Magna Carta

The 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta was celebrated in June 2015. A number of knights are thought to have met Cardinal Langton at St. Edmund’s tomb in the abbey church at St. Edmundsbury on 20 November 1214, where they swore to obtain from king John his agreement to their demands.
Where the rude buttress totters to its fall,
and ivy mantles o’er the crumbling wall;
Where e’en the skilful eye can scarcely trace
the once High Altar’s lowly resting place –
Let patriotic fancy muse awhile
amid the ruins of this ancient pile.
Six weary centuries have past away;
palace and abbey moulder in decay –
Cold death enshrouds the learned & the brave –
Langton – Fitz Walter – slumber in the grave,
But still we read in deathless records how
the high-soul’d priest confirm’d the barons’ vow;
And Freedom, unforgetful still recites,
this second birth-place of our native Rights.

At or near Runnymede the following year, the charter was signed by the king, limiting his authority and giving explicit rights to those he ruled. Twenty-five knights were elected as Sureties to guarantee his compliance by holding some of his properties, including the Tower of London.

Although there were no St. Clairs of the male line amongst the Sureties, there was one who was descended from the only child of Hubert de St. Clair. Hubert had died saving the life of king Henry II in 1155 at the battle of Bridgnorth. His daughter was Gunnore, who at the time was under age. Henry, as was his right, arranged for her to be married to one of his ‘new’ men, William de Lanvalei, a Breton who was to become his seneschal in Rennes.

Through this marriage, William (I) acquired the estate of Hubert de St. Clair, which included many properties in the southern counties. Amongst others, he was to add to it Henherst in Kent. William (I) and Gunnore had two sons, William (II) and Ralph, and a daughter, Gunnora.

William (II) inherited when his father died in 1180, and married Hawise, the daughter of Hugh de Boclonde. Their son was William (III) and he married Matilda [Maud], the daughter of Gilbert Pecche. It was this William de Lanvalei who was a Surety at Runnymede. In 1200, he had custody of the castle at Colchester, a role previously undertaken by his great great grandfather, Hamon de St. Clair, who became sheriff of Essex in 1127. A marble effigy of a knight survives in the church of St. Mary the Virgin, Walkern, Hertfordhire, and is almost certainly that of William (III).

William (III) and Matilda’s only child was a daughter, Hawise. At her father’s death c.1217, Hawise was under age, and Hubert de Burgh, seneschal of Poitou and later the earl of Kent and justiciar of England, obtained her wardship. Hubert was one of the barons who supported king John. By 1230, Hubert had married the young Hawise to his son, John de Burgh.

By right of marriage, John (I) now held a considerable fief established by the St. Clairs in the previous century, and was to add his father’s hereditary estates when he died in 1243. John died in 1278, leaving a son, John (II), who inherited the barony of Lanvalei through his mother, in addition to his father’s extensive properties. John (II) married Cecily, the daughter of John de Balliol of Bywell, and died in 1280, leaving three daughters, his coheirs. Margery became a nun at Chicksand Priory in Bedfordshire, Hawise, aged 24, married Robert de Grelley, and Devorguille, aged 25, married Robert FitzWalter of Little Dunmow and Woodham Walter, Essex.

Although no St. Clair baron was present at the signing of the Magna Carta, Hamon’s descendants were part of the fabric of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There were others of the name who descended from Hugh de St. Clair in Kent and Essex. Indeed, another William de St. Clair was to hold Rochester Castle for king Henry III when Simon de Montfort presented a new challenge in 1264. And, of course, there were the St. Clairs who established themselves in Scotland with the help of the Morville family, some fifty years earlier.

The ruins of the abbey church at Bury St. Edmunds, where twenty-five knights vowed to obtain the ratification of Magna Carta from king John. The poem opposite was penned in 1847 by J. Muskett, and is attached to a pillar that would have been close to the altar.

The 2500-year-old yew tree at the priory of Ankerwycke, where some believe king John met the barons and signed the Magna Carta. It is also said to be the location where Henry VIII met Ann Boleyn in the 1530s.

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