imposed on London and other towns treated in the same way as scutages and aids demanded from individuals, and made only with the consent of those involved.  However, tallages were entirely arbitrary levies which were traditionally imposed by lords on serfs and townsmen, and moreover had no intrinsic connection with aids.1  The demand was probably strongly resisted by the king, and perhaps not very warmly supported by the barons, and for that reason, and also because it lacked inherent authenticity, the Londoners were unable to insist on its inclusion, so that it was ultimately abandoned.

The first part of Article 32 became what in its conventional numbering is Clause 12 of Magna Carta, and was placed among a number of clauses dealing with financial impositions and the issue of consent, where it concluded by giving London (but no other town) the right to consultation where aids were concerned, and made no reference to tallage.  The security of the present-day numbering of the Charter’s clauses is not always certain, however.  It is possible that this award to the capital is misplaced at the end of Clause 12, and that originally it formed the first part of a Clause 13 entirely made up of concessions to London, while the second sentence of what is now Clause 13, in which a phrase from Article 32 relating to aids and tallages has been adapted so as to extend the rights of London to all other privileged urban communities, initially constituted a discrete clause, its opening signalled by the word `Moreover’ (Preterea).2  Against this, it could be argued that since Clause 12 was essentially concerned with scutages and aids, the treatment of aids upon London was perfectly reasonably included in it.  Moreover, Clause 13, as conventionally represented, had sufficient coherence to enable it to survive largely unchanged in subsequent reissues, whereas Clause 12 was entirely abandoned within a year.

Whatever its original content, the placing of what has come to be accepted as Clause 13 is of interest.  It would have been logical for it to have been returned to the original position of Article 32, between the articles which became Clauses 41 and 42.  That this did not happen may simply have been because a final decision as to how Article 32 should be treated was taken too late to allow the necessary reorganisation of the Charter as it took its final shape.  But the advanced placing of the clause may also have been intended – and in this context it would have made no difference where Clause 12 ended - as an acknowledgment by the barons that the city’s support was crucial to their cause.  The fact that London alone among English towns was to enjoy the benefits of consultation when an aid was taken made the same point.  It may be an additional pointer to the city’s perceived importance that it was referred to in Magna Carta as a corporate entity, with an existence, and presumably standing, which could be separated from those of the people who lived there.  Whereas the charter which King John had granted to London little more than a month earlier was conventionally addressed to its citizens, described as `our barons of our city of London’, Magna Carta referred to London as an objective entity, comparable to `the Church’, or even to `the realm’, which in Clause 14 could be regarded as capable of `common counsel’.  Other urban communities were referred to in the same terms, but because they were not named they remained in London’s shadow.

London’s importance was certainly such as to justify special treatment in Magna Carta.  Three other clauses (33, 35 and 41) are to at least some extent concerned with its interests and special place in the realm, and indeed, apart from the honours named as examples in Clause 43, and Runnymede and the neighbouring townships mentioned in the dating clause, it is the only place referred to as such in the entire text.  Its citizens had claimed a king-making role in 1135,3 and even before then London had been developing rights of, and claims to, self-government, initially recognised in a charter of Henry I, which among other privileges granted the city its feefarm, that is, the right to account at the exchequer for revenues traditionally owing to the crown, at a fixed rate and through officials of the citizens’ own choice.4  The feefarm was withdrawn by Henry II,5 however, who firmly controlled the city’s aspirations, though at the same time he indirectly promoted them through financial exactions which forced corporate action and organisation upon it, making it essential for London to develop the machinery needed to assess and collect the money he required of it at regular intervals during much of his reign – not only did he exact an annual payment, a `farm’, of nearly £550, but between 1155 and 1177 a total of £4780. 16s. 8d. was demanded from London in a series of aids and `gifts’.6  In the last twelve years of his reign, possibly influenced by the city’s loyalty to himself during the rebellion of 1173/4, Henry briefly cut the annual `farm’ by half, and he also looked elsewhere for ready cash, especially among the Jews.  But the respite did nothing to deflect the Londoners from their pursuit of greater independence, and in 1191 they exploited a political crisis arising from Richard I’s absence on crusade to obtain from the future King John the grant of a `commune’, giving them the right to associate for the purposes of self-government.  The first mayor appeared shortly afterwards.7

When Richard returned to England in 1194, he granted London a charter confirming it in the rights it had enjoyed under his father.  He neither suppressed the commune nor gave it formal recognition, but thanks to a `gift’ of £1000, ostensibly `for the king’s good will and for the preservation of its liberties and for its contribution to the king’s ransom’, he appears to have acquiesced in its existence.8  A further gift of 500 marks in 1196 no doubt helped persuade him to continue doing so,9 assisted, perhaps, by the consideration that by this date there were strong links of mutual advantage and necessity joining the king to the city which was now coming to be seen as England’s capital.  For London, the king was both the source and the guarantor of its privileges, while the needs of his court, when he was in England, acted as a powerful stimulus to the city’s trade and thus to the development of its prosperity.  For the king, the wealth of London, along with his ability to draw upon it, constituted one of the principal elements among his fiscal resources.  The long mayoralty of Henry FitzAilwin, from about 1194 to 1212, probably owed much to his recognition, and promotion, of these shared interests, which were similarly upheld by the king’s government in 1196, when the justiciar, Hubert Walter, took stern action in defence of the city oligarchy against the protest movement led by William FitzOsbert.10

Strains and pains: London and King John

London’s relationship with King John was ambivalent from the first.  On 17 June 1199 the new king, no doubt aware of the value of the city’s backing at the outset of his reign, granted it a charter confirming that of Richard I.11  But there was a background of unease to the transaction.  The price was the high one of 3000 marks, and there seem to have been reservations among the Londoners about paying it, for when the charter was drawn up `it was handed over to Geoffrey fitz Peter [the justiciar] on condition that if they are willing to give those three thousand marks they will have their charter, but if not they will not have it.’12  The citizens may have hoped for a repetition of the benevolence which in 1191 had helped them to win their commune, and misguidedly expected John to give them their charter for nothing.  Or perhaps there were uncertainties which needed to be resolved as to whether, and how, this large sum was to be raised.  The Londoners soon resolved to meet the king’s demands, however, and an elaborate organisation was set up to raise the money, based on the wards but with a central chest, with contributions being demanded in proportion to their wealth from all who had rents or chattels worth more than 12d.13  By 1203 all but £13. 17s. 5d. of the proffer had been paid,14 and in the same year John spoke fulsomely of his relationship with London, in a letter about the treatment of Jews in the city: `We have always loved you much and have caused your rights and liberties to be well observed, wherefore we believe that you feel a particular love for us, and are willing to promote those things which tend towards our honour and the peace and tranquillity of our land ...’.15

There may have been less affection towards the king in the city than he supposed, however.  A year earlier the citizens had undertaken to pay the king £40 for the suppression of the weavers’ gild, which had originated before 1130 and paid £12 yearly into the treasury – no doubt its existence was regarded as detrimental to the authority of the commune.  John accepted the deal, and the money was paid in 1205, but either the weavers objected or the king came to have doubts, for when he issued his charter abolishing the gild he sent it to the justiciar for implementation, along with a copy of what was probably his first charter of 1199, with instructions that the former was only to be put into effect if it was consonant with the latter.16  Probably the citizens had claimed that the existence of the weavers’ gild was discrepant with the privileges which John had recently granted them.  The claim would seem to have proved untenable, for the weavers were able to make an agreement of their own with the king, whereby they raised their annual payment to £20 and retained their gild.  The episode may well have fostered suspicions on both sides between the king and his capital.

In 1204 the citizens of London agreed to pay 1000 marks pro fine passagii, presumably as commutation of some kind of service in or to Normandy, and in the same year they seem to have been persuaded to offer the king a New Year’s gift of £100,17 though they never actually paid it – although it was nominally made annually, they owed £300 by 1207, at which point the debt was pardoned at the suggestion of the justiciar.18  Then in June 1205 they paid £600 into the king’s chamber, as their contribution to that year’s expedition to Poitou.19  There is also evidence that John was taking tallages from the city around this time, though not for the sums involved.  On 4 February 1206 letters patent addressed to `his barons of London’ expressed the king’s concern that the city was suffering greatly from the misconduct of certain leading citizens (superiores) who had been responsible for the assessment, collection and payment of tallages, and suggesting that the proceeds of such levies, which had been paid by `the common people of your city’, had been sticking to these wealthy men’s fingers (a charge often made against members of the ruling classes in medieval towns and cities).  To uphold both the king’s honour and right, and the common advantage of the city, and to prevent internal dissension, twenty-four well-qualified men were to be chosen by whom the necessary reforms could be made.20

Although it is not known what action followed, the oath taken by the chosen twenty-four survives, and in its professed concern for `the right of the lord king which belongs to him in the city of London’, combined with concern for the preservation of the city’s liberty, it closely matched the terms of the king’s mandate for their appointment.21  Similarly the oath’s stress on the incorruptibility of the twenty-four, who were to swear to receive neither gift nor promise, was highly relevant to the inquiries they were to make into financial malpractices.  The oath has been perceived as shedding important light on the constitution of London in the early years of the city’s self-government,22 but in fact its application was administrative and temporary.  It is likely, indeed, that in ordering investigations John was looking back to the populist agitation of William FitzOsbert in the mid-1190s, which had been directed against very similar issues.  But the principal significance of the commission and the oath lie in the evidence they provide for John’s having taken tallages from the city, even though their issues went unrecorded on the pipe rolls, for the discontent they aroused, as much against the manner of their collection as against the taxes themselves, and for the steps he was willing to take in order to maintain his position there.

In the years after 1206, however, it became increasingly apparent that his revenues and rights meant more to John than the city’s good will.  Although the king was slow to make new demands – 200 marks for quittance of the customs levy of a fifteenth, agreed in 1206, were not paid until 121123 – London came under steady pressure from the exchequer to pay off its old debts, starting with just over £250 in 1207 from the arrears of the fee-farms of the last seven years.24  A year later the citizens accounted for amalgamated debts totalling just over £1500,25 all of which were paid during the three years following.  No sooner had the last of those debts been cleared than London had to find a further 2000 marks for a `gift’ to the king,26 a sum paid that same year (£200 were paid into the king’s chamber, as a total of £1000 from earlier debts had been, raising the possibility that this was where the money raised by unrecorded tallages had been handed over).  And in 1214 came a demand for another 2000 marks, this time avowedly in the form of an arbitrary tallage, with a tight schedule for payment – 500 marks were to be paid at the quindene of St John the Baptist (8 July), and 500 at the feast of St Peter (probably 1 August), while the rest was to go towards paying the king’s debts to Flemish merchants.27

Meanwhile in 1212, perhaps in July, a fire broke out in Southwark which spread north across the river, devastating London Bridge and causing widespread damage in the city, while the death in September that year of Henry FitzAilwin, the long-serving mayor of London, may have created something of a power vacuum in the city – his successor, Roger FitzAlan, does not appear to have been a man of comparable stature.28  But at this critical juncture John made no attempt to win gratitude or support within London (the tallage of 1214 can certainly have earned him neither), apparently preferring instead to rely on armed force. Payments in 1212 and 1214 to the garrison in the Tower and for the safe-keeping of the Thames29 probably originated in the threat of a French invasion in the former year, but as this danger was temporarily eliminated by the destruction of the French fleet in May 1213, they may also reflect the king’s determination to retain control of a city now perhaps showing signs of instability and discontent.  Only in 1215, however, does the king seem to have become fully aware that neither the loyalty nor the defensibility of his capital could be taken for granted.

1215: London changes sides

John seems to have expected the barons to make for London, and may even have hoped they would do so, so providing him with an opportunity to inflict a decisive defeat upon them.  Perhaps he envisaged his enemies as advancing upon London, only to be trapped against its well-defended walls by his mercenary troops coming up behind them, and then forced to choose between abject surrender and utter destruction.30  It would have been in accordance with such a strategy that on 2 May 1215 John granted the new mayor, Serlo the mercer, timber from Havering park for the strengthening of London’s defences, and two days later ordered the exchequer to give Serlo 200 marks for the same purpose,31 while on the 10th he ordered that a wall be made `in a hurry’ between the Tower and the city wall32 – perhaps it was intended to command the approaches to the Postern Gate, immediately to the north of the Tower, in case the barons attempted to force an entry there.  Such was the haste that the wall had to be made of earth, at a cost of £12.33  It was probably at around the same time, and with the same sense of urgency, that the citizens set about raising money `to enclose the city’, perhaps by completing, or deepening, the ditch, 200 feet wide, which they had begun to make round London in 1212.34  Payments for this latest work were to be made immediately, or by the following Sunday at the latest, and even foreign merchants were expected to contribute.35

Since these civic works were described as undertaken `at the request and with the assent’ of the king, who was given two barrels of wine between 8 and 10 May by `our barons of London’,36 it would appear that John still had supporters within the city, and probably remained confident of its support.  The barons, for their part, can hardly have been ignorant of the risks which an outright attack on the capital would entail, and they, too, must have come to believe that they could count on being admitted to the city, though it is not entirely clear when and how they did so.  After failing to capture Northampton castle, they moved south to Bedford, where they were welcomed by William de Beauchamp.  It was only at this point, according to Roger of Wendover, that they were approached by messengers from London, urging them to come with haste.37  Ralph of Coggeshall, who speaks of conspiracy through intermediaries, suggests more extended contacts, and adds a significant detail in recording the approach of the earl of Salisbury to the city.38  John, who had himself been in London as recently as 9 May,39 had at last become aware that there was serious disaffection in his capital.  He wrote to the mayor and citizens from Marlborough on the 16th, telling them that he was sending the earl (who was also his own half-brother) to them, and that they should follow his instructions,40 while a day later he wrote again, saying that William of Cornhill, bishop of Coventry, a trusted adviser of he king and also a member of a prominent city family, and Hubert de Burgh were also on their way.41

Hubert was an experienced and capable soldier (he had held the castle of Chinon against French forces for a whole year in 1204-5), and had he been inside the city when the barons arrived before it, there can be little doubt that they would have faced strong resistance.  But John had responded too late to the threat to London, and his emissaries failed to reach the city in time, whereas the barons seized their opportunity.  Going east to Ware, they turned south down Ermine Street, and arrived before London on the morning of Sunday the 17th (having marched all night, according to Wendover).  The chroniclers differ in their accounts of what followed, but agree in describing the city as only nominally defended: according to one account, the barons found the gates shut but unlocked;42 another records that the gates were standing open while the citizens attended mass;43 while a third describes soldiers scaling the walls with ladders used by workmen who had been repairing the defences, and then opening the gates from within.44  From the fact that the barons were said to have demolished houses belonging to Jews and used the stones to strengthen the walls,45 it would appear that work on the latter was still incomplete; as it was, John’s precautions were now turned against him. The barons arrested the king’s supporters in the city and took their goods, and they also set guards on the gates and walls.  Early in June they tried to capture the Tower as well, but without success, and for the time being it remained under the king’s control.46

It is hardly possible to overestimate the importance of the fall of London to the king’s enemies.  Without its resources, and – of even greater value – without the refuge afforded by its walls, the barons were effectively doomed to defeat whenever the king brought all the forces at his disposal into the field against them.  But with London on their side, the barons were able to demand concessions which the king was in no position to refuse, at least in the short term.  John saw this as clearly as anyone.  Fully aware that the Londoners had hardly tried to offer even a show of defence, on 18 May he described them as having acted `of their own free will’ (spontanea voluntate) in surrendering the city, and two days later he gave voice to his fury and outrage against them for their `dishonest and treacherous’ desertion of him by ordering his subjects to treat them as his enemies and to do them every possible injury.47 His response can only have hardened the citizens in their resistance.  According to Matthew Paris, John had come to be hated in London, for impoverishing them in breach of their ancient rights, and tallaging them as though they were the lowest form of serfs,48 while Roger of Wendover offered the more nuanced judgment that it was the rich men of the city who supported the barons, so that the poor feared to complain against what had happened.49  Perhaps John’s action against the superiores in 1206, reinforced by the impact of later exactions which perhaps fell more heavily than usual on the governing classes precisely because they now hesitated to pass them on to those beneath them, had alienated the well-to-do of London, while the city poor lacked the strength to provide the king with any compensating support.  But although material considerations must indeed have carried much weight among the citizens who sided with the barons in 1215, there were other, less tangible, forces at work which may also have influenced their behaviour.  An early thirteenth-century text of the Leges Edwardi Confessoris, identifiably of London origin, contains interpolations which identify kingship with justice, call upon the king to rule with the counsel of the chief men of the realm, and postulate an unmistakeably urban scenario for action against injustice and bad government, with the bells (`motbele’) being rung and assemblies (`folkesmoth’) convoked, so that measures can be promoted `to repress the insolence of evildoers for the utility of the kingdom’.50

The barons manifestly shared the reservations expressed in the interpolations over the uninhibited exercise of royal power, and they may well have been influenced, too, in their attitudes and aspirations by the corporatism which found expression in London’s commune and the privileges granted to many other towns and cities.51  It has also been suggested that the committee of twenty-five established to oversee the observance of the Charter was influenced in the number of its members by the council of twenty-five discreet men who according to the London chronicler Arnold FitzThedmar were elected in 1201 to assist the mayor in the government of the city.52  But FitzThedmar was writing over fifty years later, and since no other source makes any mention of this council, its existence, or at any rate its continuance, must be regarded as doubtful.  In fact there is no evidence that in their early negotiations with King John, undertaken before they gained control of the capital, the barons gave any thought to the interests of London, or of towns in general, even though Robert FitzWalter, one of their leaders, was lord of Baynard’s Castle, in the city’s south-west corner (it was demolished on the king’s order after Robert’s outlawry in 1212),53 and himself engaged in trade.54  There is nothing relevant to London in the `unknown’ charter, for instance (which may have implications for its date).  The clauses in Magna Carta which addressed the interests of London must have been there because they were demanded by its citizens, once they were in a position to influence its composition.

Expectations and rewards

What the Londoners wanted is shown by a list of nine demands which seems to date from this time, and may have been drawn up shortly before the barons took possession of the city, perhaps even for presentation to both the king and his adversaries.55  Two of the clauses were addressed by John.  As noticed above, he took steps to strengthen the city’s defences (no. 6), and in a charter of 9 May, in which personal pronouns were deliberately employed to stress his own association with the Londoners, he granted `our barons of our city of London’ the right to elect their mayor each year (no. 8), and to remove him, if they so wished, at the end of the year and choose a successor – perhaps the extended tenure of Henry FitzAilwin had aroused discontent in some circles.56  The Londoners had demanded that the election take place in the folkmoot, and that the mayor `should first swear’, probably meaning that he should declare that his primary allegiance was to the interests of the city.  John countered this by requiring that each new mayor should be presented to himself (or to the justiciar in his absence), and should swear fealty to him.  It seems unlikely that this elaboration on their demand for the mayoralty was objectionable to the city, but the rest of the charter must have been a disappointment there, for John confined himself to a generalised confirmation of London’s existing liberties, one that was qualified, moreover, by his reserving the rights of his chamberlain (salva nobis chamberlengeria nostra), which meant that he would retain the right to exploit the city’s commerce whenever he saw fit.

The relatively meagre extent of his concessions in his charter of 9 May constitutes further evidence for John’s complacency with regard to the loyalty of London.  Its citizens had hoped for more, and on the evidence of Magna Carta, the barons were willing to provide more, even though they did not, in the end, give the Londoners everything they sought.  The call for the abolition of evil tolls and customs (no. 2), and for foreign merchants being able to come freely to England (no. 8), formed the basis of Clause 41, but the demand that the Thames should be absolutely and wholly the city’s (no. 1) was reduced to Clause 33, commanding the removal of fish-weirs.  And although the insistence that tallages be levied only `by the common assent of the kingdom and the city’ (no. 3) formed part of no. 32 of the Articles of the Barons, albeit with the small but important difference that tallages and aids on London and other towns were to be imposed only `by the common counsel of the kingdom’, with no special voice being allowed to the city, London’s claim to special treatment in this matter was scaled down to cover only aids.  Three demands, for the abolition of unlicensed parks (no. 5), the re-instatement of the exchange (no. 4), and the right to distrain upon debtors (no. 9), were not addressed at all.  The first of them, concerning parks, must have arisen from the hunting rights enjoyed by the Londoners, which according to Henry I’s charter extended into `Chiltern and Middlesex and Surrey’, while William FitzStephen described them as encompassing Hertfordshire and a part of Kent as well.57  Probably these led to friction with, and then enclosures by, landowners over whose estates the citizens had become accustomed to pass in their pursuit of game.  The demand for the old exchange is puzzling, for despite reforms arising from the recoinages of 1180 and 1205, London’s mint and exchange had consistently remained open, unlike those in most other towns58 – perhaps it was the crown’s tight control of operations and proceeds which the citizens objected to.  As far as the collection of debts was concerned, however, in demanding that `if debtors or their fellow-citizens (vel sui) come in the city, they may be distrained’, the Londoners had a clear precedent to refer to, for Henry I’s charter had licensed them to distrain for unpaid debts not only on debtors and their sureties, but also on other members of the debtors’ communities.  This privilege was not repeated in subsequent royal grants, possibly because although the practice in question was a widespread one, it was also much resented, and a number of towns obtained exemption from it.59

More generally, such issues may have been too specifically London-oriented to make Magna Carta the appropriate place for their remedy, if, indeed, any remedy at all was thought necessary.  Instead Clause 13, like King John, fell back on a general confirmation of the city’s liberties, rather more succinct than the king’s, and - crucially - omitting any reference to the chamberlain.  It might seem surprising, given the city’s importance to the barons, that the Londoners were given so little at this point in Magna Carta – a vague concession on aids, nothing on tallage, and a confirmation of liberties which was extended to all other towns.  But that confirmation had a wider application, in that Clause 13 made an overt declaration, in the context of a document addressed to all the free men of the kingdom, that London had rights which merited protection, and also gave public expression to the city’s leading position within the realm, one that was enhanced, moreover, by its mayor’s inclusion among the twenty-five barons responsible for the observance of the Charter.  Since the other barons were territorial magnates who could expect to impose tallages on their own tenants, urban as well as rural, perhaps it was unrealistic to expect them to support London’s claim to consultation.  The Londoners probably did as well as could reasonably have been expected in the circumstances, and well enough to cause them to remain in alliance with the barons.  John was naturally determined to recover the city if he could, and probably shortly after Magna Carta was issued he negotiated an agreement with the barons, under which the city was to remain in the hands of the latter, while Archbishop Langton would take command of the Tower, `saving to the city of London its liberties and its free customs’ (surely a deliberate echo of Clause 13), until oaths had been taken throughout the country to obey the twenty-five barons, and the king had given the redress demanded of him under the terms of the Charter.  If this had been done by 15 August, then both the city and the Tower were to be returned to the king, otherwise both were to stay under their existing controls until these conditions had been met.60

It was never likely that they would be, and already at the end of June there were rumours of an impending attempt by the king’s men to recapture the city by force.  For their part, the barons remained fully aware how crucial their hold on London was to their own safety.  As Robert FitzWalter, writing to William d’Aubigny at this time, observed: `You know well how great an advantage it is to you and to all of us to preserve the city of London, which is our place of refuge; and how great a shame and loss it would be to us, if by our own incompetence we were to lose it ...’.61  They did not do so, rather London stayed loyal to the baronial cause, and fell under the ban of the church as a result.  On 5 September 1215 papal delegates instructed Archbishop Langton and his suffragans to excommunicate rebels against the king, with the Londoners foremost among them, while on 16 December the pope himself ordered that John’s enemies, including `those citizens of London who were the prime movers in this wickedness’, should be excommunicated, and an interdict was laid upon the city as a whole.62  But the Londoners ignored these fulminations, claiming, according to Wendover, that secular affairs were none of the pope’s business.63  Their prominence thereafter among the king’s adversaries was such that the mayor and other citizens were included among the baronial representatives appointed for abortive peace negotiations in November 1215,64 and when John looked like attacking the city in the spring of 1216, it offered so belligerent a show of resistance that the king withdrew.65  The Londoners swore fealty to Prince Louis after he entered the city in May 1216,66 while five leading citizens, headed by the mayor (now William Hardel), lent him 1000 marks.67  The city’s alliance with Louis and the barons endured until the end of the civil war in 1217.

Urban rights and the exploitation of towns under King John

London may be said to dominate Clause 13, as it did English urban life, but it was not the only town whose interests were affected by it.  In article 32, the treatment of London with regard to tallages and aids was granted to `other cities which have such liberties’, but in Clause 12 nothing was said of places besides London, which alone among towns and cities was to benefit from the common counsel of the realm when an aid was demanded.  Instead the general confirmation of London’s liberties in Clause 13 was given a wide extension to `all other cities, boroughs, towns and ports’.  In part this may have been no more than a further compliment to the capital, emphasising its leading position among England’s urban communities, several of which had in fact been granted London’s privileges.  In 1189, for instance, Richard I granted Northampton the liberties and free customs of London, and in 1194 he did the same for Lincoln.68  But since many other towns and cities had suffered from John’s attentions, there was probably an issue of principle behind the decision to include them all among the beneficiaries of the Charter, as well as the hope of political advantage for the barons (who might have boroughs of their own, even of their own foundation).  John’s mobility had doubtless made him an unwelcome guest in many places, but his dealings with English towns are most easily observed in the charters he gave and the money he exacted.  The two often went together.  It was common practice for a new king to insist that the charters of his predecessors be confirmed by himself, in return for fines paid by their beneficiaries.  London itself bought a new charter, and so did many other places.  In 1199 Norwich agreed to give 200 marks for a charter of confirmation, and then like London was made to wait to receive it, for the charter was entrusted to the archbishop of Canterbury, who was ordered to keep it until the money was paid.69

New charters, of course, had to be paid for, even when their terms included an increase in the feefarms of the towns involved.  Derby in 1204 gave forty marks and two palfreys for the privilege of paying a feefarm which was £10 per annum higher than the previous one;70 Shrewsbury and Huntingdon made similar payments, and on the same terms, a year later.71  Towns which fell into debt to the king and lost their privileges as a result might have to add to their burdens in order to recover their rights.  In 1208 the burgesses of Southampton gave forty marks and two barrels of wine to have their liberties back, on condition that they paid all their debts to the king within a year.72  Winchester seems to have been treated in the same way.73  The fact that a town or city enjoyed rights granted by royal charter was no guarantee against its having to pay for them again.  In 1199 the citizens of Gloucester gave 200 marks `for having the same liberties as the citizens of Winchester have’,74 and then in 1206 they gave a further fifty marks and a palfrey `for having the town of Gloucester at farm as they used to, according their charter which they have from the lord king.’75  In 1213 the burgesses of Exeter offered the king six palfreys, worth £20, to be quit of lastage (export duties) and stallage (payments for market-stalls) `according to the sense (tenor) of the lord king’s charter which they have ...’ – the barons of the exchequer were instructed to use their judgment as to whether the offer should be accepted, raising the possibility that Exeter might have had to give more.76

Medieval burgesses suffered from ambiguities and uncertainties of status.  The fact that a town needed a grant of privileges to exist left it vulnerable to the demands of the grantor -  and never more so if that was the king - who would usually retain important rights of control over the community that he, or his forebears, had created.  The fact that those rights, and especially that of tallage, often took an arbitrary form, was not regarded as being in itself sufficient to invalidate them.  A king like John took what he could, as his need dictated and opportunity arose.  In 1200 the citizens of Lincoln paid 300 marks for a new charter, and just a year later had to give a further 700 marks, along with seven palfreys, to have the liberties which the king had so recently confirmed and to be cleared of an appeal of felony.77  In 1201 the king himself sued the townspeople for 102 marks which he claimed they owed him for a tallage,78 and their defence, that they only took tallages with the consent of the citizens, was clearly unsuccessful, since a `gift’ in 1202 was followed by a tallage later in that year.79  A few years’ respite was broken by a 200 mark amercement imposed at an eyre held late in 1208, followed by a 500 mark tallage in 1210.80  A year later an unidentified transgression cost the citizens 2000 marks, while a default which led to the city’s being taken into the king’s hand had to be redeemed partly in cash - £200 – and partly in cloth – 100 ells both of scarlet and of `good green’.81  By 1213 all but £45 of the first sum had been paid, but the mayor now had to raise a further 500 marks `for having the king’s benevolence’, with the whole city acting as guarantor.82  The king’s good will was evidently soon forfeited.  It did not prevent a further tallage of £500, seemingly to mark the end of the interdict,83 while in February 1216 the barons’ occupation of the city in the previous year probably supplied the justification for the exaction of a further £1000 from the townspeople.84  The much smaller and poorer city of Carlisle was tallaged at £20 in 1202 and £40 in 1214, with in-between the startling figure of 541½ marks (£361. 13s. 4d.), six times the city’s annual farm for which the sheriff accounted at the exchequer, in 1210.85  Unsurprisingly, the citizens opened their gates to the barons’ ally, the king of Scots, in 1215, `as King John had done them many injuries’.86  It seems reasonable to suggest that Clause 13’s sweeping confirmation of urban liberties and customs constituted an implicit rebuke to exactions like these, and that it also, and by extension, represented a significant stage in the process whereby English towns found a place defined by law within the larger community of the realm.


J.C. Holt, Magna Carta (2nd edn., Cambridge, 1992), 290, 320-1.


A possibility suggested by David Carpenter.


C.N.L. Brooke and G. Keir, London 800-1216: the shaping of a city (1975), 34.


W. de G. Birch, The historical charters and constitutional documents of the city of London (revised edn., 1887), 3-4.  I have followed C.W. Hollister, Monarchy, magnates and institutions in the Anglo-Norman world (1986), 191-208, in attributing London’s first charter to the reign of Henry I.


The feefarm is not mentioned in his charter for London, issued early in his reign; Birch, 5-6.


J.H. Round, The Commune of London (1899), 229-33 (the farm); PR 2 ,3, 4 Henry II (1155-8), 4; PR 5 Henry II (1159), 2; PR 7 Henry II (1161), 18; PR 11 Henry II (1165), 33; PR 14 Henry II (1168), 3-4; PR 17 Henry II (1171), 15; PR 19 Henry II (1173), 186; PR 23 Henry II (1177), 201 (tallages etc.).


Brooke and Keir, 45-7.


Birch, 7-8; PR 6 Richard I (1194), 182.


PR 8 Richard I (1195), 296.


Brooke and Keir, 48-9; C.R. Cheney, Hubert Walter (1967), 93-4.


Birch, 11-12.


T.D. Hardy (ed.), Rotuli de oblatis et finibus (Record Commission, 1835 – hereafter Rot.Ob.Fin.), 11.


W. Cunningham, The growth of English industry and commerce i (5th. edn., Cambridge, 1910), 617-18.


PR 5 John, 9.


T.D. Hardy (ed.), Rotuli litterarum patentium, 1201-1216 (Record Commission, 1835 – hereafter RLP), 33.


Rot.Ob.Fin., 185-6; PR 4 John (1202), 288.


PR 6 John (1204), 98, 99.


PR 9 John (1207), 51.


T.D. Hardy (ed.), Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum i, 1204-1224 (Record Commission, 1833 – hereafter RLC), 35.


Ibid., 64.


British Library, MS Additional 14252, fol. 110.


Round, Commune of London, 237-42; M. Bateson, `A London municipal collection of the reign of John’, English Historical Review 17 (1902), 507-8.  Neither Round nor Bateson seems to have been aware of the order on the close roll.


PR 8 John (1206), 58; PR 13 John (1211), 133.


PR 9 John (1207), 53.


PR 10 John (1208), 169.


PR 13 John (1211), 135.


PR 16 John (1214), 81.


Brooke and Keir, 53.


PR 14 John (1212), 44-5; PR 16 John (1214), 125.


John’s military preparations and plans at this time are discussed by S. Painter, The reign of King John (Baltimore, 1949), 302-8.


RLC, 198.


R.A. Brown (ed.), The memoranda roll for the tenth year of the reign of King John, 1207-8, Pipe Roll Society, new series 31 (1957), 135 [a fragment of a close roll].


PR 17 John (1215), 33.


H.R. Luard (ed.), Annales Monastici, 4 vols (Rolls Series, 1864-9), iii: Annals of Dunstable, 35.


Bateson, `London municipal collection’, 726-8.


Brown, Memoranda roll 10 John, 133.


H.G. Hewlett (ed.), Rogeri de Wendover liber qui dicitur Flores Historiarum, 3 vols. (Rolls Series, 1887), ii, 116-17.


J. Stevenson (ed.), Radulphi de Coggeshall Chronicon Anglicanum (Rolls Series, 1875), 171.


RLP, 135.


Ibid., 136.


Ibid., 137.


F. Michel (ed.), Histoire des ducs de Normandie et des Rois d’Angleterre (Société de l’Histoire de France, Paris, 1840), 147.


Wendover ii, 116-17


W. Stubbs (ed.), Memoriale Fratris Walteri de Coventria, 2 vols. (Rolls Series, 1873), ii, 220.


Coggeshall, 171.


Coventry ii, 221; according to the same chronicle, the Tower was captured by Prince Louis in 1216, ibid., 233.


RLP, 137.


F. Madden (ed.), Matthaei Parisiensis ... Historia Anglorum, 3 vols. (Rolls Series, 1869), iii, 232.


Wendover ii, 117.


F. Liebermann (ed.), Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, 3 vols. (Halle, 1903-16), i, 635-7, 655.  See also Holt, Magna Carta, 93-5;  B.R. O’Brien, God’s peace and king’s peace: the laws of Edward the Confessor (Philadelphia, 1999), 118-19.


Holt, Magna Carta, 55-60.


Ibid., 56; T. Stapleton (ed.), De antiquis legibus liber: Cronica maiorum et vicecomitum Londoniarum, Camden old series 34 (1946), 2.


Michel, Histoire des ducs, 118-19.


RLP, 73.


Bateson, `London municipal collection’, 726.


Birch, 19-20.


D.C. Douglas and G.W. Greenaway (eds.), English Historical Documents ii: 10420-1189 (2nd. edn, 1981), 1030.


M. Allen, Mints and money in medieval England (Cambridge, 2012), 49-57.


A. Ballard, British borough charters, 1042-1216 (Cambridge, 1913), 165-6.


Holt, Magna Carta, 481-3, 490-1.


Wendover ii, 137-8.


N. Vincent, Peter des Roches: an alien in English politics, 1205-1238 (Cambridge, 1996), 124; C.R. Cheney and W.H. Semple (eds.), Selected letters of Pope Innocent III concerning England (1198-1216) (1953), 222.


Wendover ii, 171.


RLP, 158.


Coggeshall, 180.


Wendover ii, 181; Coggeshall, 181-2.


H.M. Chew and M. Weinbaum (eds.), The London eyre of 1244, London Record Society 6 (1970), nos. 195, 316.


Ballard, British borough charters, 10; J.W.F. Hill, Medieval Lincoln (Cambridge, 1948), 191.


Rot.Ob.Fin., 29.


Ibid., 223.


Ibid., 250, 299.


Ibid., 433.


Ibid., 431.


Ibid., 17.


Ibid., 360-1.


Ibid., 481.


Ibid., 1, 113.


Curia Regis Rolls i, temp. Richard I-1201 (1922), 418-19.


Hill, Medieval Lincoln, 194.


PR 11 John I1209), 53; PR 12 John (1210), 19.


PR 13 John (1211), 61.


PR 14 John (1212), 111.


PR 16 John (1214), 154; PR 2 Henry III (1218), 94.


Hill, Medieval Lincoln, 197-9.


PR 4 John (1202), 257; PR 12 John (1210), 139; PR 16 John (1214), 140.


F. Palgrave (ed.), Documents and records illustrating the history of Scotland, 2 vols. (Record Commission, 1837), i, 74.

Referenced in

Clause 60 (The 1215 Magna Carta)

Magna Carta 1215
Choose commentary
None General Secondary Academic All

Please note: commentaries are presently available only for clauses marked with *; more commentary to be added in due course.