Calder Valley Connections to Magna Carta
Report of Alan Petford lecture given by David Cant on 24 February 2016

David Cant delivered this first annual lecture in memory of Alan Petford, who died far too soon and whose contributions to the study and enjoyment of local history are immense and greatly missed.

Magna Carta

The national celebration in 2015 of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta reinforced how the great charter has had resonances down the centuries.

Yet, as local historian David Cant explained to the audience at Hebden Bridge Local History Society, the charter was basically a peace treaty that was broken within months of being agreed.

The battle was between King John and the barons, who formed the second tier in the pyramid feudal structure by which society was organised in the 13th century. Unsurprisingly the discontent felt by the powerful barons was rooted in money. King John had embarked on expensive, and unsuccessful wars in France, and he imposed ever more severe taxes to pay for his ventures. To make things worse he paid scant attention to the rules of chivalry, starving his captives to death rather than taking a ransom.

Faced with an insurgent London, King John agreed to the barons' demands as set out in Magna Carta and despite its annulment in the same year, by 1297 its basic premises were agreed. This formed the basis of our constitution, restricting the power of the Crown to pursue individuals beyond the law. It is the cry of liberty, which established a belief in the right of the individual against an arbitrary state and influenced freedom movements across the centuries and around the world.

The Calder Valley, having no strategically important castles to defend, escaped much of the fighting between King John and his insurgent barons. Two families held sway - the de Lacys held the Manors of Clitheroe and of Pontefract and the de Warennes the Manor of Wakefield, and the de Lacys in particular were skilful in changing sides when it was in their interest.

Neither family tended to spend much time in the area, leaving decisions in the hands of local officials. Much can be learned about every day life in this period from Manor Court Rolls, recording all kinds of infringements and disputes about how the land was used.

Large areas of land were set aside as hunting forests and subject to strict forest laws. The famed independence of our valley may well have its roots in the unwillingness of the barons to get much involved.  

Magna Carta is rightly celebrated as a symbol of liberty; it established the idea of the rule of law and the right of the individual, which remains the basis of our constitution.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report

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