The county with its own Magna Carta

The court of the Earl of Cheshire Image copyright Cheshire West and Chester Council
Image caption The Earl of Cheshire was effectively the king of the county

As events mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Great Charter, historians in Cheshire are remembering when their county was the only one in England to have its own Magna Carta.

Cheshire was one of England's smallest counties by population, but it was also one of the most important.

Due to its proximity to the warring Welsh, the 1,000 square-mile palatinate was granted much more power by the Crown than any other English county.

The Earl of Cheshire was effectively the county's king, and as England's King John was signing the Magna Carta in Runnymede to placate rebellious barons, the Earl of Cheshire, Ranulf III, was reaching a similar agreement with his own subordinates.

While the better known Magna Carta had 63 clauses limiting the Crown's power and increasing the people's, Cheshire's only had 13.

While the national charter was signed by King John in 1215 to avoid a civil war, Cheshire's was more concerned with ensuring the barons could keep their serfs.

The fact it had its own charter was a mark of Cheshire's importance in defending the realm, according to Graeme White, emeritus professor of local history at Chester University.

The earl of Cheshire and his eight barons had the power to run their own courts, raise taxes and control county matters.

The circumstances leading to Cheshire's charter were very different to those that produced the Magna Carta, said Professor White.

"The Cheshire barons did not seem to have the antagonism towards the earl as the barons in the rest of England had towards King John.

"There was clearly a great deal of unhappiness and resentment towards the court of the king, but it was not the same towards the earl.

"They really wanted a guarantee of the powers and customs they already had."

And it was in Ranulf's interest to keep his barons happy.

"The earl was a big supporter of King John and intended to fight for him if a civil war occurred," said Professor White.

"He wanted to go safe in the knowledge that his barons were either behind him, or happy to stay behind and protect Cheshire from the Welsh, so he reached this agreement."

The Magna Carta of Cheshire

Clauses agreed by Ranulf III (part two)

  • 7 Confirms right to protect homes

  • 8 Protection for widows and heirs

  • 9 Barons can reclaim serfs up to a year after they move to Chester

  • 10 Knights won't have to fight beyond Cheshire's boundaries

  • 11 Limits number and rights of earl's law-enforcing serjeants

  • 12 List of rejected baronial requests

With an estimated population of 12,000, plus a further 3,000 living in the prosperous port city of Chester, Cheshire was short of people.

Several of the clauses preserved the barons' right to keep their serfs, retain any fugitives who entered their lands, and stop the earl's forces arresting their workers.

"They did not want the people from their estate being whisked away to the earl's court on the say so of over officious officials," said Professor White. "These people were their work and fighting force."

Another quirky law confirmed by clause four was the thwertnic defence where an accused man could demand he be sent for trial at his own baron's court rather than that of the earl's.

Going to the baron's court was a much safer and softer option because the baron was unlikely to punish a man he needed for his workforce.

Fugitives fleeing from elsewhere in England were also valuable to Cheshire and the barons.

"Cheshire became a haven for fugitives, either those fleeing from their own manors or outlaws escaping the law," said Professor White.

"And the barons wanted to be sure they could keep the men that came on to their lands rather than being forced to hand them over to the earl."

Image copyright Cheshire West and Chester Council
Image caption Jonathan Pepler, chairman of Cheshire Local History Association, translated the charter for Professor Graeme White's book

Another issue which would have been of concern to barons across the country - not just in Cheshire - was losing their men to war.

But through clause 10 of the Cheshire charter the earl pledged not to force his barons to fight beyond the county boundaries, giving them a peace-of-mind to be envied by others.

Clause 12, meanwhile, is a list of requests rejected by Ranulf III, probably because they were deemed to be too self-serving to the men that suggested them.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Magna Carta was signed by King John on 15 June 1215

Whether or not the Magna Carta applied to Cheshire is a "moot point" according to Professor White.

But in the 1230s, when the earl's bloodline died out, the Crown reclaimed Cheshire.

"Cheshire was getting too powerful and independent. The Crown seized the opportunity to annex it.

"Then the Magna Carta could be said to have applied to Cheshire, but Cheshire did not lose its own charter."

The charter remained in place until the 1530s when Henry VIII abolished it as part of his move to bring universal law to his kingdom and end the franchise system of local rule.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption King John agreed to meet his baron's request to stop a rebellion from tearing his kingdom apart

Professor White has written a book about Cheshire's charter featuring a translation of the charter by historian Jonathan Pepler.

He said: "These were not major issues, they were local customs really.

"They clearly matter locally but do not give us the resounding clauses that the Magna Carta does."

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