Magna Carta and Fulk FitzWarin

This week it’s the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215 by King John. Magna Carta is the most famous of a series of agreements between kings and barons which limited the power of the kings. It includes things that are still important today, such as taxation needing the consent of the people; accused criminals being judged by their equals; forced marriage being wrong; and beer and wine being sold in fixed measures.

Magna Carta was sealed by King John using his great seal, which had a picture of the king on his throne on the front, and armed and on his war-horse on the reverse.

Great seal of King John (reverse)
Great seal of King John (reverse) Source: Ancient Armour and Weapons in Europe by John Hewitt, 1855

The reverse of John’s seal (pictured) is very like a seal matrix recently found in Little Bedwyn, Wiltshire (BERK-FDCFD2).

The Little Bedwyn matrix also has a mounted warrior and, although only half of the object survives, he can be identified from the inscription and from his shields of arms as Fulk FitzWarin III. Fulk was one of King John’s barons, and a famous legal case involving him and John led to one of Magna Carta’s most famous clauses.

Medieval seal matrix
BERK-FDCFD2: Medieval seal matrix of Fulk Fitzwarin III. Copyright: Oxfordshire County Council. Licence: CC-BY.

Clause 40 is one of the shortest but most important: To no-one will we sell, to no-one will we deny or delay, right or justice. Before this, ‘justice’ was often simply what the king thought it was, and as King John had expensive tastes he could be persuaded one way of the other by who was willing to pay him the most money.

The case involving Fulk FitzWarin is complicated, and involves competing barons trying to pay John larger and larger amounts of money to hold Whittington Castle on the Welsh border in Shropshire. Although normally this kind of dispute would be settled by deciding who had the legal right to the castle, John’s decision was clearly coloured by who could pay the most, even though one of the barons involved was actually Welsh.

Fulk ended up in open rebellion against John, with a group of border knights. They had to take refuge in Stanley Abbey in Wiltshire, not far from the findspot of the seal matrix. Fulk is not recorded as being among the 25 barons who forced John to accept Magna Carta, but he did become very famous as the hero of the French romance Fouke le Fitz Waryn, a heroic tale of Fulk as a wronged outlaw in the reign of King John that bears a strong resemblance to the later tale of Robin Hood.

King John and Magna Carta

Penny of John
Penny of John, post reform (IOW-619358). Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme. Licence: CC-BY.

In the week marking the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta it is interesting to consider this landmark in archaeological terms. Notably, the current British Library exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy features very few archaeological artefacts, many of which are dated after the events of 1215.  This must be in part due to the difficulty of dating such artefacts precisely, an area of ongoing work by the present author.

papal bulla
Papal bulla of Innocent III (BH-4C32B5). Copyright: St. Albans District Council. Licence: CC-BY.
Seal matrix
Seal matrix of Fulk FitzWarin III (BERK-FDCFD2). Copyright: Oxfordshire County Council. Licence: CC-BY.

However, we stand on firm ground as we consider some of the objects which name various of the ‘cast’ of the Magna Carta story.  There are, for example, almost 3,000 coins attributed to King John on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. Around half of these are fractions: coins deliberately cut in half, for use as halfpennies, or into quarters, for use as farthings.  Notably, a decade before Magna Carta John reformed the coinage leading to coins far neater than those that preceded them.  Once such coin has been converted into a brooch, possibly around the time of Magna Carta (NLM-BF3250).

We also have a dozen lead seals, known as bullae, of Innocent III, the papal incumbent who was to go on to annul Magna Carta in August 1215.  Though there is no seal matrix from any of the signatories of the charter, such as a the wonderful silver matrix of Robert Fitzwalter at the British Museum, the recently recorded matrix of Fulk Fitzwarin III is very similar in its design and of a contemporary: BERK-FDCFD2.  It too is wonderful – try spotting the cross-shaped harness pendants! The object will be discussed more fully in an upcoming post…

Although more work is required to gain a better understanding of the personal possessions of all those affected by the Magna Carta, many would have handled these pennies of John!