Textus Roffensis: Foundations for the Magna Carta
In this year of Magna Carta, we have already heard a huge amount from the big guns of radio and TV, the likes of Melvyn Bragg and David Starkey, about the primary importance of that remarkable document in the development of English freedoms. But if there was a Great Flood and I had to save one historical document from the whole of English history, it would not be Magna Carta — or even Domesday Book- but Textus Roffensis: the ‘Book of Rochester’ (Rochester Cathedral Library MS A.3.5).
The book contains English laws going back to 600, from the first Christian kingdom in Kent in the time after the mission of St Augustine in 597: it is the foundational document of English law, which along with our language and literature, is our greatest legacy to the world.
Let’s turn its pages, which we can all do now the manuscript is online (click here to see it). Seeing it close up — and there’s a zoom facility so you can see the very texture of the vellum, is a real thrill.
On the opening page you can see the signs of its near fatal immersion in the Medway in around 1710 when the boat overturned on which the manuscript was being carried: a big dark water stain spreads down across half the folio. It’s a miracle it survived at all is the first reaction. But then, how often has the survival of some of our greatest literary treasures–one thinks of the Beowulf manuscript and other books from the Cotton fire — hung by a thread? As it is, on the famous opening page of King Eethelberts’s law codes, the writing is still clear despite the water stains:
‘This syndon tha domas the Aethelbirht cyning asette on agustines daege’: These were the laws made by King Aethelberht in Augustine’s day
Below it is the still bright great red capital G beginning ‘GODES FEOH 7 CIricean’: The dues of God and the Church.
Medieval palaeography may sound as dull as ditchwater, but, as your eye wanders over this single page, you can immediately see why the study of old manuscript books is so alluring. (Not for nothing are the heroes of The Name of the Rose and Brother Cadfael among the most popular creations of modern detective fiction!) Sometimes working on medieval manuscripts you have an electric moment staring at a battered page, with its stains and burns and worm holes, when your eye alights on some detail — a marginal note, a scribbled alteration perhaps — and then, for a moment, the barrier of the intervening centuries seems to fall away. Imagine the incredulity, I mean, can this really be King Aethelstan, who created the English kingdom, speaking in his own words?
We’ll come to the king in a moment, first though, a few facts. The Textus contains over half a millennium of English law: it is nothing less than a window into the development of early English society. It was compiled less than sixty years after the Norman Conquest (c.1123-4), as a part of the Norman effort to understand the country they had so violently overrun in 1066. Preserving accurate texts from the pre-Conquest past, it even contains the earliest examples of the English language. It starts with the earliest Kentish codes with their simple eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-six-shillings tariffs. And then as you go deeper into the book, turning the pages of English social history, you watch as law becomes real legislation, adapting to the times; not just retribution but responsive to social conditions, incorporating Christian ideas of charity and forgiveness.
Here you’ll find the laws of Alfred the Great and the later kings of England down to Canute, William the Conqueror and Henry I. The key sections of the Textus though (and ones that have fascinated me since my student days) take us back to the creation of the English state in the tenth century — the origin of today’s England. Premature, unstable, overambitious, but a state nonetheless, its core achievement was the creation of an allegiance to the king, and to his law; but with a clear understanding that the two were distinct. Inspired by Carolingian ideas, they created a system of local government through which the opinions of the hundred and shire courts could be transmitted to the king’s council. The world was changing, with the beginning of the idea of consensus and collaboration. At his assemblies the king listened to the localities, to the ‘lesser thegns’ who represented their communities like the local knights of King John’s day. These assembly politics are the root of our parliament; they begin in Aethelstan’s reign (925-939) and in the Textus you can actually eavesdrop on their discussions.
‘I am sorry our peace is so badly kept.’ Aethelstan says, ‘and my councillors say I have put up with it for too long…’
Moving on through its pages, by the later tenth century, the Viking age, the kings who claimed to rule all England were now ruling Welsh speakers, Cornish speakers, Cumbrians and people with Danish and Norse speech, as well as Angles and Saxons; so no one code of law could really accommodate all that. They had to be flexible. In a law code from the 960s King Edgar says: ‘as regards my Danish subjects, with secular law, I leave it to them which good laws they judge as being best for their people.’ After a century of warfare with Vikings, that is, to say the least, eye-opening!
So in the brutal tenth century, in the pages of the Textus, the people of England, with all their tribal differences, emerge into the light of day as people with hopes, aspirations and a voice.
And the dialogue had now begun between the rulers and the people. Nearly three hundred years before Magna Carta, English kings were promising to rule justly, to protect the poor, and to deal with the over-mighty; and they were held to this by their councils, in whose meetings there was clearly a great deal of give and take. These were just ideals maybe — Anglo-Saxon society no doubt was appallingly violent — but inspired by Carolingian humanism, the ‘royal road’ of Christian kingship, the path to restraining royal power began long before Magna Carta in 1215. The key idea was that the king was elected and anointed and must be subject to the law. It was not democracy of course, but the seed-idea that English medieval society, repressive as it was, was consultative, was well and truly sown.
Things changed with the Norman Conquest. When William the Conqueror was crowned king of the English at Christmas 1066, he made the same royal promises. But the Old English ruling class was removed, and their land shared out, thus beginning a century of barefaced colonial exploitation until gradually the Normans began to be perceived as English. But the English people never lost the idea of royal law as a cornerstone of the state, as Henry I’s judges recognised in going back to the pre-Conquest codes for his laws: the impetus that led to the compiling of the Textus. That’s why to my mind the ‘Book of Rochester’ is one of our greatest national records; and important as Magna Carta may be, in all the brouhaha of this anniversary year, we should not think that it came out of the blue.
Michael Wood: broadcaster and Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester
Editor: Dr Jayne Wackett, University of Kent
Patrick Wormald, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West, (London, 1999), Chapter 5.
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