Magna Carta and Beyond

Magna Carta and Beyond

The hundred years or so following Domesday were a period of great strife throughout much of England. Civil war between barons supporting rival claimants to the English throne was then followed by war between the barons and the monarch to decide who really controlled the country. In Surrey, these battles centred on the rivalry between the de Clare family whose base in the county was Bletchingley Castle and the de Warrennes who held the castle at Reigate.

The two families were firmly on opposing sides when the fight between King John and a large section of the English barons came to a head in 1215. Richard de Clare was one of the leaders of the barons, William de Warrenne, a staunch supporter of the King. It can safely be said that King John was not such a bad man as his enemies would have us believe. The final revolt against his rule had its origins amongst a number of lesser northern barons, who moved south gathering further malcontents as they went. Each claimed a catalogue of injustices inflicted upon them by the king. However, as the historian A.L. Poole wrote, ‘The stories of personal wrongs, which they had suffered at the hands of the king, rest either on fabrications concocted many years later to blacken the character of John, or on evidence so confused as scarcely to deserve serious consideration.’

It is significant that, as the storm clouds gathered, John continued to have the support of most of the senior barons, those of experience and diplomacy, men who stood for the good of the whole country not just for their own selfish interests. John had no wish for further battles and sought conciliation. The one man whom both sides respected was Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury. It was undoubtedly he who was the guiding hand in all the negotiations, which led to the sealing of the Great Charter or Magna Carta at Runnymede in Surrey in June 1215.

Much of the myth which still survives today surrounding the events of 1215 is the product of the fertile imagination of Surrey author, Martin Tupper, who in the mid-19th century wrote a best-selling historical novel entitled Stephan Langton: or the days of King John. In his book Tupper described John as a bad villain in the best traditions of Victorian melodrama. In one episode, John carries off the love of Stephen’s life to Tangley Manor, near Wonersh, to have his wicked way. In another fictitious incident, Emma the woodman’s daughter, ‘a nut-brown maid with ruddy cheeks and coal-black eyes and hair’, prefers to step back into the crystal waters of the pool in which she is bathing rather than submit to John’s advances. She is drowned as a result. Even today the pool, near Albury, which Tupper chose for this dastardly deed is said to be haunted by poor Emma’s presence and most local people know it as the Silent Pool.

Tupper has Stephen Langton being born at ‘Friga Street’ or Friday Street, where there is still a pub named after the Archbishop. In fact, nothing is known of Langton’s origins and there is certainly no evidence to connect him with Surrey. The ‘good’ barons who sought to restrain the King’s excesses were said by Tupper to have met in a cave beneath Reigate Castle. The cave, which still exists, actually started life as a sand mine but it is still known as the ‘Barons’ Cave’ thanks to Tupper. Historian H.E. Malden rightly dismissed this claim when he wrote that ‘Blechingley Castle would have been a happier suggestion, but the preliminary meetings of the baronial party had been at St Albans, Bury St Edmunds and London, and the actual march of their army was from Stamford to London. They only passed through the extreme northern edge of Surrey when they went up to Runnymede to meet John.’

King John was at Windsor and the barons crossed the Thames at Staines. Therefore, it was in a green Surrey meadow by the banks of the great river that John put his seal to a draft agreement. In the space of four days scribes turned this agreement into one of England’s most significant documents. The charter’s clauses included guarantees of certain feudal rights, confirmation of the free customs and liberties of London and other cities, towns and ports and the affirmation of the principles of justice. It was a major milestone upon the long constitutional road which finally led to democracy for all Englishmen.

It seems certain that John was sincere in his wish for a peaceful settlement with the barons when he placed his seal upon Magna Carta. The barons were not of the same mind and were soon plotting to bring over Louis, the Dauphin of France, to usurp the king. Louis landed in May 1216, the French fleet being under the command of ‘Eustace the Monk’, and by the 21st of the month Louis had joined the barons in London. The excuse for this invasion was that John had been tried by the court of France in 1203 for the murder of Arthur of Britanny and had been condemned to forfeit his crown. This justification was a fake. John retreated quickly through Surrey to Winchester and all the castles of the county, including the royal castle at Guildford, fell to Louis. John was eventually driven further west to Corfe in the Isle of Purbeck, where he and his forces recuperated before launching a counter attack.

It was during his attempts to regain control that John was taken ill and he died on 18th October 1216 in the castle at Newark. According to A.L. Poole, ‘he was buried, as he had desired, near the shrine of his favourite, his patron saint St Wulfstan, at Worcester where his memory was kept fresh by the observance of an annual fast. In some circles at least his name was remembered with respect.’

John’s son, the new rightful king, Henry III, was but nine years old when his father died and appeared to be in a perilous position. He was under the protection of the Regent, the Earl of Pembroke. However, Louis was never popular with the rebel barons and it was not long before their alliance began to fall apart. Farnham Castle was retaken in the spring of 1217 but the Dauphin’s forces at Guildford probably held out for some weeks longer. However, by September the war was over. The initial negotiations for peace were conducted at Kingston and from there, on 14th September, Louis was issued with what amounted to a safe conduct pass to enable him to leave England. His followers were granted the same safe conduct at Merton five days later. Thus there ended a series of important episodes in England’s history in which the county of Surrey played no small part.

Trouble between the monarch and his barons festered through much of the reign of Henry III, who had a tendency to surround himself with crowds of foreign favourites. Matters came to a head during the 1260s, when a group of barons led by Simon de Montfort rose in rebellion. In 1264 the royal forces were routed by the barons at Lewes in Sussex, but a royal garrison based at Tonbridge succeeded in destroying Bletchingley Castle, the Surrey stronghold of the barons’ ally, the Earl of Gloucester, who was the head of the de Clare family. Following their success at Lewes, de Montfort and his cronies met at the first English ‘Parliament’. It was a far cry from our present democratic institution and had nothing to do with the rights of the common peasant. The following year Henry III and his son, the future Edward I, got their revenge at Evesham in Worcestershire, where de Montfort himself was slain.

It was during the reign of Henry III that Guildford Castle was developed into a royal palace. Today, apart from the 12th century keep, the arched entrance to the castle from Quarry Street and some isolated walls, nothing of the palace survives above ground. However, a series of archaeological ‘digs’ undertaken in recent years, coupled with detailed documentary research, have done much to shed light on life in the royal household in the 13th century. Excavation revealed a small section of the original outer bailey ditch which was filled in during the late 12th century. The considerably enlarged area of the bailey thus made available accommodated the extensive range of buildings required for such an important residence. There was the great hall, which was the centre of palace life – its remains now lie under two 19th century houses in Castle Hill. One called ‘The Chestnuts’ was the house where Alice’s creator, Lewis Carroll, died in 1898.

Within the castle wall, close to the present Quarry Street, chambers were built for Henry’s son, later Edward I, and for his queen, Eleanor. In 1990 archaeologists uncovered the remains of a building constructed of quality masonry. The dimensions of this important find exactly fitted the specifications for the building of ‘Lord Edward’s Chamber’ as detailed in a surviving document of 1246. It was to be ’50 ft long from the wall towards the street along the wall towards the field to the corner of the wall towards the kitchen . . . and 26 ft wide from the wall towards the field to almonry’. Parts of the foundations of the almonry, originally built in the 1220s and enlarged in 1238, were also discovered. The almoner had the job of collecting those revenues earmarked for charitable purposes.

A cesspit excavated in this area revealed amongst the rubbish deposited in it the fragments of a glass container known as a urinal. These vessels were used by medieval physicians to examine the urine of their patient. From its colour the physician would pronounce the state of the patient’s health. It was tempting to link this discovery with the fatal illness of Lord Henry, the son of Edward I, who died at Guildford in 1274. Unfortunately, the connection was disproved by archaeologists because the cesspit had been filled in prior to the building of a new chamber for Queen Eleanor in 1268.

Queen Eleanor’s original chamber was also built, like Lord Edward’s, in 1246 and was probably situated to the east of the great hail. The new chamber was constructed adjacent to the almonry, and its remains have also been uncovered by archaeologists. Some of the substantial walls of the king’s chambers can still be seen above ground in the south-west corner of the present Castle Gardens. At the entrance to Castle Hill is Castle Arch which was built in 1256 by the king’s master mason, John of Gloucester, who carried out extensive work on the palace following a fire in 1254.

But what was life like for the commoners beyond the walls of this sumptuous royal palace? For most of Surrey’s town dwellers the comparative peace of the reigns of Henry III and Edward I, brought increasing prosperity and expansion. Their markets flourished. Dorking’s market was confirmed in 1278 and Haslemere certainly had a market by 1221, whilst Godalming’s was confirmed by Edward I in 1300. The market at Leatherhead dates from a grant of Henry III in 1248 and at Farnham the Bishop of Winchester, Lord of the Manor, obtained the rights for a market in 1216. In 1249 the burgesses of Farnham were given their own charter of liberties making them responsible for running the affairs of the town separately from the manor. Reigate was founded as a new town by the de Warrennes at the gates of their castle. The original settlement of Cherchefelle, to the east, seems to have been abandoned apart from the church, which was retained on its original site. The new town’s market was certainly thriving well before 1276. Most importantly, Guildford itself had developed as a major centre of woollen cloth manufacture and a charter of 1257 established this borough as the county town.

At Guildford, the townsman and their families lived in timber-framed houses fronting the High Street. Various trades and crafts were carried on in the houses and in the narrow strips of land behind them. Some strips had rights of way or ‘gates’ running between the properties, especially where inns and taverns developed. Several of these gates survive today, such as Tunsgate, Swan Lane (Swangate) and Market Street (formerly Red Lion Gate). In the late 13th century several High Street properties in Guildford were rebuilt and provided with semi-basement shops or ‘undercrofts’. These stone-built vaulted cellars, with steps leading down from the street, were the result of the increasing demand for trade and shop premises. Two of these fascinating medieval structures still survive beneath more recent buildings. A similar stone undercroft has also been discovered in Kingston. As the borough of Guildford became more prosperous and pressure on building land increased, its houses were often rebuilt at right angles to the street in order to fit more properties into a single strip. The occupiers of these houses were the new growing breed of freemen – craftsmen, traders and entrepreneurs, often responsible to a guild but not tied to a lord’s land.

However, the majority of Surrey’s population still lived in a feudal society, toiling on their lord’s land, whilst eking out a subsistence existence on the small plots allowed for their own crops. Some of them would have worked on small sub-manors like Aisted near Merstham, the site of which was rediscovered in the late 1960s. Here, archaeologists and historians have been able to reconstruct the story of a small manor house from the mid-13th century until its final abandonment at the beginning of the 15th century.

The first post-Conquest house on the Aisted site was built in the mid-13th century. A simpFe rectangular building measuring just over 28 x 13 ft, constructed of chalk, flint and local sandstone, roofed with clay tiles. It was probably a first floor hall, similar to those found in other parts of southern Britain. Unlike a number of similar establishments of the period, Aisted did not have a moat. Well over 100 such sites have, however, been identified in Surrey, mostly dating from the 13th and early 14th centuries. They were constructed with a square or rectangular water-filled moat surrounding the manor house.

At Tolworth, near Ewell, there are the scant remains of a moated manor house which belonged to Hugh le Despenser, a supporter of Edward II. After the unfortunate Hugh had been hanged when his worthless king was deposed in 1327, a survey was made of his property. The records show that within the moat at Tolworth there was a range of domestic buildings and a bakehouse, brewhouse and chapel. There were also various agricultural buildings on the site, such as barns for the storage of grain, but these were all situated outside the moat. It is obvious from the position of these buildings that any defence of such a site would have been limited in its effectiveness. This has led most archaeologists to agree that these moats were constructed as a matter of status and fashion, rather than for any practical defensive reasons. The restoration of an undocumented moat at South Park, near Grayswood, was completed in 1994 and the site is now open to the public.

The simple unmoated manor house at Aisted was almost certainly the home of Ralph de Aldestede. Ralph’s son, Robert, married a lady of substantial means, Sarah de Passele, and took her name. Thus the sub-manor passed to the de Passele, later Pashley, family. There is probably a link between this marriage and the rebuilding of the manor house along much more substantial lines in about 1270.

The new house had a timber-framed aisled hall, solar block and kitchen. Archaeologists found much evidence for iron working on the site throughout the period of occupation. There were also extensive indications around the site of the remains of the humble hovels of the tied workers of the manor’s farming estate. It would have been a mixed farming economy with cattle, sheep and pigs, plus arable.

The manor house lay empty for 50 or 60 years following the death in 1341 of Margaret, wife of Edmund de Passele, son of Robert. Another reason for its desertion may have been the devastation wrought by the Black Death, which swept through England, including Surrey, following its arrival from the Continent in 1348. Then, for a brief period, Aisted was refurbished and much improved iron working facilities constructed. Finally, the place was abandoned to the brambles and nettles for more than 500 years. Left behind on the site were those many small possessions and everyday items of a medieval Surrey community which made life work – the broken pottery, mainly locally produced but including some fine ware imported from France, and metal objects such as keys, buckles and brooches. Perhaps most touching of all was the discovery of two clay marbles. Small matters that bring us so much closer to our medieval forebears.