Ladies of Magna Carta
By Sharon Bennett Connolly
Magna Carta clause 39: No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
This clause in Magna Carta was in response to the appalling imprisonment and starvation of Matilda de Braose, the wife of one of King John’s barons. Matilda was not the only woman who influenced, or was influenced by, the 1215 Charter of Liberties, now known as Magna Carta. Women from many of the great families of England were affected by the far-reaching legacy of Magna Carta, from their experiences in the civil war and as hostages, to calling on its use to protect their property and rights as widows. Ladies of Magna Carta looks into the relationships – through marriage and blood – of the various noble families and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken.
Including the royal families of England and Scotland, the Marshals, the Warennes, the Braoses and more, Ladies of Magna Carta focuses on the roles played by the women of the great families whose influences and experiences have reached far beyond the thirteenth century.
Margaret of Scotland
It took a little longer to resolve the futures of the king’s two sisters who had been held hostage in England since 1209. Margaret, the eldest daughter of William I and Ermengarde de Beaumont, had been born sometime between her parents’ marriage in 1186 and 1195, unfortunately we cannot be more specific. We do know that she was born by 1195, as she was mooted as a possible heir to King William I in the succession crisis of that year, when the king fell gravely ill. Several options were proposed at the time, including marrying young Margaret to Otto of Saxony, nephew of King Richard I. However, it was also proposed that Margaret should not even be considered as heir, that the kingdom should pass to her father’s younger brother, David. In the event, King William recovered and none of the options were pursued, but at least it means that we know Margaret was born before 1195. And when her brother, Alexander, was born in 1198, Margaret’s position as a possible heir was diminished further.
When she was taken as hostage, therefore she may have been as old as 22 or as young as 14. Given the apparent youth of Ermengarde on her wedding day, Margaret’s date of birth is more likely to have been 1190 or later. John’s demand of Margaret and Isabella as hostages, with the sweetener that they would be brides for his own sons, may well have been to prevent Margaret marrying elsewhere. King Philip Augustus had proposed a marriage between himself and Margaret, a union John would be keen to thwart. Thus, John’s control of the marriages of Margaret and Isabella would mean that they could not marry against the king of England’s own interests. It also meant that King William had lost two useful diplomatic bargaining chips; marriage alliances could be used to cement political ones, and these had been passed to John, weakening William’s position on the international stage. According to the chronicler Bower, the agreement specified that Margaret would marry John’s son, Henry, while Isabella would be married to an English nobleman of rank.
While hostages in England, Margaret and Isabella were kept together, and lived comfortably, although John’s promise of arranging marriages for the girls remained unfulfilled. One can imagine the frustration of the Scots, to see their princesses languishing in the custody of the English, however comfortably, with their futures far from decided. There must have been considerable pressure from the Scots for a resolution to the situation, to the extent that the princesses are the only women to be identified in Magna Carta; clause 59 of the charter specifically mentions the king of Scots’ sisters and promises to seek a resolution to their situation. Unfortunately, King John tore up Magna Carta almost before the wax seals had dried, writing to the pope to have the charter declared void, leaving Alexander to join the baronial rebellion.
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Ladies of Magna Carta
Sharon Bennett Connolly
Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – www.historytheinterestingbits.com – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated, concentrating on medieval women. Her latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, released in May 2020, is her third non-fiction book. She is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Sharon regularly gives talks on women's history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television's 'Who Do You Think You Are?'