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Serlo the Mercer and Magna Carta

The history taught in Britain today ignores or deliberately diminishes Magna Carta. The knight-barons are contemptuously called self-serving, while the vital contributions of working class Londoners to Magna Carta are forgotten. Who in Britain today has heard of Serlo the Mercer? How many today, on the 793rd anniversary of Magna Carta, could name the radiant expanse of rights protected by the Great Charter? And are there uncanny correspondences between the story of Magna Carta and the story of Britain and the European Union?


Rochester Castle in Kent was crucial to holding the coast and protecting London. To crush Magna Carta, the king had to have it. Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, held it, and refused to surrender it to John.

It took the knights years of misery - and John signing over England to a foreign power, the Pope - before they raised their heads above the parapet. Their first step had been an attempt to reestablish the Charter of Liberties. But John refused to confirm the ancient charter, which upholds the laws of Edward the Confessor and insists that even the king is not above the law. John wrapped himself in the Cross of the Crusader, and hired mercenaries.

After years of disarray, the knights had finally unified, swearing they would stand and act together to uphold the principle of law. When John continued to stall, they took the revolutionary step of renouncing their fealty, and gathering under arms. In May they mustered at Stamford and marched on London. They numbered men as old as Roger Bigod, who was in his seventies, and young men in their twenties. They called their army the Army of God and Holy Church.

When they reached London, Serlo the Mercer, the mayor of London, and all the citizens threw open the gates, and welcomed them. This was unprecedented and vital. It is doubtful that the knight-barons could have carried Magna Carta without the support of the working class people in England's cities and towns. It is incredible that their contribution goes unrecognized today.

Promises of aid poured in from all England, Scotland, and Wales. “There was a moment when John found himself with seven knights at his back and before him a nation in arms”, wrote Green in his Short History of the English People. John’s mercenaries refused to fight.

The knights, city representatives and clergy established the fundamental principles of Magna Carta, and for almost 800 years Magna Carta was held to be an essential part of the British Constitution. The first clauses below are familiar. The remaining clauses may surprise you. They surprised us.

The right of the Church to be free.

The right to justice: "To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice."

The right to trial by jury and to justice according to the laws of England.

The right to habeas corpus. No one is to be arrested and kept in prison without being charged and tried.

No one is to be tried more than once for the same offence.

The right to private property. It could not be taken against a person's will.

The right not to be fined so heavily as to have your livelihood destroyed.

The right to punishment that fits the crime.

The right to certain taxation only when 'the common counsel of the realm' had been obtained. In addition, only reasonable taxes ('aids') were to be taken by the knights from their free tenants.

The people's rights to use forest and riverbanks.

The right of London and other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports to have all their liberties and free customs. (This is the clause that Serlo wanted.)

The right of the people to travel freely in and out of their country, except during war.

There was also a security clause that gave an elected council of knights the right to act against the king on behalf of the "community of the realm" should he fail to uphold his part of the bargain.

It's almost embarrassing, when 21st century government tramps all over these rights, that 13th century men could have won so much. However, they would pay a price.

After agreeing to the terms of Magna Carta, John spent a few surly weeks considering his options. Most of the knights dispersed to their homes, but the knights who were supposed to make sure the king lived up to his word suspected the worst and refused to evacuate London. John had delayed the removal of foreign troops from England, as agreed, and was hiring more mercenaries.

By mid-July John had written to his overlord, the Pope, asking him to annul Magna Carta. While he waited for the Pope to reply, he tried to buy off some of the knights. He was able to buy only one.

In September the Pope condemned Magna Carta. He ordered the Archbishop to publicly excommunicate the rebels, and so end their rebellion by rendering their lives and possessions forfeit.

Meanwhile John was moving heaven and earth to recover Rochester Castle from the Archbishop. It may seem odd that an Archbishop of Canterbury would hold a military castle, but it was on such details, and men's willingness to stake their lives on principle, that Magna Carta hinged.

Knowing its vital strategic importance, for three months Stephen Langton refused to surrender Rochester Castle to John; defying the Pope, he refused to excommunicate the knights. The Pope suspended him as Archbishop, and ordered him to Rome. Langton prepared to go, but his resistance had bought the rebels the time they needed.

The war between John and the Magna Carta knights began early in October, 1215, when John bombarded the rebel knights holding Rochester with huge stone-throwing engines. . .The rest of the 13th century story is here.

The story of Magna Carta is being written today. Will it survive? Magna Carta defends the people's rights only so long as the people defend it. People like Serlo the Mercer.