Surrey in the Age of Magna Carta
On 15 June 1215 a Surrey meadow by the Thames was the setting for one of the defining events in English history, when King John gave his grudging assent to a Charter of Liberties curbing royal power. The Charter, now known throughout the world as Magna Carta, was the product of neither a backward nor a politically unsophisticated society. At the beginning of the thirteenth century England was growing richer and her people becoming more accustomed to the role of law in their lives. It was the need to regulate the exercise of royal authority in this increasingly complex and vibrant society that made the writing of Magna Carta necessary. Surrey at this time was not among the richest and most advanced counties in England but its position close to London meant that its people were witness to some of the most dramatic political events of the day.

The traditional three ‘orders’ of medieval society depicted in a 13th century manuscript: the clergy (those who pray),<br />the aristocracy (those who fight)<br />and the peasantry (those who work).<br />(British Library Sloane 2435 f.85)

The traditional three ‘orders’ of medieval society depicted in a 13th century manuscript: the clergy (those who pray),
the aristocracy (those who fight)
and the peasantry (those who work).
(British Library Sloane 2435 f.85)

Ownership of the land

Ownership of the land In the Middle Ages the countryside was organised in manors, broadly corresponding to modern-day villages, held by lords, usually from the king, who drew their income from a combination of rents and income from the sale of agricultural produce. Some lords were big institutional landowners, such as monasteries, others were barons or country knights. In the west of the county the main landowner was Chertsey Abbey.

Chertsey Abbey as depicted in a 15th century manuscript.<br />Monasteries were major landowners in medieval Surrey.<br />(from the Chertsey Abbey cartulary, c.1432, The National Archives E164/25 f.222)

Chertsey Abbey as depicted in a 15th century manuscript.
Monasteries were major landowners in medieval Surrey.
(from the Chertsey Abbey cartulary, c.1432, The National Archives E164/25 f.222)

Two of the main secular landowners, William de Warenne, earl of Surrey, at Reigate and Alan Bassett at Old Woking, are listed in Magna Carta as among King John’s counsellors at Runnymede.

Coats of arms of leading noble families, including the Surrey magnates de Warenne (top row, far right) and Bassett (sixth row, third from left).<br />(from Matthew Paris’s ‘Book of Additions’,<br />British Library MS Cott. Nero DI, f.171v)

Coats of arms of leading noble families, including the Surrey magnates de Warenne (top row, far right) and Bassett (sixth row, third from left).
(from Matthew Paris’s ‘Book of Additions’,
British Library MS Cott. Nero DI, f.171v)

The Contours of Surrey

The economy of medieval Surrey was shaped by its varied geography, with the best soils along the dip-slope north of the Downs. The Wealden area to the south, a land of intractable clays, was less intensely cultivated. The sandy north-west of the county formed part of the royal Forest of Windsor, created by William the Conqueror. In this area, the restrictions of the forest law and the barrenness of the soil placed severe limits on economic opportunity. Both the boundaries of the forests and the forest law were to be the subject of regulation in Magna Carta.

King John pursuing a stag. Large areas of Surrey provided hunting grounds for the king and nobility and regulation of the forest was a major concern of Magna Carta. (from the manuscript ‘De Rege Johanne’, British Library MS Cott. Claud DII, f.116)

King John pursuing a stag. Large areas of Surrey provided hunting grounds for the king and nobility and regulation of the forest was a major concern of Magna Carta. (from the manuscript ‘De Rege Johanne’, British Library MS Cott. Claud DII, f.116)

Cultivation of the soil

In a typical village agriculture was organised in big open fields with the land divided between the lord’s home farm (the demesne) and the arable strips cultivated by the unfree tenants or villeins. Agriculture in Surrey conformed broadly to this textbook pattern, but with more of the land divided into small enclosed units, particularly in the Wealden areas. The main crops grown, usually in rotation, were barley and oats, with wheat cultivated on the larger estates as a cash crop. On the Downs there was extensive sheep grazing, the rich wool clips forming England’s main export.

Towns and Urban Life

At the time of Domesday Book in 1086 the three main towns in the county were Guildford, Kingston upon Thames and Southwark. More towns were created in the twelfth century, a period of high economic growth, notably Farnham, Reigate and Chertsey. Haslemere was probably laid out in the 1220s by the bishops of Salisbury. The tolls paid by traders were a major source of income to landowners.

Text by Professor Nigel Saul, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Linked Pages

The Making of Magna Carta

Magna Carta: What it says

Magna Carta: Destruction and Revival

Magna Carta as Symbol and Myth

Magna Carta in the Twenty-First Century

Other webpages and websites

Sealing of The Magna Carta – statue at Chertsey Museum

The Magna Carta Project

SurreyMagna Carta

2 Responses to Surrey in the Age of Magna Carta

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