THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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19 November 2017

Happy birthday, Statute of Marlborough!

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Earlier this month, we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Forest Charter, Magna Carta’s little sibling. It inspired a new Tree Charter, with accompanying events ranging from bike rides to pole launches. Today, we commemorate the Statute of Marlborough. At 750 years old, issued on 19 November 1267, it’s one of the the oldest pieces of legislation in England still in force today.

The Statute of Marlborough almost didn’t make it to this day. Only four of its twenty-nine sections are still in force. In 2014, the Law Commission made plans to scrap it altogether. The surviving sections are now known as the Distress Act and the Waste Act. The Distress Act states that anyone seeking reimbursement for damages must do so through the courts, while the Waste Act ensures that the tenants do not lay waste, sell or ruin their lands and other resources without special permission. This is still a concern in modern agriculture:

Fermors, during their Terms, shall not make Waste, Sale, nor Exile of House, Woods, Men, nor of any Thing belonging to the Tenements that they have to ferm, without special Licence had by Writing of Covenant, making mention that they may do it; which thing if they do, and thereof be convict, they shall yield full Damage, and shall be punished by Amerciament grievously.

The closing page of the Statute of Marlborough: Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 131r
The closing page of the Statute of Marlborough: Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 131r

There are eight pieces of English legislation from the 13th century that have not been repealed. One of those is Magna Carta, which was originally issued by King John in 1215; the earliest versions were repealed, with the version now in force dating from 1297.

One of the two sources for the official Latin text of the Statute of Marlborough is held at the British Library (Cotton MS Claudius D II). It forms part of a book collecting English laws — the medieval version of legislation.gov.uk, you might say. You can see the Cotton manuscript of the Statute of Marlborough right now in our free Treasures Gallery, alongside a copy of the Forest Charter that was narrowly saved from destruction and a plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey

A plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey: Harley MS 391, ff. 5v–6r
A plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey: Harley MS 391, ff. 5v–6r

The plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey is further evidence of how the environment shaped the medieval world. Medieval monasteries aimed to be self-reliant, and water was key to this. This plan of a conduit built in 1220–22 at Waltham Abbey is one of the earliest surviving English maps. The water flows from three round sources at the top, through a filtration system, and into a pipe towards the abbey. It is found in a cartulary made for the abbey, a collection of charters copied into a single volume for reference and preservation. The agreements in this book show that the monks had to negotiate with several different landlords to build across their land.

 

Andrew Dunning (@anjdunning)