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Magna Carta

Why Commemorate the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta?

Magna Carta matters. It is the foundation stone supporting the freedoms enjoyed today by hundreds of millions of people in more than 100 countries.

Magna Carta enshrined the Rule of Law in English society. It limited the power of authoritarian rule. It paved the way for trial by jury, modified through the ages as the franchise was extended.

It proclaimed certain religious liberties,’the English Church shall be free’. It defined limits on taxation; every American remembers that ‘no taxation without representation’ was the cry of the American colonists petitioning the King for their rights as free men. 

For centuries it has influenced constitutional thinking worldwide including in France, Germany, Japan, the United States and India as well as many Commonwealth countries, and throughout Latin America and Africa.  Over the past 800 years, denials of Magna Carta’s basic principles have led to a loss of liberties, loss of human rights and even genocide. It is an exceptional document on which democratic society has been constructed.

‘Bad’ King John

On 15th June 1215 a reluctant, but resigned and most definitely scheming King John was brought to Runnymede to put his seal to the Great Charter of Liberty – Magna Carta, which is widely viewed as establishing the rule of constitutional law and individual freedoms that many of us take for granted today. Magna Carta was the first document imposed upon a King of England by a group of his subjects, the feudal barons, in an attempt to limit his powers by law and protect their rights.

John might have acceded to the Barons’ demands, but he plainly had no intention of sticking to the bargain. Once at a safe distance from Runnymede he was urging Pope Innocent III to declare it void. The Pope agreed to John’s request, and on 24August 1215, a mere ten weeks after its sealing, the Magna Carta was declared null and void by a Papal Bull.

And there its place in history may well have stopped. But, fifteen months later, after first facing a Baronial war, and then losing the royal treasury in the Wash, John fell victim to a bad dose of dysentery. And on 18 October 1216 he died, to be succeeded by his son, the more devout, less intelligent, longer lasting, but equally ineffective Henry III. The redoubtable Earl Marshal, the new young King’s regent, rescued Magna Carta from its threatened obscurity, revising and reissuing it twice. When he came of age, Henry III also reissued it, as did his son, Edward I, when he became King in 1297. It is Edward I’s version which remains on the statute books to this day.


William Malet – Lord of Curry Mallet, Somerset

In 1215 William Malet, Lord of Curry Mallet, now a small Somerset village, was one of the twenty five rebel barons elected as a surety or guarantor of the Magna Carta.  Each baron had at least one barony that was made up of a number of fees or manors, and one manor in particular was the caput honouris, thechief manor which, in our case, was Curry Mallet.  Yet, these men were very much a product of those unsettled times. They were the aristocratic elite of Anglo-Norman society, holding large swathes of land from the king, particularly in the North of England and East Anglia.

William Malet (c. 1175-1215) was one of the sizeable group of rebel barons who were heavily indebted to King John, making the revolt of 1215 in some sense a debtors’ revolt. William, was the descendant of Robert Malet (d. before 1156), first holder of the barony, and the son of Gilbert Malet, who died in 1194. In 1196 he paid Richard the Lionheart a fine and relief of £150 to enter into his inheritance.

William’s early career, characteristically for someone of his background and upbringing, had been in royal service. He had accompanied Richard the Lionheart on crusade from 1190 and he had taken part in the siege of Acre in 1191. He was appointed sheriff of Somerset and Dorset by King John in 1209 after the two counties had petitioned to have someone local as their sheriff instead of the courtier William Brewer, and he served in the office until 1212. By this latter year he was running into financial difficulties, although the cause of his problems is not clear, and by 1214 he was owing the king as much as 2000 marks (about £1333). In 1214 he entered into an agreement to serve with the king in Poitou with ten knights and twenty other soldiers in return for the cancellation of his debt. In 1215 he went over to the barons, joining the confederacy at their muster at Stamford in Easter week, and in June was appointed to the Twenty Five.

William appears to have died only months afterwards, for by that time his estates were in the possession of his son-in-law, Hugh de Vivonia. He left three daughters between whom his estates were divided: Mabel, who married first Nicholas Avenel and then Hugh de Vivonia (d. 1249) of Chewton (Somerset); Helewise, who married first Hugh Pointz (d. 1220), an associate of Malet in the rebellion, and second Robert de Mucegros (d. 1254), a future servant of Henry III; and Bertha, who died unmarried before 1221.

(Text courtesy of Professor Nigel Saul and the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Committee).