Magna Carta and its Hertfordshire Connection

By Ian Fisher

Grant of the Manor of Wymondley
Hertfordshire Archives library collection
Transcription of Charta of Confirmation for Manor Wymondley
Hertfordshire Archives library collection
Berkhamsted Castle in the time of Edward IV
Hertfordshire Archives library collection
St Albans Abbey from Sumpter Yard
Hertfordshire Archives library collection
Plan of Monastery of St Albans in 1250
Hertfordshire Archives library collection

This article makes reference to the content of Magna Carta only in so far as it relates to the naming of those charged with enforcing it. Rather it attempts to place the associated events, as they relate to Hertfordshire in some sort of context.

Our story begins not in Hertfordshire or even in England, but overseas in France and more particularly in Poitou, Aquitaine and Normandy. These areas were still held by the English when John came to power in 1199. However by 1204 Normandy and even parts of Poitou had fallen into the hands of Philip of France. An expedition in 1206 to recover Poitou had failed and John’s reputation was in tatters. His overriding desire now was to recover his overseas possessions. For this he needed money to equip an army and this meant raising increasing amounts of revenue.

The means were ready to hand. That administrative genius, Hubert Walter, Chief Justiciar from 1193 to 1198, had introduced a systematic form of record keeping, which became a model of efficiency for the assessment and collection of tax. It was this system that King John was to exploit outrageously. The cornerstone of the system was the writ. Rather than relying on word of mouth, writs stated clearly what was to be done, when it was to be done and the consequences of disobedience. As to the kind of taxes demanded, scutage, a tax in lieu of military service, was rigidly enforced as were other feudal dues. In fact anything that the King could do to raise money was used: money was even demanded from widows who wished to re-marry and hostages were taken from the families of any of the barons who John suspected of disloyalty.

The main sources of revenue though were the major landowners and Hertfordshire suffered as much if not more than any other part of the country.  One onerous method, not new but widely adopted was a charge on inheritances. For example, the Lords of the Manor of Great Wymondley, near Hitchin, had for several generations been the Argentein family and Reginald had to pay this tax to King Richard in 1194. He subsequently lost the manor, but regained it in 1203 at which time he almost certainly had to pay again. The Hertfordshire landowner, Richard de Clare was also hit hard and had to pay £100* for a writ of mort d’ancestor in order to establish his right to inherit a certain property.  A writ of this kind, for an ordinary subject, could often be had for as little as sixpence. Even though the charge would have been greater for a nobleman, this was still extortion on a massive scale. He also fell foul of John’s tactic of allowing various debts to go unpaid, then amalgamating them and demanding payment immediately and in full. In this way, by 1208, the Earl of Clare’s debts grew to £1229. He was pardoned the £229 but only on condition that he paid the balance in three years. Using methods such as this brought many noblemen close to bankruptcy. Inevitably dissatisfaction with the King’s methods grew fuelling the undercurrent of unrest that would eventually grow into open rebellion. By 1212 with many feeling sorely oppressed there was a plot to kill the King involving another Hertfordshire landowner, Robert Fitzwalter who, upon discovery of the scheme, fled to France.

By April 1213 England was under threat of invasion by the French who had the backing of Pope Innocent. He had placed England under an interdict for John’s refusal to accept Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. King John retaliated by seizing church property and wealth. In order to avoid invasion by the King of France, Philip Augustus and his son Louis, John gave in and in doing so virtually handed control of his kingdom to the Pope. By July the Archbishop was back in England.

However there was still general unrest in the country and it was shortly after the Archbishops return that writs were sent to all the sheriffs ordering them to send the reeve**and four legal men from each township to attend a meeting at St Albans. The purpose was twofold: to agree compensation for seizing and despoiling church property and to try and restore some kind of law and order. There is some doubt as to whether the meeting in its original form actually took place. The case against seems to be that firstly the meeting would be impossibly large, and secondly that the chronicler, Roger of Wendover makes no mention of the attendance of the reeves and others at all. Perhaps then, the terms of the meeting were altered, as it would hardly have been possible to ignore the writ – but there is no way of knowing for certain. That there was an important meeting of some sort there is no doubt. The King was not in attendance, being engaged in trying to plan a counter invasion of Poitou. But those who represented the King were arguably the next three most powerful men in the country: the Justiciar, Geoffrey FitzPeter, Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester and Archbishop Stephen Langton. At the meeting formal proclamation was made for the restoration of the good laws of Henry I, and the sheriffs were instructed to abstain from violence and injustice. The meeting has been regarded since as the point at which the journey to Runneymead and Magna Carta began.

However, there was some way to go yet and the King continued to use any device to collect extra revenue. In January 1214 Geoffrey de Mandeville, another Hertfordshire landowner, was told to pay 20,000 marks to be allowed to marry the King’s former wife Isabel of Gloucester. The debt was simply un-payable and was meant to ensure that Geoffrey stayed loyal. The effect was exactly the opposite causing him eventually to rebel.

In February John sailed for France from where he demanded further payment from those barons who had stayed behind. Many simply refused to pay. In France following some initial success, his cause floundered when first of all many of the French nobles who at first sided with the King refused to back him when it came to fighting against their own countrymen. Then in July, while John was still in the South, his allies were soundly beaten at the battle of Bouvines. By October John had left for England where many now stood ready to oppose him.

January 1215 saw the Kingdom on the brink of civil war and the King at St Albans where he divided his forces between the Earl of Salisbury and Fawkes de Breaute. In order to prevent opposing forces from reaching London he strengthened the fortifications of Berkhamsted Castle, which was once the possession of King Richard’s widow Berengaria and seized by John following his brother’s death. It was now placed under the command of Waleran the German. Hertford Castle, once held by Robert Fitzwalter, was also strengthened and was now commanded by Walter de Godarvil. Estates hostile to the King were laid waste, while on the other side the barons and their French allies laid waste to everything else, leaving the peasants of Hertfordshire to cope as best they could. According to Roger of Wendover armies ‘roved Hertfordshire and other counties, terrorising inhabitants, destroying parks, warrens, cutting down trees’

In April, John was due to meet the barons at Northampton – he failed to arrive. By Easter week the barons gathered at Stamford and on the 5th May they formally rejected their obligations to the King. Led by Robert Fitzwalter they marched from the North, passing through Ware on their way to London, which they captured on the 15th. Meanwhile John, now virtually broke, managed to secure a loan from the Templars to pay for mercenaries from abroad.

With full scale war imminent, both sides met at Runnymede to try and reach an agreement; the result was Magna Carta. For John the reward was to receive back pledges of loyalty from most of the barons; for the barons it was supposed to provide a way of holding the King in check. Clause 61 gave authority to 25 of them to prevent the King from straying from the agreement. Many of the 25 held land in Hertfordshire. They were led, unsurprisingly, by Robert Fitzwalter, now returned from the continent, and supported by amongst others, Geoffrey de Mandeville; Reginald de Argentein of Wymondley; Richard de Clare, Earl of Hertford, lord of the Manor of Standon; and William de Lanvallei of Walkern. Everything now seemed set fair for the resumption of peace – well not quite!

During the following three months the whole arrangement fell apart. By mid July John was writing to the Pope requesting an annulment of the charter; by the 24 August Magna Carta was declared null and void; and by September civil war had resumed.

December saw John at St Albans from where he again issued orders for the soldiers from Berkhamsted and Hertford Castles to keep watch on the route to London. The rape and pillage that accompanied this continued into the following year.

In May 1216, Louis, the dauphin of France, arrived, the barons having offered him the Kingship in place of John. After his arrival at Thanet he made his way to London. The war, certainly as it affected Hertfordshire, became even more intense. St Albans, always in the firing line, suffered attacks from both sides. Armies took what they needed and The Abbot lost over 100 horses in that year alone. Conditions were described by Mathew Paris as ‘putting father against son, citizen against citizen, seizing, exterminating, burning, despoiling, torturing and destroying’.

Then in October the situation took a dramatic turn with the death of King John from dysentery. With the young Henry III now legitimate heir to the throne, loyalties, even among the barons, were further divided. Louis however was determined to pursue his own claim. In November, the siege of Hertford Castle began with Louis arranging his engines of war to batter the walls. The castle was eventually taken, but not before soldiers under the command of Walter de Godarvill, had slaughtered many of the French. Robert Fitzwalter, the one-time holder of the castle then demanded it as of right, only to be told that as somebody who was traitor to his King, he was not worthy of such a charge.

Louis now moved on to Berkhamsted where his forces again faced fierce resistance. Waiting until the enemy were busy pitching their tents, soldiers from the castle made a surprise attack, capturing the standard of William de Mandville in the process. However a second attack later in the day failed and the defenders were driven back into the castle. Berkhamsted, like Hertford, eventually fell to Louis and the barons on the 20th December 1216.

Louis then moved on to St Albans where he demanded the Abbot pay him homage, which the abbot refused to do. However, when Louis threatened to burn down both the convent and the town, a compromise was reached with Louis granting a stay of execution on payment of a fine. Only a month later though, St Albans was again attacked, this time by the harsh Norman, Fawkes de Breaute. The attack, described by both Mathew Paris and Roger of Wendover seems to have been particularly vicious. It began on the evening of St Vincent’s day. Fawkes made prisoners of men and children and left them to starve. Robert Mai, a servant of the Abbots, was killed on the steps of the church while trying to seek refuge. The atrocities increased even further when another man was boiled alive in oil. A demand was then made for the payment of one hundred pounds of silver. Seeing that Fawkes would stop at nothing to get his way the Abbot duly paid up.

Meanwhile, with the misery of war continuing, Henry, through his Council, was offering to compensate barons for their losses if they would change sides. Gradually the balance of power shifted and Louis was eventually defeated at the battle of Lincoln in May 1217. By September Louis had left England, and Hertford and Berkhamsted castles were returned to King Henry.

However, tensions between the barons and the monarchy were far from being over. Magna Carta was re-issued several times over the next few years, notably in 1225. At first the result of compromise, it now became a rallying point for those who wished to place a limit on the King’s power to arbitrarily raise taxes unless he promised to govern fairly. In 1242 Henry was refused money for an expedition to France on the grounds that he was still following a policy of oppression and that his methods of government were unsatisfactory. With unrest again continuing to grow war broke out. Led by Simon de Montfort, who had inherited the Manor of Ware, and Richard de Clare, Lord of Standon, the barons captured the King at the Battle of Lewes.

With the King in captivity, Simon took the opportunity to reform the structure of parliament to include representatives from each county as well as the more important towns. Simon was eventually defeated but the system of government he envisaged did not die. Henry’s son, Edward I, called such a parliament in 1295. This was the first time a monarch had formally recognised the right of ordinary citizens to have a say in government. The Victoria County History states that this parliament was held at St Albans. However this seems unlikely. There were several types of writ issued: for the bishops, barons, and citizens, requiring them to attend on the Sunday after the feast of St Martin. The summonses were issued on the 3 October 1295 while the King was at Canterbury and they state quite clearly that the parliament was to be held at Westminster. Although parliaments were sometimes held outside London – at Shrewsbury in 1283 and Lincoln in 1301 for example – there appears to be no record of a parliament ever having been held at St Albans.

Even so, the part Hertfordshire played in bringing about Magna Carta should not be under estimated. Forming, as it did, a barrier between the North and the Capital it was always going to form one of the major battlegrounds and controlling the castles at Hertford and Berkhamsted was crucial. The inhabitants of the county suffered accordingly with St Albans being a particular target. Of the twenty-five barons chosen to enforce the charter, ten were Hertfordshire landowners. Although many of the details of Magna Carta are now outdated, the principles that the King should be subject to the law and that there should be protection against arbitrary rule remain. They were to be fought over and argued about until parliamentary rule became firmly established in Stuart times and beyond. With the publication and circulation of the charta the idea that citizens are entitled to protection under the law became firmly established in the psyche of the British people. That is something that we can be grateful for – and celebrate.


Adams, G B. (No date) The History of England: From the Noman Conquest to the Death of John, Dodo Press, re-print.

Carpenter, D. (2015) Magna Carta, London: Penguin.

Clanchy, M T. (1997) Early Medieval England, London: Folio.

Jones, D. (2015) Magna Carta, London: Zeus.

Poole, A L. (1993) The Oxford History of England: From Domesday to Magna Carta 1087– 1216, Oxford: OUP

Vaughan, R. (ed) (1984) Chronicles of Matthew Paris: Monastic Life in the Thirteenth Century, Gloucester: Alan Sutton

Victoria History of Hertfordshire, vol 2, pp 7 – 10, (1971), London: Dawsons

Wendover, Roger of. (No date) Flowers of History, Bibliolife, re-print

Internet Medieval Source Book, (Fordham University, New York) – 2 Apr 2015.

The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Wikipedia. 2 Apr 2015

*£53.000 today

**Generic Term for an official, very often a Royal Official who managed the King’s Estates. After 1066: usually an elected official who was also responsible for the day-to-day running of the manor. This was a yearly appointment.

Notes: Summons of Representatives of Shires and Towns to Parliament (1295)

The king to the sheriff of Northamptonshire. Since we intend to have a consultation and meeting with the earls, barons and other principal men of our kingdom with regard to providing remedies against the dangers which are in these days threatening the same kingdom; and on that account have commanded them to be with us on the Lord’s day next after the feast of St. Martin in the approaching winter, at Westminster, to consider, ordain, and do as may be necessary for the avoidance of these dangers; we strictly require you to cause two knights from the aforesaid county, two citizens from each city in the same county, and two burgesses from each borough, of those who are especially discreet and capable of laboring, to be elected without delay, and to cause them to come to us at the aforesaid said time and place.

Moreover, the said knights are to have full and sufficient power for themselves and for the community of the aforesaid county, and the said citizens and burgesses for themselves and the communities of the aforesaid cities and boroughs separately, then and there for doing what shall then be ordained according to the common counsel in the premises; so that the aforesaid business shall not remain unfinished in any way for defect of this power. And you shall have there the names of the knights, citizens and burgesses and this writ.Witness the king at Canterbury on the third day of October.

From Internet Medieval Source Book

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  • Writing in the March 2023 edition of “History Today”, Matthew Payne, Keeper of Muniments at Westminster Abbey, reveals another royal connection with Hertford Castle. It was given by Henry V to his wife, Katherine de Valois and she spent most of her later years in Hertfordshire where she met and married Owen Tudor.
    There were children of the marriage. There may have been a girl, Margaret, who may have become a nun and there were three brothers. Edmund Tudor may have been born at the Bishop of London’s palace at Much Hadham and was the father of Henry VII. Another son, Jasper, was born at the Bishop of Ely’s palace at Hatfield. Both he and his brother were important barons, being half brothers to the King. Henry VI is reputed to have spent Christmas 1443 with them at Hertford.
    The third son, Edward, was probably born at Hertford Castle. He was sent to Westminster Abbey and became a monk, taking the name Edward Hertford. It may be that he was destined for a cloistered life as he was in some way disabled as he died at the age of twenty.

    By Jennifer Ayto (19/02/2023)
  • One of the Robin Hood stories was about someone taking his land…other landowners in Hertfordshire at that time were Richard St Clare and Geoffrey de Mandeville could this have been true…esp as Richard St Clare was of Scotland ?

    By Christine Winnan (31/10/2018)