1014 – or the long prehistory of Magna Carta
Gold Mancus of Aethelred, the 'Unready' 1003-1006
This year with many books and exhibitions we remember the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. That’s terrific, but however important the events of 1215, as it turned out, don’t imagine that they were only, or even the first time an English king had been wrestled to the conference table by his subjects.
We should perhaps have been celebrating two years ago - and the anniversary would have been millennial. 1014 saw the penultimate crisis in the disastrous reign of Aethelred the ‘Unready’ [978-1016]. Son of the great Edgar, whose prestige dominated the British isles and glowed throughout Europe, this ‘badly-advised’ [unraed in old English, hence ‘unready’] monarch brought his Kingdom to destruction by a mixture of willful politics and military failure. Assailed by renewed attacks from Denmark, latterly led by the Danish king Swein Forkbeard, in the winter of 1013 Aethelred lost control of the country altogether, and was forced to seek refuge with his brother-in-law Duke Richard of Normandy. As he clambered aboard the longship which took him to Rouen, Aethelred may have thought the disaster final. But suddenly, at the moment of triumph, Sweyn Forkbeard died. For the English there was a last opportunity to restore the situation and they took it. Sweyn’s Danish army were for enthroning his young son Canute, but somehow, all pulling together, the English elite resisted, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates:
‘The fleet all chose Canute for king; whereupon advised all the counsellors of England, clergy and laity, that they should send after King Aethelred; saying, that no sovereign was dearer to them than their natural lord, if he would govern them better than he did before. Then sent the king hither his son Edward, with his messengers; who had orders to greet all his people, saying that he would be their faithful lord – would better each of those things that they disliked -- and that each of the things should be forgiven which had been either done or said against him; provided they all unanimously, without treachery, turned to him. Then was full friendship established, in word and in deed and in compact, on either side. And every Danish king they proclaimed an outlaw for ever from England. Then came King Aethelred home, in Lent, to his own people; and he was gladly received by them all.’
Here for the first time we can see that conditions are being imposed on the king in return for the throne. The situation must have been not unlike that at Runnymede, more than two hundred years later. This was a king whose political and military failure had made him vulnerable to demands from his subjects.
What those demands were we can surmise from a sermon preached at the time by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York which has become famous as the Sermon of ‘the Wolf’ to the English. It was probably given in the presence of King Aethelred and his council, and it indicates the kind of issues that were exercising them: injustice, excessive taxes and treason.
‘the rights of freemen are taken away and the rights of slaves are restricted and charitable obligations are curtailed. Free men may not keep their independence, nor go where they wish, nor deal with their property just as they desire…
Nothing has prospered now for a long time either at home or abroad, but there has been military devastation and hunger, burning and bloodshed in nearly every district time and again… And excessive taxes have afflicted us…’
Experts think that the wording of the Chronicle is copied from a writ or document which Aethelred issued, which would have detailed the agreement. Eleventh-century writs were letters sent by the King to his governors in the shires, often specifically to be read out in the Shire court; such writs always began with ‘The King greets his people…’ as in the Chronicle. Usually the extent to whiuch kingship relies on the consent of the governed is concealed beneath the rhetoric of royal power. Here, that consent is made public. In the context of the, for this period, unusual sophistication of the English monarchy, working as it did through shire and hundred [district] assemblies, this is even more revealing. In administering the shires, the king’s officials relied, as we have seen, on the empanelment of juries, that is the participation of his subjects in their government. It seems that both at this subordinate level and at the highest reaches of politics, the English felt they had rights, that, as in the forests of Germany centuries before, sovereignty emanated, not just from above, from God, but also to some extent from below, from the people.
Constitutional encounters of this kind happened elsewhere in Europe at roughly this time, but what makes 1014 special for us is that the agreement comes at the beginning of a continuing series of such deals which would govern the development of the English state down to our own times. Four years later, after Canute had eventually defeated Aethelred’s successor, he found himself making a similar agreement in Oxford, which he was to reiterate in two celebrated ‘Letters to the English’ in 1019 and 1027. King Edward the Confessor [the Edward in fact who crossed from Normandy to begin the negotiations in 1014] inherited this dispensation, and reconfirmed it publicly in 1065. The way he ruled was explicitly the basis of the regime of his Norman successors. That was made clear in the Charter issued by Henry I at his Coronation in 1100, which itself in turn became the basis of the restoration of order by Henry II after the ‘anarchy’ of King Stephen’s reign. Henry I’s Coronation Charter was also instrumental in the negotiations before Magna Carta. Thence, by way of Magna Carta itself, we reach Simon de Montfort, the ‘comune of England’ and the beginnings of Parliament. There was nothing inevitable about this, as there was nothing inevitable, indeed, about the survival of England as unified kingdom, but the fact remains that English constitutional history descends in a direct line, not unlike the monarchy itself, from those tense discussions in the aftermath of Danish disaster.