A Look at England in the Year of Magna Carta - 1215

Presented to Lineage, Genealogical & Historical Societies by Barbara Roberts Baylis – 2015

Let us look back and focus on that period of time that includes one of the most important events in history. In 1215 the world witnessed a struggle against tyranny never experienced before for common men. Laws and freedoms never known before were granted to the people of England.  With the American Revolution following five hundred and fifty-five years later, Magna Carta then became the basis for the birth of Democracy.  At this time the Constitution and Bill of Rights guaranteed the rules of law for all citizens of the United States.

In 2015 on June 11 through the 14, England and America will celebrate the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta. With the anniversary in mind, I documented my Magna Carta Surety in 2014. Still fascinated with this period of history, I was browsing a book store one day when a small book, 1215, The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danzigner & John Gillingham, literally fell into my hands. These two authors are both highly respected English historians. In the forward of 1215 they state, “For all mistakes the authors blame each other.”  I find English humor wonderful.  I also like people who do not take themselves too seriously!  I must say this book was everything I expected and more.  This presentation is based primarily on this 1215 with additional information taken from other sources.  The sources are all listed in the bibliography.

On several trips to England I remember the large open marshy field called Runnymede where King John placed his seal on Magna Carta.  Observing Runnymede from a bus window while trying to recover from jet lag is not the best way to appreciate history.  I especially found the description given of Runnymede in 1215 captivating. Seeing this site through the eyes of the authors of this book was very moving.  To think how our Nation, founded six centuries after Magna Carta, invested such belief in and commitment to this ancient document is just truly inspirational. Described so beautifully in the forward of 1215  are the two memorials placed at Runnymede as a connection to American freedom, justice and human liberty. One is The English Memorial Tribute to John F.  Kennedy, our 36th President.  The second is the Rotunda constructed by the American Bar Association as a tribute to Magna Carta as a symbol of freedom under law.  On finishing the book I was both sadden and pleased. Sadden to put the book down but pleased to know so much more about the people and places in England in the year of 1215.

In history classes I memorized dates, battles and the important people of the day. There was never time for professors to cover the ordinary people of a time period. In searching family history I find relating to ordinary people is what really makes history come alive! As we say in genealogy, this is what puts “the clothes on the people.” With this in mind, let us focus on 800 years ago in England when the idea of freedom and the rights of common men came into being.

In 1015, two hundred years before Magna Carta, there were approximately two and a quarter million people in England. At this time nine tenths of the population of England lived in the small towns in the country. Most lived and worked on small farms, keeping animals and growing crops, especially grain for daily bread.  Most common people lived in a two room timbered house. Even castles and great houses were built of timber and were usually one story. Relatively few of these structures are left standing. At this time there were many small towns surrounding larger towns where everyone walked to market and back home within one day. Remember the nursery rhyme: “To market, to market to buy a fat pig, home again, home again, jiggety, jig.”  The market towns are in existence even today.  If you travel English country roads in 2015 you will find towns called “Market Towns” where fairs and markets are often held.

By 1215 England experienced a real population growth. Some estimate the number of inhabitants close to five million.  Families were abandoning dispersed settlements and gathering in villages.  Neat rows of houses along streets or around the village green were associated with a Lord of a Manor and all families attended the Village Church.

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries stone masonry became the fashion in building.  Stone left many more permanent structures.  The beauty of these structures was enhanced when architects and builders added stained glass. The thick walls of stone made structures fireproof and kept enemies out. The walls also held plumbing so bathrooms could be moved indoors. Guest entered through this great hall, which was also used for dining. Pigs and cats were not allowed in this dining hall but a gentleman’s dogs, hawks and horses were welcome. The story is recorded of Archbishop Thomas Becket giving a very formal dinner party. King Henry II, a late arriving guest, rode his horse into the dining hall, dismounted and jumped over the table to take his seat.  He and Beckett were great friends at the time.

Chairs were rare and reserved for persons of status, hence the modern term “chairman” or “chair”.  People sat on beds made up for the purpose, which were called “daybeds.” The King would receive visitors in his bedroom on a “state bed.” The walls were decorated with murals or tapestries.  These tapestries were often moved from one resident to another. By 1215 King John had over fifty residences, castles, palaces and hunting lodges. The Kings of England were always on the move around the country.  They rarely stayed in any one place for more than two or three days. They were always accompanied by their entire households. A baggage train of ten to twenty carts and dozens of packhorses were required for these moves.

There were very few good highways in England.  One ran east to west, one south to north and one southeast to southwest. The longest of all, called the Fosse Way went from the Southeast to the Northwest. Fosse is derived from the Latin fossa, meaning ditch. Most roads probably began as defensive ditches and were later filled in and converted into roads. You can imagine these roads were at times, especially if it rained.  Kings, especially John, had short tempers. His subjects suffered when the roads were not kept in good condition.

Advancements in the quality of life for people continued at a rapid pace.  However, the rich got richer and the poor became poorer. Unfortunately medical and nutritional knowledge was minimal and people from all classes suffered poor health. Amazingly Archeologist remarked the teeth of people of 1215 were excellent even until old age. They attribute this to the fact that sugar and chocolate were not yet a part of the English diet.

Many writings of this period survive. Authors wrote in both French and English with some using Latin. There was a popular book on etiquette titled The Book of the Civilized Man.  Instructions were given to gentlemen on how to behave in a variety of social situations; in church, as a page in a noble household and at the dinner table.  It suggested when he walked in the street not to eat or peer into other people’s windows, especially not into windows of a brothel and on and on. It tells men when they could spit, belch and do other bodily functions, which we will not go into. It also covered how often to take a bath and exercise. It suggested avoiding quarrels, and told him to get some new clothes now and again!

Education for Nobles as well as for common men was very important to the people in 1215. The first English university in Oxford came into being. Cambridge was established in 1220. A well-taught Knight was expected to shine in seven areas:  riding, swimming, archery, combat, falconry, chess and song writing. Some lists added dancing. A Knight’s sister would learn chess, music, dancing, embroidery and weaving, reading documents and understanding household accounts. It was preferable that everyone not only appreciated music but could also perform.  For those parents who wanted their children to be formally educated but did not live in a noble household, there were schools. All English towns in 1215 contained at least one school. Schools required fees to attend but ambitious parents somehow found money to pay. Many chose a career in the Clergy for the Church provided a way to move up the social ladder.  Learning Latin was essential.  In the poor villages a priest would occasionally teach the children for free.  Many people learned to read without ever learning to write. A few girls attended primary schools but almost none continued past this level. The school day went from six or seven in the morning and ended at five in the evening with two breaks of an hour each.

Carnival Days, similar to our “Field Days” were held several times throughout the year.  Students were given the day off.  The day started with cockfights and other entertainment. In the afternoon the school boys and apprentices played ball games.  Senior men watched from horseback, recalling the days when they had been young and great ball players themselves.

The Crusades were in full swing.  England was staunchly Catholic. The purpose of the Crusades was to avenge the aggression and barbarism of the Muslim armies who 460 years before overran Jerusalem, Egypt, Italy, Spain and attack France as well. They destroyed the ancient great library at Alexandria and also the center of Christianity at Rome. The Muslims of today are obsessed with the Crusades but apparently ignore their own history. Man’s inhumanity toward man and war itself is never pretty! However, as the saying goes, “If we ignore history, we are doomed to repeat it.”

In 1209 the first quarrel between a Pope and a King of England was witnessed when the Pope excommunicated King John and banned church services throughout England for six years. The argument between John and the Pope came about over high taxation, which King John placed of his own subjects and the Catholic clergy as well. This did not seem to bother King John and life went on as usual.

In 1215 London was the second largest city in northwestern Europe after Paris.  Inhabitants of other cities were called citizens, but in London they were called Barons. They were known for elegance of manners, dress and cuisine.  Westminster was a suburb of London, two miles to the west of the city.  London was seen as the commercial and political capital of the nation. Just as any big city London soon became plagued with large fires, unruly drunken parties, gangs of robbers and violent street crime.

By 1215 it was fashionable to study abroad and France was the place to go. Some went for a year or two to improve their Latin, learn some law and make friends. Some completed their Masters of Arts, which took nine years. One of the most famous and respected men from England was John of Salisbury who studied at Paris from 1136 to 1147. The people of his day considered him a great writer. He was quoted as saying, “He learned there was often no one right answer to the most interesting questions. He was always willing to argue on either side of a question.”  He went into the clergy and was Secretary to Beckett at Canterbury.  He must not have been too impressed with English medical students from England who studied abroad and attended schools in Salerno or Montpellier. He stated most of them were often failed students of science or philosophy who used mysterious words, which their clients did not understand. Then they follow two precepts:  First, they did not waste time by practicing where people were poor.  Second, they made sure to collect their fee while the patient was still in pain!

As to the entertainment of the day, it was crude, bawdy and immoral. The common people as well as the Noble and Royals seem to enjoy this popular entertainment.  The Christian theologians and moralists did not hesitate to express their disapproval. Of course, in 1215, just as today in 2015, the thoughts of those connected to the Church held little influence.

Political correctness was unknown to the people of 1215.  The English treatment of the Jews was horrible. They also had no love for the Irish, the Welsh or the Scots as they thought their manners and way of life deplorable. The French, of course, looked down on the English.

Hunting in The Forest:  In 1215 one-third of all land in England was set-aside as “Forest Land.” In our minds we have to get past the word “Forest” for in 1215 it meant something far different than it does to us today. At that time it was an area of land previously enjoyed by local lords and tenant farmers but by 1215 had become land designated to be set-aside for The King. It could be an area of lakes, rolling hills, grass lands, small growths of trees, not necessarily all wooded land. All game was reserved for The King.  It was to be managed by aides to The King for the distribution of resources were now under his complete control. Anyone caught hunting or setting foot on this land was punished by being put to death or blinded. The Forestlands became the refuge for outlaws and hermits.

Trial By Ordeal:  The people were at the point of demanding a better court system.   Punishment was not always fair, swift or kind. Let’s say it would certainly make one think before committing a crime or filing a frivolous lawsuit! The book 1215 goes into great detail of trials by ordeal.

King John:  His reputation remains today as one of the worst kings in English history, a murderer who brought constitutional crisis and tyranny to his people.  He was born on Christmas Eve, the youngest son of Henry II. His family life was turbulent and dysfunctional. He was born into a royal dynasty where love, hate, desire, power, deceit, political success, failure, jealousy, sibling rivalry, murder, betrayal, and revenge were all involved. When John’s father, Henry II, fell ill and died.  Many blamed Richard and John for their father’s death. Both had betrayed him and Henry died cursing the day John was born. John had his first marriage annulled. His second marriage produced his first heir, Henry in 1207. King John had the reputation of sexual harassment and being an immoral and bullying kind unable to keep his desires under control. Furthermore, after ten years of avoiding battles and losing battles his people had lost trust in him and felt he was cowardly. Kings were like God to their subjects however King John’s crown was beginning to tilt. As Sovereign Ruler, he still held control over the inheritances and marriages of the richest people in the realm. He held the power to make a trusted servant a millionaire overnight by an arranging a marriage with a wealthy lady. The King was thought of as the absolute Ruler, and “God on Earth.” He could throw someone in prison and there was no appeal.

The Barons:  Twenty-five Barons were elected from approximately forty at Runnemede to confront King John. These were called “Sureties and were charged with the duty of seeing that the provisions of Magna Carta would be carried out. They would see to it that King John kept his promises even if force was necessary. Most of these twenty-five Sureties were as closely related by family ties as they were in their zeal for the cause.

Magna Carta:  The meaning is “Great Charter” in Latin. As Latin does not use “The” the English use just “Magna Carta.” From the 13th to the 17th century it was always spelled Magna CARTA.   People ask about the spelling of Carta vs Charta. According to Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, Oxford University Press p541. “ By the 18th Century some began to add the “H” in CARTA (Charta). This has never been preferred despite being used by some respectable writers.”   The English do use, spell and pronounce words differently than we do in America.  Perhaps this is why the preferred spelling in America seems to be “Charta.”

There are four known copies of the original Magna Carta now in existence. Two are housed permanently at the British Library in London.  One is in Lincoln Cathedral and one is in Salisbury Cathedral.  During WWII Winston Churchill unsuccessfully tried to talk the British Government into giving the Lincoln Cathedral copy to the United States. He did talk his government into having America store this copy at Ft. Knox in Kentucky until the end of the War for safekeeping.  Reports of one other copy being discovered in France have recently surfaced. I believe they are still working to prove this is copy is authentic.

King John placed his seal on Magna Carta on June 15, 1215 as a Peace Treaty in a civil war he was fighting against the Barons. It was to serve as a guarantee of basic rights for his subjects. Of course he never intended to follow it and set about to destroy it no sooner than he signed it. He appealed to Pope Innocent on its volatility and started gathering troops to fight the Barons. On August 24, 1215 the Pope declared Magna Carta null and void. He excommunicated Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury for his part in writing the document along with the twenty-five Barons.

Civil War resumed. The Barons went so far as to invite King Philip of France to become King of England with their support if he would enter the fight with his troops. The English monarchy was saved when King John took suddenly ill and died in Neward Castle in November of 1216. John’s young son, Henry III nine years old, was crowned King. He was under the protection of William Marshall who reissued Magna Carta as the law of the land. The Barons lands were returned to them and they became loyal subjects of the young King. Peace was restored. This gives us a much better appreciation of the Magna Carta Sureties. Like the signers of the American Declaration of Independence, these Barons risked their lives and fortunes to gain and enforce a document for the rights of free men.

As I finished the book 1215 THE YEAR OF Magna Carta I realized for many years I believed a myth surrounding Magna Carta. I would have told you the Barons forced King John to sign this great document and all was well in England.  I did not realize it was intended as a peace treaty to bring to an end Civil War raging between The King and the Barons. I did not realize it failed and Civil War resumed in England. So how was it that a failed peace treaty survived to become the cornerstone of liberty in the English speaking world? In the autumn of 1217 and once again in 1225 it was reissued with further modifications. In these reissues it was translated from Latin to French and English and read at meetings of the shire courts throughout the realm. In 1265 it was decreed copies should be made and nailed to church doors throughout England. Now all men came to believe it was a good thing. By the time the American Colonies were being settled it became a potent symbol of men’s struggle for freedom and human rights. It will always be remembered and will remain a symbol of the struggle against tyranny and in that it will retain its value.

Long may Magna Carta, the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights and Democracy Live!

Barbara Roberts Baylis – 2015



  • Danny Danziger and John Gillingham, 1215 – The Year of Magna Carta Touchtone by Simon & Schuster, London, 2003
  • Dan Jones, The Plantagenets, Penguin Books, New York, New York, 2012
  • National Society Daughters of The Barons of Runnemede Magna Charta Sureties and Their Castles, Family Heritage Publishing, Salt Lake City, 2014
  • W. L. Warren, Henry II, University of California Press, Berkeley & Los Angeles, CA 1973
  • Thomas B. Costain, The Plantagenets, Double Day, 1949 Series of 4
    •   Historical Fiction – A fun read but use with caution as to fact