Feudal Tenure at the Time of the Magna Carta

The late Professor Sydney Painter in his history of the reign of King John gives us some interesting figures on feudal tenure in England

There were 197 lay baronies, plus 29 ecclesiastical, or 236 in all. The lay baronies were held by 45 barons who maintained 127 castles; thus a number of the barons held several baronies. The total of 236 was divided into 7200 Knight’s fees or lordships – a knight’s fee being a manor or a tenure (could be a town property) with sufficient income to support a Knight. The figure given by some other historians of the time is about 6,500 Knight’s fees. Of the 45 lay barons, only 24 were in revolt; they were virtually all related and acted as a clan. These 24 Barons and the Mayor of London composed the 25 Magna Charta Sureties. The other barons either remained neutral or were on the side of the King, and only interested in preserving their fiefs. The point is the baronage was not united against King John, and of the knightage only a small percentage was in revolt. As for the great mass of Englishmen, there was no national feeling in that age. Each man was bound by fealtry to his lord and followed his banner, no matter how vacillating that might be.

When one reads the many accounts of the 24 Barons, one is disappointed to discover little of that loftiness of mind, broad vision, which one would expect of the authors of the great document. There are but meager records about many of them; the above statement may be a misjudgment of some. But in any case there is little evidence that the majority of the Sureties exhibited those virtues. The men who, one must believe, were the framers of the document, or active in its authorship, were: 1, Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, later famous as an ecclesiastical jurist, author of “The Constitutions of Langton”; 2, William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, the wisest and most capable man in England, who remained a Counselor of King John; 3, perhaps Roger Bigod, a justice in King Richard’s reign and a surety in 1215, 4, Saher de Quincy, a justice in the years 1211-1214 and a Surety in 1215, so he must have been consulted; 5, Hubert de Burgh, Justiciar of England in 1215, but a Counselor of King John and not a Surety- perhaps also 6, the Surety William de Huntingfield who was a justice itinerant, although it does not follow he was learned in the law; 7, the Surety Richard de Montfichet, who, as the Hereditary Forester of Essex may have been of influence in inserting the clauses dealing with forest laws; and perhaps also 8, the Surety who was the Mayor of London; and probably also lawyers employed by Langton and by some of the Sureties.

Robert Fitz Walter and his companions, the Magna Carta Sureties, we must realize, were military leaders and landed magnates. If the records of their lives give us no clue to their greatness of mind, they sensed the importance of what Stephen Langton and the framers of the Magna Carta were proposing, and we are grateful to the Sureties for recognizing Magna Carta’s significance and enforcing it. The Magna Carta established the power of law and is the cornerstone of constitutional government.