Bridge in Stamford, Lincolnshire

Stamford seen from the meadows

Detail from the Stamford Historian

Stamford and Magna Carta

Tue, 05/19/2015 - 20:08 -- Chris Davies

The text of Dr Henry Summerson's April 2015 lecture, Stamford and Magna Carta​ is reproduced here for those members who were unable to attend the lecture

 Stamford at the time of Magna Carta: the life of the town

 

It is a great pleasure to be here in Stamford this evening, in this most elegant and well-preserved of English country towns.  Such is the power of the media that the world at large probably associates Stamford most readily with TV serials like Middlemarch, but of course your town has a real past of its own, one embodied in works of scholarship like the little book you have generously sponsored and which is being formally launched this evening  Thank you for your support, and for coming here this evening, and my thanks also to Alan Rogers for help in preparing the book, and not least for the illustrations which will accompany my talk.  It is by way of the first of them that I shall take you back to the thirteenth century, but going gently, by way of this engraving of a `prospect’ of the town made in the early eighteenth century, chosen because much in it would have looked familiar to much earlier generations of Stamfordians – the skyline dominated by church towers, the surrounding walls, and not least the ploughed fields extending right up to those walls.  If we imagine a man coming home after a day’s work in the fields eight centuries ago, in Easter week 1215, much would have been as it is in the engraving, though the walls would have been wooden and the towers less prominent.  But he might well have been puzzled to find the town unusually busy, with crowds of people in the streets, many of them armed and mounted.  The annual fair ended last week, has a tournament been arranged without anyone telling him?  Some of those coats of arms he sees on shields and banners look familiar – they are those of local lords who often ride past him in the streets, or who own houses in the town – but there are others he doesn’t recall seeing here before, and all round him are men talking in broad north-country accents, and he doesn’t recognise them either.  Altogether it’s a relief when they gather themselves together and move off, having drunk the taverns dry and left piles of horse manure in the streets.

 

With all the advantages of hindsight we know that our hypothetical townsman has been the unknowing witness to what (in capital letters) we may call a Major Historical Event, the beginning of the baronial campaign which led successively to a formal declaration of war against King John, to the occupation of London, and to the peace treaty we know as Magna Carta – promises of good government extracted from the king by his adversaries in return for an end to hostilities and a return to their allegiance.  I will come back to those promises at the end, but first we need to look at Stamford itself.  An old community, of course, with a history traceable back at least to the late ninth century.  Its position on the crossing of the River Welland from which the town is named, giving access both to the Wash and to the east midlands, and its closeness to the north-south-running Roman road known as Ermine Street, gave it commercial advantages and made it a natural centre for the exercise of authority.  The dominant power in the town in its early days was the king.  There was a mint at Stamford by the mid-tenth century, and the striking of coins was a tightly controlled royal monopoly, while William I built a castle at the west end of the town within a few years of the battle of Hastings.  But Henry II granted his lordship at Stamford to his constable, Richard du Hommet, who was also a major landowner in Normandy, while by 1215 the lord of the town was another outsider, William de Warenne, and though neither of these magnates was indifferent to their rights here (the town’s court continued to be that of the lord, for instance), the fact that their principal estates lay elsewhere probably made it easier for the townsmen to pursue their own interests and to develop the lifestyle, and acquire the privileges, appropriate to a prosperous urban community.  By the early thirteenth century Stamford was styled a borough, where property was held by the tenure, known as burgage, which was characteristic of towns, it could exclude the sheriff of Lincolnshire, and it was represented by its own jury when royal justices visited the county – this is first recorded in 1202, when the Stamford jury so bungled its responsibilities that it seems legitimate to deduce that this hadn’t happened before.

 

The prosperity of Stamford came from both trade and industry, with both in turn deriving from the resources of the town itself and of the region in which it stood.  The fields I referred to at the start – perhaps amounting to 1000 acres at the time of Domesday Book – did not make the inhabitants of Stamford farmers, even though many of them, perhaps even most, will have had holdings in them.  Many 12th and 13th century townsmen (and –women) had occupational names, and ones like ploughman or shepherd are conspicuous by their absence.  Among all the property deeds and judicial records we don’t find the people who reared animals, but we do find those who slaughtered them – there was a butcher’s street in the town – and who exploited their hides and skins - tanners, fullers (who also gave their name to a street in the town), weavers, dyers and tailors, along with specialist names like glover, coifer (a maker of hoods) and wimpler (who made ladies’ headgear).  Smith, inevitably, is common, as are other kinds of metal-worker.  For housing people could turn to masons and stone-cutters.  Fishers must have exploited the Welland, and for those who did not have their own ovens their catch could have been prepared for them by the cooks who sold takeaway meals; those who were able to prepare their meals at home could go to spicers to enliven what they cooked there, while vintners supplied a superior tipple to those who could afford it – in 1202 there were said to be five vintners in the town, one of many indicators of Stamford’s prosperity by this date.  

 

It was a prosperity which helped to draw people in.  Low levels of hygiene, and correspondingly high death-rates, meant that all medieval towns found it hard to maintain their populations without constant immigration.  Goods and people probably came to Stamford from much the same places.  Many townspeople, on the evidence of their names, originated in nearby places, in towns and villages in Lincolnshire, Rutland and Northamptonshire.  A number came from Barnack, for instance, little more than three miles away, which manifestly also provided a good deal of the stone with which Stamford was built.  But there were also men and women named from parts of England further away, from East Anglia, and from Coventry, Nottingham and places in Derbyshire,.  In addition there is record of men and women named Fleming and Franceys; they could have been Flemings or French themselves, or they may have been so called because they had spent time across the Channel, which would explain the otherwise unexpected Reginald le Bretun, the son of Simon of Ketton – named from a village only three miles from Stamford, his father could hardly have been more local, so perhaps Reginald was so called because he had traded to Nantes or Rennes.

 

The town’s trading centre was naturally its market-place, immediately below the castle.  Stamford had the right to a weekly market, at first held every Sunday but later moved to Monday, and also a yearly fair, which began in the middle of Lent and eventually extended until Easter.  We may assume that the market was primarily attended by local people, coming in from the towns and villages within a few hours’ ride or walk from Stamford to buy and sell there, but the fair was an altogether grander affair, one of the most important in England.  The earliest in the year among the major English fairs, it drew in merchants from London – early in 1201 the mayor of London explained how he had been unable to arrest a city goldsmith because he had just left for Stamford fair – and also from abroad.  Among the many misdeeds laid to the charge of Gerald de Camville in 1194, after his dismissal as sheriff of Lincolnshire, was that he had been harbouring brigands who stole the goods of merchants going to Stamford fair and received them, and their plunder, afterwards.  Since the sheriff’s base was Lincoln Castle, well to the north of Stamford, it looks as if these unfortunates had been on their way inland from the coast when they were attacked.  Later references leave no doubt about such commercial links.  Early in 1227, for instance, at a time of Anglo-French tension, order was given for the seizure of all the goods of French merchants who had not received formal permission to attend the fair.  Some traders, it would seem, observed the bureaucratic niceties, but plenty of others just turned up on spec’, as it were.

 

What did foreign merchants go to Stamford fair for?  Partly, no doubt, simply to buy and sell, to exchange their own wares for those available at an accessible and well-attended venue.  But medieval Stamford also had distinctive products of its own.  The earliest, chronologically, was pottery.  Well before the Norman Conquest potters in the town had combined the exploitation of local clays with techniques which were borrowed from Flanders or Northern France (possibly a pointer to commercial links even at this early date) to make Stamford a centre for the production of fine ceramics, notable particularly for their glaze (visible on this locally-found jug, though its colour is a rather untypical green, yellow having been more often favoured).  Although allowances have to be made for the accidents of survival, and indeed discovery, the fact that fragments of Stamford ware have been found not only all over Lincolnshire and the east midlands but also in many places in East Anglia, at points west like Hereford, Worcester and Chester, at York, at Aberdeen and Perth, and even in Scandinavia, suggests strongly that its pottery made a significant contribution to the town’s prosperity.  

 

By the late twelfth century, however, the fires were going out in the kilns, partly because other places had developed pottery industries of their own, but still more because Stamford had become a centre for another and even more important industry, that of making cloth.  The wool of Lincolnshire was of excellent quality, and in itself constituted a major attraction to foreign merchants.  The fullers, weavers and dyers of Stamford also learnt to make the most of it, to such effect that `Stamford’ became a brand-name.  In the years around 1200 cloths called `Stamfords’ were being bought and sold in the Low Countries, France, Germany and Italy, some of them the genuine article and others imitations, a tribute of sorts to the quality of the originals – Arras in northern France became a notable centre for the production of imitation `Stamfords’.  The name probably covered several different sorts of cloth, but the best-known product of the townspeople’s looms, and one which came to be particularly associated with Stamford, was one called haberget – a mid-13th-century list of English towns, associating each one with a particular activity or product, gives `Haberget of Stamford’, before going on to things like Eels of Cambridge, Herring of Yarmouth and Soap of Coventry.  

 

Mentioned by name in Magna Carta, as one of three sorts of cloth whose size was regulated by clause 35, haberget (hauberge in French) almost certainly took its name from its pattern, which was made to resemble the interlocking links of a chain-mail shirt, or `hauberk’.  It was a kind of diamond twill, in fact, and clearly a high-quality product, in demand at the topmost social levels – in 1211 haberget was bought for King John himself, while four years earlier he had ordered twelve ells (between 15 and 16 yards) of it for his wife, Queen Isabella, commanding that it should have been dyed in grain, i.e. scarlet.  Medieval people liked bright colours, something we are apt to forget when we enter churches and castles and see only their bare stone walls.  Grain-dyed cloth may have been a Stamford speciality, judging by an anecdote found in a French chronicler, telling how an army campaigning in northern France in 1214 came to a little village now called Steenvorde but then `Estanfort’.  It was in enemy territory, and the French set fire to it, prompting one of their leaders to quip, as the red flames lit up the sky, that they wouldn’t ever have seen a Stamford better dyed in grain than that – at which, said the chronicler, there was much laughter, though he thought the joke tasteless himself.  Green was another possibility – in May 1226 Henry III ordered no less than 150 ells, over 550 yards, of `the best green’ of Stamford, perhaps intending to put his court into it at Whitsun.  Such an order brings out the scale on which cloth was made in Stamford, as well as the high reputation of the finished product; the three Italian merchants licensed in 1208 to buy haberget worth nearly £550 and take it abroad must have placed a similar bulk order.

 

John Speed’s map of Stamford was made long after the period I am talking about, but the lay-out of the town in 1600 probably did not differ much from that of 1200, and there was certainly one important similarity.  Written records make it clear that the medieval town was full of open spaces, which were in fact an essential component of life in it, they were needed for stabling, or vegetable gardens, or latrines, or workshops.  This is an age before factories - if you owned a loom, or a vat for dying, you probably kept it in a shed, or a yard in the case of a vat, at the back of the house.  Property deeds are full of information about houses.  One of the privileges associated with burgage tenure was the freedom to dispose of landed property, during an owner’s lifetime or in a testament made before death.  It was a privilege extended to women as well as men, helping to explain why wives and widows are so often named in title-deeds; marriage to an heiress, or to a wealthy widow, was a way for men to rise in the world, but the women who made such marriages did not thereafter lose their rights, or their interest, in the lands and houses transmitted with them, and it is striking how often a man buying or selling a house or plot of land found it necessary to record that he was acting with the consent of his wife.  Many of the dwellings disposed of will have been made of wood, but helped by the easy availability of good building stone, in the quarries at Barnack and also in and around Stamford itself, by the beginning of the thirteenth century stone houses were starting to be built there.  Remains of some of them can still be seen today.  Probably the most striking is 13 St Mary’s Hill, which appears to have been laid out on three floors, all stone-built, with an undercroft (seen here) supporting a shop at street level and living quarters above.  We can imagine the customer entering from the street to tell the shop-owner what he needs, and then either being taken down into the undercroft to inspect the stock and make his choice from it, or perhaps being asked to take a seat while a servant or apprentice is sent down to bring goods up for him to look at.  In the evening, the lower floors are locked up and the family – a word which in medieval parlance means the whole establishment, servants as well as parents and children – retires upstairs to sleep.  A passing reference in an early-13th century deed to Ivo the watchman suggests that there was some sort of external security to supplement bolts and bars.

 

The owner of a house like 13 St Mary’s Hill was certainly a wealthy man.  Property by itself was no guarantee of prosperity, however, and there were numerous occasions on which men and women sold it in order to pay their debts, to finance an important undertaking (notably a pilgrimage or crusade), or simply out of want.  One Richard Hallof, who in the early 13th century sold all his property, shops and houses to Walkelin the butcher for eight marks (no trivial sum), because he was `impelled by great poverty’, is typical of such reluctant vendors, though he may have fallen further than most.  There were poor people in medieval Stamford, and some of them were reduced to dishonest shifts to make a living, judging by their appearances in judicial records.  It is there that in 1203, for instance, we meet people with such names as Robert the blind, Hudde the forger and Emma Brunfustian (her name perhaps a reference to the cheap clothes which were doubtless all she could afford to wear), all accused of stealing goods among which clothes, some of them made of the expensive haberget, featured prominently.

 

The morality which shaped the lives of people like Hudde the forger was probably little more than fear of punishment, whether administered in a court run from the castle or before royal justices.  For the more-or-less law-abiding, as for most medieval people, it will have taken its conventional forms under the influence of the Christian religion, as proclaimed in the town’s many churches.  Ecclesiastically, Stamford was well provided-for, with its fourteen parish churches and six ancillary chapels, not to mention the religious houses in and near the town, and the many such monasteries which owned property within it.  Some of these last were far away, Durham Cathedral priory, for instance, whose daughter-house of St Leonard’s, just outside the eastern end of the town, has left us, in what remains of its church, a noble example of late Romanesque architecture which also demonstrates the high quality of the mason’s craft available to the people of Stamford in the late 12th century.  But others were much closer, above all the great Benedictine abbey of Peterborough, which was not only a major urban landowner, lord of Stamford Baron south of the Welland, which constituted one of the six wards into which the town was divided, and proprietor of fourteen messuages on the other side of the river, and also the controller of another religious house, the nunnery of St Michael’s, also south of the river.  

 

The fortunes of the nunnery are worth a moment’s attention, since this is one of the few points at which it is possible to get even a glimpse, however imperfectly, of the women of the medieval town.  To become a nun was rather like getting married, except that the bridegroom was Christ, and a dowry still had to be found, to help support the community in which a girl was placed.  So it was that in around 1200 one Waleran son of Ralph of Helpston (a village a few miles east of Stamford), supported by his wife Helen, gave land to the nuns in the town fields `on the day on which he assigned his daughter Maxiena to God and to religion’.  But the fact that she had taken vows devoting herself to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience did not necessarily lead to a nun’s severing all relations with her former life, or with her family.  St Michael’s was not a rich house, and life there was probably rather spartan, which helps explain a number of grants which were specifically aimed at making it more comfortable – they might be, in modern parlance, hypothecated to the refectory or to the infirmary, for the nuns’ veils or even to buy them bedclothes.  One of these benefactors was another woman, Lucy du Hommet, the wife of the lord of the town, who when a man called Salvagius gave his daughter to the nunnery, herself gave rents totalling 6s. 8d. to the sisters, partly to finance prayers for her own and her family’s souls, and partly to fund a pittance, an extra allowance of food, on the anniversary of her death, whenever that should occur.  Lucy was an important lady – she may even have been the owner of the fine gold ring, datable to the years around 1200, which was discovered on the site of the castle – but she was not too grand to take a kindly interest in the nuns on the other side of the river.

 

Stamford’s male ecclesiastics were not necessarily much better off than the nuns of St Michael’s.  Most of the parish churches were controlled by – the technical term is appropriated to – religious houses, which took most of the revenues and used the rest to pay a vicar to conduct services (no fewer than five of them were appropriated to St Michael’s).  In the 13th century bishops tried to enforce a minimum wage for vicars of around £3. 6s. 8d. per annum (quite a decent rate when the average ploughman probably earned about 35s. per annum), but often could not achieve this.  The yearly revenues of All Saints in the Market, for instance, amounted to roughly £3. 10s., but £1. 6s. 8d. of that went in a yearly pension to the Norman abbey of St Fromond, leaving only £2. 3s. 4d. for the vicar.  Some ecclesiastics doubtless did better than others, but it seems unlikely that it was only the nuns of Stamford who were sometimes strapped for cash.  Some of the church buildings surviving from early 13th-century Stamford are undeniably impressive.  The splendid west tower of St Mary’s at the Bridge, dating from around 1230, is the outstanding example, but it should be noted that this probably represents more than an offering to the glory of God.  No doubt it was that, but it surely also gave visual expression to the civic pride of the leading townsmen who made up the gild of St Mary, and who drew up ordinances for it in 1212, giving as its principal function the celebration of mass every day at 6 a.m., that is, at the beginning of the working day, which was thus initiated by an act of worship. 

 

It was characteristic of the age that urban solidarity should take a religious shape, and that the charitable impulses of a woman like Lucy du Hommet should take the form of a donation to poor nuns.  It was likewise religious feeling, we may assume, that led to the foundation of a hospital dedicated to St John and St Thomas on the bridge over the Welland for the benefit of passing pilgrims and paupers – the St Thomas in question was Becket, not the apostle, and the hospital was founded within a decade of his violent death.  And the transfer of the town’s weekly market from Sunday to Monday, recorded in 1202, can certainly be attributed to the impact of a famous preacher, the Cistercian abbot Eustace of Flaye, who only a year earlier had toured eastern and northern England calling for precisely this form of Sabbath observance.  But our own age, sadly, needs no reminding that the energies unleashed by religion are not always benevolent, and this was so in medieval Stamford as well.  It is a sign of the town’s prosperity that by the late 12th century it was maintaining a well-to-do Jewish community.  Barred by law from commerce, its members lived principally by money-lending, an activity which was very necessary in an under-capitalised society but which can have done little to endear them to their Christian neighbours, who in any case looked on them with eyes made unfriendly by religious antagonism.  

 

English Jews stood in a particular relationship to the king, who gave them protection but retained the right to exploit their resources.  The protection, though necessary, was not always very effective.  Crusades were dangerous occasions for Jews, since the enmities felt for one group of spiritual antagonists, Muslims living a long way away, were easily redirected towards other non-Christian men and women who were much closer to home.  In 1190 the proclamation of Richard I’s crusade triggered off a series of riots and massacres, one of them in Stamford.  According to the chronicler William of Newburgh it was predominantly the work of young men who had gathered at the fair, to buy what they needed before they left for the east.  Indignant, in William’s words, that `the enemies of the cross of Christ living there should possess so much’ (words suggestive of the resources the town’s Jewish community had come to enjoy), when they were themselves being put to great expense in the cause of their religion, they proceeded to set upon the Jews, pillaging their houses and killing those they could lay hands on.  Many were said to have perished, and the slaughter would have been greater had not the castle given shelter to those able to escape to it.  The Jewish community eventually recovered, but the process was a slow one, and it is probably not coincidence that the next time Jews were recorded it was at a humble economic level.  In 1203 an unnamed Jew was said to have been a receiver of stolen goods – perhaps he was a pawnbroker.  Several more years passed before Stamford Jews had the resources to act as money-lenders again.

 

The 1190 anti-Jewish riots at Stamford may have been the most violent episode in the entire history of the town.  It was an age in which violence was commonplace, of course, encouraged by the primacy given to military accomplishment, something given visual form, for instance, on the seal of the lord of Stamford, William de Warenne, representing him as a mounted knight engaged in combat.  We may assume that he wasn’t often seen like this in the town itself, where, indeed, his presence in the castle, along with his retinue, was probably welcomed, whenever he moved in, for the business and employment it could create.  Other barons had property in or near Stamford, and no doubt sold the produce of their estates and did their shopping there, men like William d’Aubigné of Belvoir, the lord of Newstead just north of the town, where he founded a hospital, or David, earl of Huntingdon, the king of Scots’ brother, recorded in an inquest conducted in 1212 as owning a house in Stamford.  The earl’s principal residence at Fotheringhay, a few miles to the south, was close enough to the town to enable him, or members of his household, to ride there and back in a day whenever either business or pleasure invited them to do so, and it is noteworthy that the lay lords in the inquest are all recorded as having leased out their holdings.  Even so, it is likely enough that such great men as these retained the right to occupy their town houses should they wish, and that their visits benefited the town’s economy when they made them.  

 

As it happens, the only magnate whose presence in Stamford can be assessed in this sort of way is the greatest of them all, the king himself.  One cannot truly say that John knew the town well, but he passed through it several times, on the last occasion shortly before his death.  It is his comings and goings in the weeks on either side of January 1213 which give some idea of the effect a great lord’s presence could have.  John travelled with a whole cortège of carts, each one probably drawn by four horses, which in their turn all required hay and oats for their feed and the attentions of a smith when they needed re-shoeing.  Each department of the royal household had its own carts – there were two each for the dispensery, otherwise known as the pantry, carrying bread, and for the buttery, transporting drink, and also a cart for the king’s own armour and weapons.  In addition there were the riding horses, no fewer than twenty-seven of them, with attendant grooms to look after them.  Nor was that all, for along with all these horses and carts there went the dogs, specifically foxhounds, and hawks, with which John, an enthusiastic huntsman, amused himself as he travelled.  No doubt the court stocked up with food and drink in places like Stamford as it moved around, and it also made more incidental purchases – his accounts show John giving a horse, bought at Stamford for 20s., to a groom of the earl of Chester who had brought him a hawk, and it was probably there, too, that the lampreys which the king sent from Stamford to the earl of Salisbury were bought.  

 

Among those attracted to the scene when the king passed by were crowds of poor people, hoping for a hand-out.  The king’s almoner, Brother Thomas, was in attendance, and was given two marks for distribution on 7 January 1213 – two marks were 26s. 8d., so if each pauper got a penny, which seems to have been the usual rate, then at least 320 men and women would have benefited from the royal alms-giving.  They probably weren’t all townspeople, and the way a royal visit could attract down-and-outs may have been one of its less welcome spin-offs.  But on the whole anything which attracted crowds and brought people with money to spend into the town must have been viewed with satisfaction in Stamford.  This was true of the fair, of course, and also of tournaments.  The early 13th-century tournament was not like the ceremonious jousting in lists of the later middle ages, but a rehearsal for battle often barely distinguishable from it, a violent free-for-all involving hundreds of armed men extending over many acres.  Henry II had forbidden them because of the disorder they provoked, but Richard I had lifted his father’s ban, to enable Englishmen to train for war, albeit only in carefully specified conditions, and places.  One of those places was Stamford – or to be precise, the eight miles between the town and Wansford to the south of it (a detail which gives you some idea of the wide area over which a tournament could extend).  Tournaments drew in large crowds of spectators, and also victuallers, horse-traders, armourers, anyone who could see a way to exploit the needs of the participants and onlookers.  Commercially they were much like fairs, and indeed, fair and tournament became pretty well synonymous.  It was probably because it was a venue for tournaments as well as fairs that Stamford seems to have become a well-known place to buy horses – in 1206 and again in 1215 King John himself ordered his agents to buy him horses there.  No chronicler suggests this, but it is very possible that when the rebellious barons prepared to meet at Stamford in the latter year, they gave out that they were going to hold a tournament there.

 

Which brings us back to Magna Carta.  I should like to conclude by suggesting some of the ways in which the Charter – here seen in Lincoln Cathedral’s copy of the 1215 issue -  could have affected a town like Stamford.  The baronial rebellion was directed by King John’s leading subjects against a style of government which they had come to find increasingly autocratic, brutal and extortionate.  It is often said that in taking up arms they were speaking and acting for nobody but themselves.  This is probably true as far as it goes, but it needs to be qualified by a reminder that in the thirteenth century, and long afterwards, political activity in England was essentially what may be called a one-class affair, in which the upper echelons of society – the men (and they pretty well all were men) – who under the king effectively owned the country represented and acted on behalf of all the rest.  The idea that all men (not even all women) were entitled to a role in the government of the realm only began to be advanced in the 17th century, and to be implemented in the 19th.  In the 13th century it was inconceivable.  But although the barons in 1215 may have thought primarily in terms of their own interests, they were not therefore always unresponsive to those of others, and what they demanded, and obtained, had repercussions extending well beyond what were probably their essential purposes.

 

Thus many barons became indebted to Jews, and the regulations in clauses 10 and 11 to regulate the treatment of their debts after their deaths, so that the interests of wives and children were protected, were doubtless principally drawn up on their own behalf, but they clearly also had the potential to benefit any member of a community which, like Stamford, contained a Jewish component and borrowed money from its members.  The support of London was vital to the barons, and clause 13, which guaranteed the capital’s liberties, reflected this fact, but its extension to all other towns naturally benefited places like Stamford as well, as did clause 20, which in laying down that monetary fines should be in proportion to the offence, specified that fines imposed upon merchants were not to be such as to deprive them of the wares from which they made their living.  Many of the clauses in the Charter deal with matters on the face of it far removed from the fundamental liberties with which it is usually associated.  What on earth, we wonder, was at issue in clause 23, forbidding the commandeering of labour to build bridges?  The answer is both simple and revealing.  I mentioned King John’s fondness for hunting, and his travelling round with dogs and hawks.  Hawking was a sport engaged in pre-eminently by river-sides, and those taking part in it often needed to cross from one bank to the other as they followed their birds.  The king traditionally had the right to have makeshift bridges made to enable him to enjoy his sport in certain limited places.  John extended this right to cover the whole country.  The hearts of Stamfordians probably sank when he turned up with his hawks, knowing that he might well decide to ride out along the Welland for some sport and force men to leave their ploughs and lay down bridges for his benefit.  The barons were doubtless thinking of their own fields and workforces, but Clause 23 protected many others as well.  

 

Clause 33, prohibiting fishtraps, gave primacy to the Thames and was clearly another concession to London.  The traps in question were substantial timber structures which hindered the movement of goods by water and constituted a threat to shipping.  It mattered to a place like Stamford, which could be reached by boat as well as by road, that the Welland should be kept clear of such hazards.  Clause 35, ordering the standardisation of weights and measures throughout the kingdom, was likely to benefit any trading community, and must also have flattered Stamford hearts by making specific mention of haberget as one of the cloths whose size it prescribed.  Clause 41, licensing free movement for merchants except in wartime, will have been welcomed in a town whose fair was attaining an international dimension.  Clauses 47 and 48, dealing with the royal forests and the malpractices of the officials who administered them, probably also had repercussions for the inhabitants of a town with many forests nearby – in 1234 the office of royal forester in the midlands was said to constitute a bailiwick extending `from the bridge of Stamford to the bridge of Oxford’.  None of these clauses was drawn up with the interests of Stamford in mind, but all had the potential to benefit the town.  The campaign launched here in 1215 had effects undreamt of by its participants.  But we all have to start somewhere, and I hope it is a source of satisfaction to you to reflect that the place where all this started was Stamford. 

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