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.
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.
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.
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.