The Magna Carta is one of the key documents to bridge the divide between the status of women in medieval England and the twenty-first century Western World. Although there were no women among the nobles who pressured King John to affix his seal to the Great Charter, various clauses in the document codified the marriage rights of noble heiresses and both the property and marriage rights of wealthy widows.
After the Norman Conquest of 1066, all lands in England became property of the Crown and the barons were all formally the King’s vassals-in-chief. In his role as liege lord, the King was expected to care for his noble tenants by ensuring that a baron’s widow and daughters were suitably provided for in the event that he died before his heir was of age. Abuse of this privilege by John and his predecessor King Richard prompted the barons to codify marriage and property rights for noblewomen.
The intent of the Magna Carta clauses pertaining to women was to reinforce the status of the nobility as a distinct social group and to ensure that children from first marriages did not lose their inheritances. Nevertheless, the formal recognition of distinct privileges enjoyed by noblewomen set a precedent for future legislation guaranteeing the rights of women.
Women’s rights in England at the time of Magna Carta were very different than they are in twenty-first century Canada. In 1215, an Englishwoman could be betrothed at seven and married at twelve. In Canada in 2014, the legal minimum age for marriage varies from province to province but is usually eighteen in lieu of parental or judicial consent. This standard is matched by most countries in the twenty-first century world, which set the minimum age of marriage to between sixteen and eighteen for women. There are exceptions to this trend. Neither Yemen nor Saudi Arabia currently legislate a minimum age for marriage (though a bill outlawing child marriage may be introduced by Yemen’s Minister of Legal Affairs by the end of 2013).
While a betrothal in 1215 was void unless the bride gave her consent when she reached puberty, familial and social pressure had a strong influence on whether she consented to a marriage. The experience of Christina of Markyate (c.1095-c.1155), founder of the Markyate Priory, demonstrates just how difficult it was for a well-born bride to refuse the wishes of her family regarding her marriage. At the age of fifteen, Christina took a vow of chastity following a visit to St. Albans Abbey but her family insisted that she marry a young man named Beorhtred.
The Life of Christina of Markyate describes how Christina’s family first bribed the unwilling young woman with gifts, then pleaded with her, then reproached her before the congregation in church until she consented to a betrothal. When Christina refused to consummate the marriage, her parents beat her and placed her under house arrest. Finally, Beorhtred agreed to an annulment, allowing Christina to preserve her chastity and profess as a nun.
In addition to the negotiations between the families of the bride and groom, it was a medieval community’s responsibility to identify any impediments to a union. The Fourth Lateran council convened by Pope Innocent III in 1215 decided that “we absolutely forbid clandestine marriages; and we forbid also that a priest presume to witness such.” Formal impediments to marriage in 1215 included a relationship between the bride and groom that fell within the forbidden degrees on consanguinity but there were numerous informal impediments including social station and the size of the bride’s dowry.
In 2014, the freedom to marry is affirmed by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.” The right to marry has been extended to same-sex couples in numerous countries in the twenty-first century, including Canada. The Declaration also states that “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses,” formally condemning forced marriages. Unfortunately, experiences similar to that of Christina of Markyate continue to take place in the twenty-first century. According to 2012 UNICEF research, forty-eight percent of South Asian women and forty-two percent of African women are compelled to marry before the age of eighteen.
Once a thirteenth century Englishwoman married, her property legally belonged to her husband, though the bridegroom was expected to provide a marriage portion for the maintenance of his wife throughout her lifetime. Husband and wife also shared a legal identity, rendering married women unable to testify on their own behalf in court in the majority of circumstances. Widows were theoretically free to choose whether to remarry but the monarch had an interest in the disposal of landed estates and could attempt to dictate the marriage of an heiress or the remarriage of a wealthy widow.
The authors of Magna Carta codified marriage rights for noblewomen because John and Richard repeatedly interfered with the unions of heiresses and wealthy widows to increase their incomes and reward their supporters. During the months Richard spent in England raising funds for the Third Crusade in 1189-1190, guardianship of noble heiresses were sold to the highest bidder to finance his expedition to the Holy Land. These guardianships were bought by ambitious men who intended to marry the heiresses themselves. John also sold the guardianship of noble heiresses to pay his military expenses, as he spent much of his reign at war with King Philip II of France.
For both Richard and John, the financial demands of their military campaigns often superseded the conventions of their roles as liege lords. Although the barons expected the King to find noblewomen husbands of their own social background, both Kings allowed wealthy members of the urban middle class to buy their way into the aristocracy by purchasing the ability to marry heiresses. The sixth clause of the 1215 version of Magna Carta forbade the practice of the King arranging marriages between noble and their social inferiors, stating, “Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of lower social standing. Before a marriage takes place, it shall be made known to the heir’s next-of-kin.” The requirement to inform relatives of the marriage limited the King’s ability to arrange an unequal marriage for one of his wards.
The King’s desire to control the transfer of noble estates and reward his followers often conflicted with the longstanding convention that widows had the right to choose whether to remarry. In contrast to married women, widows were femmes sole, permitted to manage their own affairs and argue their cases in court. Previous Kings had been pressured by their barons to respect the autonomy of noble widows and not force a union that might result in a stepfather disposing of the inheritance of his wife’s children from her first marriage. Both King Canute (r. 1016-1035) and King Henry I (r. 1100-1135) promised that they would not compel heiresses to marry and widows to remarry but they both broke their word and engaged in this practice.
The eighth clause of the 1215 version of Magna Carta stated, “No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband. But she must give security that she will not marry without royal consent, if she holds her lands of the Crown, or without the consent of whatever other lord she may hold them of.” Under the terms of Magna Carta, the King could withhold permission for what he considered to be an unsuitable marriage but he could not force a noblewoman to marry. The Great Charter also guaranteed a widow the use of her marriage portion and the right to remain in her marital home for forty days following her husband’s death.
There are two individual women referenced in Magna Carta. According to the Charter, “With regard to the return of the sisters and hostages of Alexander, King of Scotland, his liberties and his rights, we will treat him in the same way as our other barons of England.” The teenaged princesses Margaret and Isabella became hostages of King John following his invasion of Scotland in 1209 and they were confined to Corfe Castle along with the King’s niece, Eleanor of Brittany. Although John had promised to arrange suitable marriages for the princesses with English noblemen, he had not done so by 1215. Margaret and Isabella were ultimately released from confinement and married the Earls of Kent and Norfolk respectively during the reign of John’s son, Henry III.
The Magna Carta had little impact on the lives of the vast majority of King John’s female subjects because the clauses concerning marriage rights pertained to elite women alone. Nevertheless, the identification of clear legal rights for heiresses and widows in 1215 set a precedent for legislation in future centuries that allowed women autonomy regarding marriage and control over their property. The rights granted to a small group of women in 1215 eventually spread throughout the population. Today, freedom from forced marriage is recognized by the United Nations as a fundamental human right, with Magna Carta marking the beginning of eight hundred years of legislation upholding the rights of women.