On Monday 15 June, the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta was celebrated in much of the English-speaking world. In this article we look at one of its less well-known clauses – that relating to weights and measures.
This introduction to Magna Carta appears in Wikipedia:
Magna Carta (Latin for “the Great Charter”), also called Magna Carta Libertatum (Latin for “the Great Charter of the Liberties”), is a charter agreed by King John of England at Runnymede, near Windsor, on 15 June 1215. First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons, it promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. Neither side stood behind their commitments, and the charter was annulled by Pope Innocent III, leading to the First Barons’ War. After John’s death in 1216, the regency government of his young son, Henry III, reissued the document, stripped of some of its more radical content, in an unsuccessful bid to build political support for their cause. At the end of the war in 1217, it formed part of the peace treaty where the document acquired the name Magna Carta … . Short of funds, Henry reissued the charter again in 1225 in exchange for a grant of new taxes; his son, Edward I, repeated the exercise in 1297, this time confirming it as part of England’s statute law.
The original charters were written on vellum sheets using quill pens, in a particular style of abbreviated Latin. Although academics refer to the 63 numbered “clauses” of Magna Carta, this is a modern system of numbering … the original charter formed a single, long unbroken text.
So what has this to do with the UK’s adoption of metric measures?
The Charter went beyond simply addressing individual baronial complaints, and formed a wider proposal for political reform, as noted above. Furthermore, it sought to resolve a number of popular grievances identified by the rebel barons, whose support increased accordingly, for example:
Clause 23. No village or individual shall be compelled to make bridges at river-banks, except those who from of old were legally bound to do so.
Clause 33. All kiddles (fish weirs) for the future shall be removed altogether from Thames and Medway, and throughout all England, except upon the seashore.
Clause 35. Let there be one measure of wine throughout our whole realm; and one measure of ale; and one measure of corn, to wit, “the London quarter;” and one width of cloth (whether dyed, or russet, or “halberget”), to wit, two ells within the selvages; of weights also let it be as of measures.
Latin scholars will recognise the title of this article in this clause.
Only three of Magna Carta’s 63 clauses survive in English law today, and these do not include any of those quoted above. However Magna Carta still forms an important symbol of liberty, often cited by politicians and campaigners, and is held in great respect by the British and American legal communities, having been described as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.
And clause 35?
This clause did not end the tendency of measures in England and elsewhere to proliferate – there always have been and always will be those who aim to profit from measurement confusion. But it established a principle, and an indication of its success is that measurement was not an issue during the political upheavals Britain and Ireland experienced in 1645-49 and in 1688. This is in contrast to the situation in France as outlined by Ken Alder in his book, “The measure of all things”. He writes:
“One Englishman, travelling through France on the eve of the Revolution, found the diversity there a torment. ‘In France,’ he complained, ‘the infinite perplexity of the measures exceeds all comprehension. They differ not only in every province, but in every district and almost every town …’ Contemporaries estimated that under the cover of some eight hundred names, ancient regime France contained a staggering 250 000 different units of weights and measures.”
So the rebel barons got it right. In 1215, here was an issue of popular concern and political significance. Which makes the UK’s tolerance 800 years later of a monumental measurement muddle both surprising and understandable.