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date: 07 October 2022

Enforcers of Magna Cartafree

(act. 1215–1216)

Enforcers of Magna Cartafree

(act. 1215–1216)
  • Matthew Strickland

Enforcers of Magna Carta (act. 1215–1216), were a group of barons who stood in the forefront of the opposition to the increasingly tyrannical rule of King John, and were entrusted with the enforcement of the terms of Magna Carta, 'the great charter of liberties' as it was already known just ten years later, formally granted by him at Runnymede on 15 June 1215.


Once John had been forced to acknowledge a schedule of rights and of limitations on royal action, the fundamental problem was how to ensure that he abided by the charter's rulings. A radical solution was thus proposed in clause 61 of the charter, known as the security clause (forma securitatis). In this, John conceded that 'the barons shall choose any twenty-five barons of the realm as they wish, who with all their might are to observe, maintain and cause to be observed the peace and liberties which we have granted'. According to one source, this arrangement was to be reciprocal, for the barons would likewise redress through the twenty-five all wrongs they did the king. Any infringement of the charter by the king or his officials was to be notified to any four of the committee. If it was not rectified within forty days, the king empowered the twenty-five, 'with the commune of the land', to 'distrain and distress us in every way they can, namely by seizing castles, lands and possessions' until he made amends. The charter thus forced John to sanction nothing less than armed opposition to himself, in the guise of the legal process of distraint—the temporary seizure of goods pending redress.

Magna Carta envisaged the election of the twenty-five in the future, so their names do not appear in it. Consequently the committee's composition is known principally from the list later given by the St Albans chronicler Matthew Paris, apparently drawing on a contemporary document. Regrettably little is known about the process whereby the twenty-five were chosen. But if any ‘election’ actually took place, it was from within the rebel camp and not from the baronage as a whole, for the committee's members were drawn almost exclusively from John's active opponents. While the charter stipulated that in its judgements the committee was to act where possible with Archbishop Stephen Langton or others whom he might request to aid him, neither Langton, the elder William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, the trusted Hubert de Burgh, nor any of the more moderate royalist lords who appear in the charter's preamble were among its members. The absence of ecclesiastics, even those hostile to John such as Giles de Briouze, bishop of Hereford, together with the survival of a memorandum listing the number of knights mustered at London by each of the twenty-five—amounting, at least on parchment, to an impressive 1187 knights—confirms the essentially military nature of the committee.

The immediate precedent for this remarkable measure very probably came from London. It is surely significant that in 1191 John, as count of Mortain, had granted a ‘commune’ with limited powers of self-government to London, which in 1200–01 is recorded as having a governing court of aldermen with twenty-five members. Possession of the city, which had opened its gates to John's opponents on 17 May 1215, was critical to the baronial position, and its political and strategic importance was reflected in the inclusion of its mayor, Serlo the Mercer (fl. 1206–1222), among the twenty-five. Moreover Robert Fitzwalter, who had been elected baronial leader and was one of the most prominent of the twenty-five, had close ties to the city, since he was hereditary commander of its militia and also lord of Baynard's Castle.


The committee's membership reflected the development of opposition to King John. Eustace de Vescy, who with Fitzwalter had been deeply implicated in a plot to kill the king in 1212, headed a distinct group of lords, dubbed ‘the northerners’ by chroniclers, including William de Mowbray, Richard de Percy and Roger de Montbegon (d. 1245), lord of Hornby in Lancashire and of several manors in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere; all of them had refused outright either to serve on the king's expedition to Poitou in 1214 or to pay scutage, claiming that overseas service ran contrary to the conditions of their tenure. Closely knit by marriage, tenure, and common interest against an increasingly rapacious Angevin administration, they and their supporters formed the predominant element in the baronial resistance until at least January 1215. The absence from the committee of other important ‘northerners’ almost certainly reflected the rising prominence of a powerful group of lords from East Anglia and the home counties in the rebellion following the collapse of John's continental campaigns in the autumn of 1214 and during the growing demand for political concessions in the early months of 1215. Some of these, like the Kentish baron Geoffrey de Say (d. 1230), Richard de Clare, earl of Hertford (d. 1217), and his son Gilbert de Clare, may well have been involved in the plot of 1212, while Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex and Gloucester (d. 1216), was already a close ally of Robert Fitzwalter, whose daughter Maud, rumoured to have been raped by King John, was his first wife. They were joined by Roger (II) Bigod, earl of Norfolk, with his son Hugh Bigod (d. 1225), Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford (though his principal holdings were in Essex), Richard de Montfichet, William of Huntingfield, and William de Lanvallei, lord of Walkern in Hertfordshire (d. 1215).

The inclusion among the twenty-five of Henry de Bohun, earl of Hereford, William Malet, lord of Shepton Mallet in Somerset, and William Marshal the younger represented a western element in the opposition, manifested in a rising in Devon and the temporary seizure of Exeter in May 1215. Similarly, the rebel presence in the midlands was demonstrated by the membership of Saher de Quincy, earl of Winchester, held estates in Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire and half of the honour of Leicester. Such regional groupings were far from rigid, however, and several of the twenty-five had holdings spanning these areas. William d'Aubigné, for example, who had close ties to Fitzwalter from at least 1203, was lord of Belvoir but also held extensive estates in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. John de Lacy was not only lord of Pontefract, but held Castle Donington in Leicestershire. John fitz Robert (d. 1241), lord of Warkworth, Rothbury, and the barony of Whalton, all in Northumberland, was also an important figure in East Anglia, as well as holding the Essex manor of Clavering.

Beyond regional affiliation, many of the twenty-five can be shown to have been linked by ties of kinship or marriage as well as by tenure. William d'Aubigny, for example, was the uncle of Robert de Ros, the lord of Wark-on-Tweed in Northumberland and Helmsley in Yorkshire, and also first cousin of Robert Fitzwalter, while John fitz Robert was John de Lacy's cousin. William de Lanvallei had married Fitzwalter's niece; William de Forz, count of Aumale in Normandy and a major landowner in Cumberland, Yorkshire, and Lincolnshire, was married to the daughter of Richard de Montfichet; both Hugh Bigod and Gilbert de Clare had married sisters of William Marshal the younger; and Henry de Bohun had married Geoffrey de Mandeville's sister. In turn, Geoffrey and his brother William were married to daughters of Robert Fitzwalter. Yet though such links could be multiplied, they were common to the aristocracy as a whole and are not in themselves evidence of political cohesion among the twenty-five. More tangibly, several of the northerners had been accustomed to stand surety for each other for the payment of fines or proffers to the king, suggesting a significant degree of solidarity. In rare instances, close ties of friendship are known to have existed, for instance between William de Forz and Robert de Ros, or between Robert Fitzwalter and Saher de Quincy, who had served together in Normandy in 1203 as castellans of Vaudreuil and were brothers-in-arms, each bearing the other's blazon on his seal. Conversely, there can have been little love lost between Geoffrey de Mandeville and Geoffrey de Say, whose rival claims to the Mandeville lands had been exploited by John. Foreseeing the potential for dissension, the charter stipulated that in case of the absences of some members or of disagreement, the majority's decision was to be binding. Beyond this, however, it is virtually impossible to recover the personal relations between the twenty-five themselves, save through their shared mistreatment at the hands of the king. Most if not all had individual grievances concerning the loss of lands or castles, the taking of hostages, the exaction of extortionate reliefs (payments for the right of inheritance), heavy fines, or royal manipulation of their debts. Many were thus united in a deep hatred of John, and all in their resolution to resist him by force if need be.


How and when this group began to coalesce is equally uncertain. It is likely that many had been among the barons who mustered in arms at Stamford at Easter 1215, presented a schedule of demands to the king from Brackley in late April, and on his refusal formally renounced their homage before attacking Northampton. Others, however, only declared openly for the rebels in the weeks before the negotiations at Runnymede, and it can only be said with certainty that the demand for a baronial committee was first put forward in the 'articles of the barons', a provisional list of negotiated concessions hammered out by 10 June—its composition may already have been decided by then. The articles formed the basis of much in Magna Carta itself, though it is impossible to recover the part played by individuals among the twenty-five in the creation of either document. Nevertheless, the view that the barons were incapable of political thought beyond crude self-interest, and that the statesmanlike moderation and technical detail of the charter could only have been the work of Langton and his fellow ecclesiastics, is untenable. Doubtless moderates and royalist lords played an important role, but equally several of the twenty-five, including William Malet, William of Huntingfield, John fitz Robert, and Robert de Ros had been sheriffs; Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, was a baron of the exchequer under Richard I and served on judicial eyres; while most if not all would have gained a close working knowledge of law and government through involvement in local administration and by direct contact with the king and his ministers. Moreover, though it ultimately proved unworkable, the boldly innovative proposal of a limited monarchy bridled by a sworn committee of magnates acting on behalf of ‘the community of the realm’ can only have come from the opposition. No doubt some among the twenty-five, like Vescy and Fitzwalter, would have liked to see John dead or deposed, yet overall the contrast with the plot of 1212 to kill the king is striking, suggesting that more of their number wished to avert further war and, until John proved untrustworthy, achieve a modus vivendi with him.

The security clause of the charter envisaged the committee as permanent; any member who died or was otherwise incapacitated was to be replaced by another chosen by the remaining twenty-five. In reality, however, they acted together as a body for only a few months before the fragile peace erupted into civil war in September. Some of the northerners, disillusioned with the charter's moderation, allegedly left Runnymede and reopened hostilities even before negotiations were concluded, though it is unknown whether any of the twenty-five were among them. John had moved quickly to restore lands, rights, and hostages to a number of former rebels, including Eustace de Vescy, John de Lacy, Roger de Montbegon, and William de Lanvallei, who in July received custody of Colchester, although the failure of William de Mowbray's claim to the shrievalty of York showed that arbitration was taken seriously and that the twenty-five could not simply impose restitutions. The king doubtless hoped that the process of redress would cause the opposition to dissolve, but only one of the twenty-five openly deserted; the notoriously mercurial William de Forz had gone over to the king by mid-August in order to secure estates granted to him in 1214 and to add to them the Yorkshire manor of Driffield. Through July and August, however, as the country drifted towards war, the twenty-five appointed several of their number to control those shires where their influence was strongest, arrogating to themselves the powers of sheriffs and justices: Mandeville in Essex, Fitzwalter in Northamptonshire, Quincy in Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, d'Aubigny in Lincolnshire, Lacy in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, and Ros in Northumberland. War was now inevitable, but from their base in London some members of the committee were still attempting to issue mandates on the authority of Magna Carta as late as 30 September 1215, when a writ sent by Geoffrey de Mandeville, Saher de Quincy, and Richard de Clare, and witnessed by Robert de Vere, ordered Brian de Lisle to restore Knaresborough Castle to Nicholas de Stuteville by virtue of 'the oath which you have given to follow the charter to the commune of the realm'.

Failures and successes

In the ensuing struggle against John elements among the twenty-five can be seen operating together, for example in the various missions sent to seek the assistance of Prince Louis of France, or in the baronial alliance with Alexander II of Scotland, and it is probable that close contact was maintained between those who formed the most determined core of the opposition. Yet the twenty-five had ceased to exist as a recognized body. Two principal factors doomed the committee to failure. First, such a limitation on royal power was utterly unacceptable to King John, and would hardly have been countenanced by Louis had he gained the throne. According to Matthew Paris, John's foreign mercenaries scoffed that he had been reduced to 'the twenty-fifth king in England … not now a king, nor even a petty king, but a disgrace to kings'. When, in his bull Etsi karissimus of 24 August 1215, Pope Innocent III condemned the charter as 'not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust, thereby lessening unduly and impairing his [the king's] royal rights and dignity', he was primarily responding to the security clause. Consequently clause 61 was omitted from all subsequent reissues of Magna Carta, even by the regency council of magnates in the crucial reissues of 1216 and 1217, which were intended to win back the support of the rebels to John's young son, Henry III. Second, the fact that such an omission was never contested reflected disillusionment, even hostility, towards an unrepresentative and openly partisan committee, which had ultimately failed to gain the confidence of many of the more moderate or loyalist barons. Even among the opposition, the inclusion of Gilbert de Clare and Hugh Bigod as well as their fathers suggested an attempt to gain disproportionate influence for these families. That there was widespread resistance to the efforts of the twenty-five to win support is suggested by their repeated efforts to enforce compliance with the security clause.

In his representations to Innocent III John accused his baronial opponents of bad faith and failure to implement their side of the settlement, and several historians have passed a similar judgement on the twenty-five as self-interested extremists. True, they had refused to give the king written pledges of fealty, failed to evacuate London by a date agreed by treaty, and had ignored his lawful mandates. Robert de Ros, for example, refused to surrender Carlisle. One source claimed that they were so hostile to John that when the king was ill, the barons refused to come to him but instead insisted he be carried to their assembly in a litter. Yet as leaders of the opposition they must have realized that John had absolutely no intention of abiding by the terms of Magna Carta. He had delayed the removal of trusted foreign agents like Philip Mark, although demanded by the charter, gathered rather than dismissed his mercenaries, and had sought papal annulment of Magna Carta itself. To have surrendered London or other key strongholds in such circumstances would have been folly. And while several of the twenty-five did indeed seek reparation of their own grievances, the charter stipulated that members should stand down in any suit in which they were personally involved.

The vehemence of their opposition to John makes it unsurprising that few of the twenty-five played a major role in the regency government during the minority of Henry III, but it would be mistaken to characterize them as irresponsible die-hards. In 1220, for instance, Roger de Montbegon resorted not to arms but to a royal writ to secure possession of lands that were still withheld by the sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Philip Mark, while Robert de Vere's appointment during that year as a senior justice of the bench marked an important gesture of reconciliation by the regency towards former rebels. Perhaps there was more than self-interest behind the action of William d'Aubigny, William de Mowbray, and Richard de Percy in 1222, when they came together to resist a forest eyre in Yorkshire that attempted to ignore the deforestation pledged in the charter of the forest issued in 1217. Despite all its limitations the creation of the committee of twenty-five represented a serious attempt to curb monarchical power, and as such set an important precedent for the baronial reform movement of 1258. For ultimately it had been the determination of the barons to confront the king in arms that had forced John to make vital concessions and acknowledge limits to what had become an increasingly arbitrary and tyrannical kingship.


  • T. Stapleton, ed., De antiquis legibus liber: cronica majorum et vicecomitum Londoniarum, CS, 34 (1846)
  • Memoriale fratris Walteri de Coventria / The historical collections of Walter of Coventry, ed. W. Stubbs, 2 vols., Rolls Series, 58 (1872–3)
  • Selected letters of Pope Innocent III concerning England, 1198–1216, ed. C. R. Cheney and W. H. Semple (1953)
  • W. S. McKechnie, Magna Carta, 2nd edn (1914)
  • F. M. Powicke, ‘The twenty five barons of Magna Carta’, Stephen Langton: being the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in Hilary 1927 (1928), 207–13
  • H. G. Richardson, ‘The morrow of Magna Carta’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library, 28 (1944), 422–43
  • C. R. Cheney, ‘The twenty five barons of Magna Carta’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library, 50 (1967–8), 280–307
  • J. C. Holt, The northerners: a study in the reign of King John, new edn (1992)
  • J. C. Holt, Magna Carta, 2nd edn (1992)
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