The Medieval Review 16.02.37

Holt, J. C., revised by John Hudson and George Garnett. Magna Carta, Third Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. pp. xxii, 462. $94.99 (hardback) $34.99 (paperback). ISBN: 9781107093164 (hardback) 9781107471573 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Ralph V. Turner
Florida State University

Sir James Holt (died 2014) was the recognized expert on Magna Carta in the second half of the twentieth century. His masterful book, Magna Carta, was published in 1965 to mark the Great Charter's 750th anniversary. A second edition was published by Cambridge in 1992 with a revised text, adding a new chapter and shorter sections reflecting further thoughts and additional research that resulted in a volume 175 pages longer than the original. Holt aimed "to present the Charter in a context of the politics, administration and political thought of England and Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries." Although he touched on Magna Carta's later history in the first chapter, "The Charter and its history," and in the final chapter, "The reissues and the beginning of the myth," he wrote "mainly about the Charter of 1215 and its immediate re-issues" (preface to first edition, xvi). Magna Carta soon established itself as the standard work on the Charter, and his magisterial book places him "in the Oxford tradition of constitutional and political history stemming from Bishop [William] Stubbs." [1]

Publication of the third edition of Magna Carta was planned to mark the Charter's 800th anniversary. Holt's failing health prevented his participation in the new edition, and two former students, George Garnett and John Hudson, oversaw its completion. The text of the third edition is that of the second edition with minor corrections. An addition is an introduction that the editors hope "will constitute the most substantial assessment of his work on Magna Carta and will mark his vicarious last word on the subject" (preface, xii). They consider five topics that have inspired research since the 1992 edition.

First is "Justice and Jurisdiction," a topic discussed by Holt in a new chapter in the second edition. It concentrates on the weak position of King John's great men, his tenants-in-chief, in legal actions against him as their lord. They could not bring actions that Henry II's legal reforms enabled ordinary free tenants to bring against their lord, pleading that he had forcibly taken their property "unjustly and without judgment." No one would dare accuse the king of such a deed. In effect, the Angevin kings' system of justice acted on two levels: a high standard of justice for ordinary free men in whose cases the king had no interest, and complaints of the king's tenants-in-chief who were left "exposed to the vagaries of the king's will" (124). Holt maintained that a new writ available to royal tenants-in-chief two years after John's death, "was a great unrecorded baronial victory" (163). The editor's note (6-7) a 1996 paper by David Carpenter, however, showing that the Great Charter failed to solve the problem of justice for baronial victims of unlawful acts by the king. [2]

Second is a reconsideration of the impact of political events in the south of France and in Spain on political change in England. Holt had looked for governmental developments on the continent comparable to those in England, and he found that "Magna Carta was far from unique, either in content or in form" (50-51). He took note of charters of liberties granted by continental rulers, but he found that unlike Magna Carta they were strictly aristocratic, making no concessions to groups below baronial status, and he could not claim any influence on King John's charter (236-238). Garnett and Hudson discuss the Albigensian crusade, citing an article of Claire Taylor. [3] They point out connections between the crusaders in southwestern France and some of John's English opponents, even speculating that Robert fitz Walter's title as military commander of the baronial rebels, "Marshal of the Army of God and of the Holy Church in England," derives from the Albigensian crusaders.

Historians have long questioned Archbishop Stephen Langton's central role in the origins of Magna Carta, and the third topic treated in the editor's introduction is a discussion of recent studies of manuscripts of his writings. They analyze an article by the late John W. Baldwin on Langton's disputations, biblical commentaries, and sermons from his Paris years. [4] He found that Langton's writings stress the sinful nature of royal government and its predatory nature. He taught the people's right to resist an evil ruler who commands them to commit a mortal sin, or who issues an unjust command without his court's judgment. Also Langton placed limits on monarchs' financial exactions, writing that kings who "collect treasure not in order [that] they may sustain necessity, but to satiate their cupidity," act contrary to divine will.

The contentious issue of Langton's role in the barons' plans centers on his alleged showing the rebels a copy of Henry I's coronation charter as a means of limiting King John's power. Historians since the mid-twentieth century have questioned Langton's role in the barons' revolt, chiefly because of the unreliability of Roger of Wendover's chronicle, source of the story. Prominent among the doubters was Holt (199-202). Nicholas Vincent writes that Holt was "overly dismissive" both in underestimating Langton's role in drafting the charter and in rejecting Langton's role in the rediscovery of the coronation charter of Henry I. [5] The editors, however, dismiss Langton's view of limits on royal arbitrary acts as "a well-established legal commonplace" (13). They echo David Carpenter's 2011 article on Langton and Magna Carta, in which he writes, "it hardly needed Langton's intervention to introduce the principles of the charter, or indeed the idea of a charter itself into political discourse. Both were already commonplace." [6]

Having discounted the influence of Langton's theological writings, the editors turn to their fourth topic, the impact of the jus commune, Roman and canon law, on Magna Carta. They take aim at Richard Helmholtz's 1999 article, "Magna Carta and the jus commune." He expressed a maximalist view of Romano-canonical law's influence on the Great Charter, finding parallels between jus commune texts and a number of the Charter's articles. Editor John Hudson had replied earlier to Helmholtz's findings in a paper. [7] He concludes that direct influence of Romano-canonical law on the1215 Charter was "limited to a few clauses," and that the strongest influence on the Charter's drafters was "earlier English practice and circumstance." Yet some of those involved in drafting Magna Carta clearly were capable of using technical terms from Romano-canonical law in their proper legal sense.

Garnett and Hudson state that clerics in English episcopal households learned in Romano-canonical law had to be familiar also with English law, since they had to defend their churches' rights and lands in secular courts (15-16). The editors discuss collections of English laws extant around 1200, and they agree that indirect influences of learned law are found in them. Most important for Magna Carta is the Roman concept of corporations as legal entities that contributed to a recognition of the crown, urban communes, and even "the commune of the whole land" or community of the realm as legal institutions (19-20). Certainly English legal collections circulating in London including earlier monarchs' charters of liberties were known to disaffected clerics who could have shared them with similarly disaffected barons as a precedent for curbing John's excesses. Holt recognized the implications of the Laws of Edward the Confessor, writing that much of it "stated the principles which underlay Magna Carta" (102).

The final section of the introduction surveys the problem of dating Magna Carta, reconsidered by David Carpenter in 1996. [8] In his view, the date stated in the Charter's final chapter should be accepted, "the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign." According to Holt, King John had sealed the Articles of the Barons on 10 June 1215, accepting them as the basis for final negotiations. He dates the Charter at 19 June, when the rebels and John at Runnymede meadow made a "firm peace," symbolized by exchanges of the kiss of peace and the barons' renewal of their homage. His argument is that the king would not have set his seal to the Charter until they had sworn homage to him. In fact, there was no ceremonial sealing at Runnymede of an "original" Charter, and the date stated in chapter 63 is purely notional, for it would have taken days to draft the copies sent out to the counties (222-224). Holt's dating seems likely to stand.

Holt'sMagna Carta is avowedly a work of constitutional and political history. Yet recent research in spheres beyond law and politics has relevance for the Great Charter's origins. One topic is the question of the literacy of the rebel barons and their households. Holt took note of this in the second edition, adding an appendix seven, "Translations of the Charters" (third edition 399-402), in which he discussed translations of Magna Carta from Latin into Anglo-Norman French. Although formerly assumed to have been illiterate, many late twelfth- and early thirteenth-century barons and knights had achieved some level of literacy. Counted as illiterate by clerics because they could not read Latin, many were able to read Anglo-Norman French, and a large body of writing in Anglo-Norman was accessible to them. Indeed, Ian Short finds that vernacular French emerged in England earlier than in mainland France, and that "an unusually large percentage" of early Anglo-Norman manuscripts are of English origin, among them translations of early English laws. [9]

Literate barons and knights were more likely reading courtly romances than law books, and this literature had an immense impact on their views of themselves and their place in society. Only recently has the connection between popular vernacular literature and baronial political attitudes become a topic for scholars. The inspiration for French courtly literature was Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, written in Latin c. 1140, a pseudo-history that enjoyed incredible success and transformed King Arthur into a character in romances. [10] An Anglo-Norman version of Geoffrey's history, Wace's Brut, appeared by the mid-1150s, and an English version by Layamon or Lawman appeared around the beginning of the thirteenth century.

Laura Ashe in a 2007 paper suggests that romances present "the moral reality of the ruling class," and she points out that twelfth- and thirteenth-century English romances "offer a strong, not to say realistic, model of lordship, kingship and governance, a sense of the duties and the qualities of a king." [11] David Carpenter in his recent book on Magna Carta finds that Layamon's Brut depicts King Arthur as "a consensual ruler with a real concern for law, justice and the welfare of his people." [12] From experiences in presiding over their own courts and from Arthurian literature, the aristocracy constructed an idealized vision of King Arthur's "consultative kingship," taking counsel with his faithful men gathered at his round table in contrast to the Angevins' arbitrary rule and unworthy counselors. Members of the baronage extrapolating from their experience in baronial courts settling disputes through informal discussion reached the same conclusion as Stephen Langton, namely that the king ought to govern by judgment and by counsel. They looked longingly to the years before 1154, and "the good old law" of Arthur, Edward the Confessor, and Henry I, not Henry's legal innovations.

Sir James Holt, always forthright in his opinions, deplored the history profession's turn away from political history and toward social and cultural topics. One can only speculate on his view of recent research on language, literature, and the Great Charter. Despite current trends, Holt's Magna Carta will continue to stand as an essential work and the starting point for any new research.



1. Michael Jones, Obituary of Holt, Parliaments, Estates and Representation 35:2 (2015): 246-248.

2. "Justice and Jurisdiction under King John and King Henry III," in David Carpenter, The Reign of Henry III (London: Hambledon, 1996), 17-44.

3. Claire Taylor, "Pope Innocent III, John of England and the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1216)," in Pope Innocent III and His World, ed. J. C. Moore (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), 205-228.

4. John W. Baldwin, "Master Stephen Langton, Future Archbishop of Canterbury: The Paris Schools and Magna Carta," English Historical Review 123 no. 503 (Aug. 2008): 811-846. See also Nicholas Vincent, "Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury," in Etiènne Langton: Prédicateur, Bibliste, Théologien, eds. Louis-Jacques Bataillon et al. (Bibliothèque d'Histoire Culturelle du Môyen Âge, 9; Brepols: Turnhout, 2010), 77-97; and David D'Avray, "Magna Carta: Its Background in Stephen Langton's Academic Biblical Exegesis and its Episcopal Reception," Studi Medievali, third series, 38 (1997): 423-438.

5. Vincent, "Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury," 92-93. Similar views are expressed by M. T. Clanchy, England and Its Rulers 1066-1272: Foreign Lordship and National Identity (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1983), 193-194; and R.M. Thompson, ed. and trans., The Chronicle of the Election of Hugh Abbot Bury St. Edmunds and Later Bishop of Ely, App. IV, "The Meeting of the Rebel Barons at St. Edmunds, Nov. 1214" (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 189-192.

6. David Carpenter, "Archbishop Langton and Magna Carta: His Contribution, His Doubts and His Hypocrisy," English Historical Review 126 no. 522 (Oct. 2011): 1041-1065.

7. Richard Helmholtz, "Magna Carta and the jus commune," University of Chicago Law Review 76 (1999): 297-371; John Hudson, "Magna Carta, The jus commune, and English Common Law," in Magna Carta and the England of King John, ed. Janet S. Loengard (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2010), 99-119.

8. Carpenter, "The Dating and Making of Magna Carta," in his Reign of Henry III, 1-16.

9. See Ian Short, "Patrons and Polyglots: French Literature in Twelfth-century England," Anglo-Norman Studies: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 14 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1991), 229-249; see Short, "Literary Culture at the Court of Henry II," in Henry II: New Interpretations , eds. Christopher Harper-Bill and Nicholas Vincent (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007), 335-361.

10. Bruce O'Brien, "Forgers of Law and Their Readers: The Crafting of English Political Identities between the Norman Conquest and the Magna Carta," PS: Political Science and Politics 43 (July 2010): 467-473.

11. Laura Ashe, "William Marshal, Lancelot, and Arthur: Chivalry and Kingship," Anglo-Norman Studies: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 30 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007), 19-40.

12. Carpenter, Magna Carta (London and New York: Penguin, 2015), 255.

Copyright (c) 2016 Ralph V. Turner

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