What did the Magna Carta do for us ordinary folk?
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 June 2015
In the month of the Great Charter's 800th anniversary, we stray into neighbouring Nottinghamshire to the village of Laxton to find out
You could easily drive through Laxton, remark what a charming little spot it seems, and not notice anything special about it. It has its comfortable-looking pub, a patently old church, and plenty of houses built centuries before the age of planning regulations. And the place is small enough that from almost any point in its little streets you can see fields. It’s these fields that make Laxton remarkable.
It’s the only place in the whole of Europe where farmers still follow a medieval system of agriculture that was already well established by the time King John sealed Magna Carta 800 years ago this month. And there’s something else that makes this north Nottinghamshire village special. King John was Laxton’s landlord, and he made it the administrative centre for Sherwood Forest, where he liked to hunt. The villagers of Laxton knew at first hand what it was like to suffer the King’s wrath.
My guide around Laxton this morning is Stuart Rose, whose ancestors have farmed here for at least 15 generations. He takes me from the centre of the village along a narrow trackway to the west – skylarks skittering above us – until we arrive at the strips of land that make Laxton so special.
The agricultural system that’s survived here – purely by chance – is known as strip-farming. You can see its ghosts all over the Midlands: long lines of parallel ridges and furrows traced across the fields. Farmland in the typical medieval village, like Laxton, was divided into strips, with each farmer getting one up the hill, one in the valley, one by the wood, and so on. That way, everyone had a fair share of the most fertile soil as well as of the more barren, rocky or badly drained land.
But the fields before me now look flat. What’s happened to the ridges and furrows? Stuart explains that they were the result of horse-drawn ploughs always turning the soil the same way. ‘We’ve made a concession to the 21st century,’ he says. ‘We use tractors and modern ploughs.’
But back at the time of Magna Carta, there were other – much more dramatic – differences from the Laxton of today. Country folk then, fell into two groups. The top twelve per cent or so were freemen, who paid rent to the lord of the manor for their farm. You’ll notice by the way that it’s freemen not women. The law at this time hardly recognised the existence of this half of the population. The rest of the men were unfree – some with a few strips of land to farm, some who eked out a living as paid labourers for their neighbours.
The burdens on these unfree peasants were near crippling. You had to work – unpaid – for up to three days a week on the lord’s land. You had to pay him when your daughter got married, or if you sent your son to school, and even if you sold one of your cows. When you died, the lord took your best beast, and your heir had to make another payment before he could take over the farm. If there was only a daughter to succeed, then the lord claimed the right to choose her husband for her, and he would normally offer her hand to the highest bidder. And just in case all this was not enough, the lord had the right to tax you without excuse whenever the mood took him. You were his chattel. He could use you as he wished – with two generous exceptions: he wasn’t allowed to murder you, nor to beat you up so badly that you were disabled for life.
In addition to all this misery, the people of Laxton had an extra weight on their backs. The evidence is still here today, and that’s where Stuart leads me next. We climb a gentle slope past the old threshing barn. At the top of the hill, beyond the cricket field and its battered corrugated iron pavilion, the land looks as though some ancient giant baker has kneaded and thumped it like dough into banks, hillocks, humps and hollows. These strange formations are the remains of Laxton’s once mighty castle.
The importance of this structure was not just military. It had to be equipped with kitchens, stables, bed chambers and halls because the king and his entourage might turn up here at any moment and expect to be fed, watered, wined and entertained for however long the monarch decided to stay, collecting taxes and chasing deer in Sherwood Forest. In 1204, he cemented his link with the place by taking Laxton’s castle into his own hands.
Living in a place like Laxton where the king could relax and enjoy himself, did not imply any kind of royal favouritism. In 1207, the people of Laxton had to scrape together a fine of 100 pounds ‘to have the King’s peace and to spare their village from being burnt to the ground.’ The records don’t show what the humble folk of Laxton had done wrong to merit having all their homes put to the torch. But we may assume that at least part of the fine was met by another tax on the peasant farmers.
So, did Magna Carta, that famed beacon of freedom and justice, protect what we would call the ‘human rights’ of England’s unfree farmers and labourers? Up to a point. The Great Charter of 1215 decreed that royal judges should not fine an unfree peasant so heavily that he lose all his crops and farm tools. A humane act? I’m afraid not. The barons, whose rebellion Magna Carta was designed to buy off, were concerned that the king would strip their serfs bare before the lords themselves could milk them dry.
The freemen of Laxton, however, did OK for themselves from the Charter. It granted them the right not to be punished without a proper legal process. The rest of the men and the women, with their near slave status, who made up the overwhelming proportion of the population, missed out. Or at least, they did back in King John’s day.
But Magna Carta’s story didn’t end in 1215. A hundred and thirty-nine years later, in 1354, the Great Charter was re-written and re-issued. It now stated that ‘no man, of whatever estate or condition he may be’ could be punished without ‘due process of law.’ And if we recognise that the status of women in 14th century society made it unthinkable at that time for them yet to be included, we have what by late medieval standards is a wonderful privilege, made available down to the lowest Laxton serf.
The way of life in this little East Midlands village is about much more than sowing and reaping. It’s a reminder of the birth of our most prized of legal rights, freedom from arbitrary punishment.