A history of Halesworth, Suffolk, UK, through the ages.


Volume 1


Roger Bigod, King John and Magna Carta in 1215

John came to the throne on the death of his elder brother Richard l - in 1199. He had always been overshadowed by Richard, who was admired for his success on the battlefield. During Richard's reign, John did everything to win the crown for himself while his brother was on the Crusades, but now he was in the position to shape his own way in the country. But the chroniclers of the time were critical of his efforts, 'He plundered his own people' wrote one, another said 'No man may ever trust him' and on his death one went so far as to comment 'Hell itself is fouled by the presence of John'.

John was also unfortunate to have lost his lands of Brittany and Anjou to Philip ll of France, and it was his need to raise money for troops to protect the remaining French possessions of Poitou and Gascony that caused much of his trouble with the Barons. The chief complaint was the increase in the rate of 'relief' - a medieval form of death duty - and the 'scutage' - the payment made in place of military service.

When William the Conqueror granted large tracts of land to his nobles and barons, he enforced their responsibility to maintain a number of armoured horsemen for his army, and so was placing power in their hands. So, when King John laid heavy taxation demands on the Barons, this, with the loss of revenue from the continental lands the king had forfeited, made them very angry, and the Barons rebelled.

The crisis came in August 1212 with a baronial plot to murder or betray the king, but this failed. In 1214 John imposed further taxes which were heavier than any previous assessments. So in November 1214 the Earls and Barons of England met at the Abbey of Bury St.Edmunds to discuss with Archbishop Langton the terms of a charter of their rights.

This was the 'Articles of the Barons' which were finalised early in 1215 by twenty five barons which included Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, and Hugh Bigiod of Framlingham and Bungay. They swore on the altar of the Abbey to make war on the King and withdraw their loyalty if he was unwilling to agree to their requests. Stephen Langton, the Archbishop was sympathetic to their proposals, and agreed to act as mediator between them and the King. A plaque marks the spot in the Abbey ruins where this vital meetings of the rebels took place.

John was furious and at first refused out of hand, as no king of England had ever been dictated to before in this way. So on the 12th May 1215 he ordered the seizure of the rebel baron's estates and then civil war broke out. On 17th May the Barons seized London by entering the city while the citizens were at mass. John fled to Windsor and eventually was persuaded by Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk to negotiate. Roger Bigod was a successor of the other Bigods who held lands in Halesworth from the time of Domesday (1086) and whose castle still stands at Bungay.

King John reluctantly agreed to meet the Barons at Runnymede near Windsor and after several days of bargaining, was persuaded to accept the conditions laid out in the document we now call Magna Carta, or the Great Charter. In 1215 Reginald de Argentein of Halesworth was among the rebels who promoted Magna Carta and for this his lands were confiscated, but in 1216 they were restored.

At first, Magna Carta was a failure, as John had no intention of honouring his promises. It was intended to create peace between the king and the barons, but in fact it provoked dissension. Both sides prepared for war, with Geofrey Earl of Essex inviting Louis, the eldest son of the king of France to reign in John's place. Before long French troops were on English soil, John was fighting both the Barons, the French and later, Alexander of Scotland joined in. John died in October 1216, at a time when the outcome was uncertain, leaving his nine year old son to succeed him as Henry lll.

During the years of his minority, Henry lll was under the control of a group of Barons who issued a compromise Magna Carta in 1225. The witnesses to this document included both Roger and Richard Bigod and Richard de Argentein whose personal seals were fixed to Magna Carta which was confirmed and became law.

Of the 63 sections of the charter, nine are still in the Statute Book and they include the one which declares the English Church shall be free.

Probably the most important to us is section 29 which lays down that no free man is to be imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or damaged without the lawful judgement of his peers, or by the laws of the land.

This still stands as an essential part of our law and is in many peoples' mind the legacy of Magna Carta. As he grew older, Henry became heavily influenced by his French wife, and her friends and relations were so involved in state matters that Henry was forced to hand over much of his power to a group of Barons led by Simon de Montfort. He called a Great Council, inviting knights and citizens from counties and from towns to parley in 1265 - and which brought about the first Parliament.


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