Cheshire's Magna Carta

Home » Newsroom » Cheshire's Magna Carta

Back in January Tarvinonline published our first articles about Cheshire's own Magna Carta.

Magna Carta 2

In 1215 or 1216 (the exact date is unknown, and there is no surviving copy of the original document) the then Earl of Chester, known as Earl Ranulf III, issued what has become known as the "Cheshire Magna Carta".

Earlier this year the Cheshire Local History Association published a book about this fascinating document, with the full text of the original charter (in Latin), a new translation and an extensive commentary on the significance of the charter and its 13 clauses.

Cheshire at this time was a semi-autonomous region and the Earl had a quasi-royal status. The kings of England had no land in the county and, it seems, received no income from it. The status of the Earl dated back to the Norman Conquest and William the Conqueror's wish for a powerful nobleman not only to defend the border but also to extend Norman control into North Wales — at one time the western border of Cheshire was the River Clwyd. There had been other "marcher lordships" to the south, in Shropshire and Herefordshire, but by 1215 these had been forfeited to the Crown, leaving Cheshire in a unique position.

As a result of this semi-independence Cheshire had its own courts and justices, its own separate finances and its own local traditions. King John's Magna Carta did not apply in Cheshire, and the Earl's charter makes a clear distinction between "Cheshire" and "England".

The eastern border was known as "The Lyme" — as seen in place-names such as Ashton-under-Lyne, Lyme Park and Newcastle-under-Lyme. The Earl's charter states that because of the "heavy service" his barons have to perform within Cheshire, they need not fight for him beyond the Lyme, "unless of their own free will and at my expense".

The commentary on the charter tells us that at this time Cheshire was sparsely populated. Accordingly, the charter discusses how strangers can be allowed to come into the county and live here. However, not all incomers were fine upstanding citizens — it seems a good many were fugitives from English justice.

Another clause of the charter relates to the county's forests, which covered around one-third of the county. These were Wirral, Delamere, Mondrem and Macclesfield. They were not forests in the sense we use the word now — they contained plenty of woodland, but also open land, heath and moorland and some farmland. Their main role, however, was for hunting game, and they had their own laws and administration designed to preserve this role. The Delamere and Mondrem forests were contiguous, and the western boundary was the River Gowy, putting Tarvin within the forest.
The charter grants the Cheshire barons a number of concessions (or perhaps confirms concessions that some or all of them already enjoyed), but the Earl also specifically refuses some further concessions he had been asked to make, including allowing the barons to indulge in a little light hunting or hare-coursing on their way to or from the Earl's court in Chester.

The charter ends with a list of 29 names who were recorded as witnesses. These were mainly minor landholders. They include one "Philippo de Therven", or Philip of Tarvin.

Earl Ranulf III died in 1232. He had no children, and his heir, his nephew John le Scot, died five years later. The county of Cheshire then reverted to the Crown, and was given to the future King Edward I. This was the beginning of the tradition whereby the eldest son of the monarch held the title Earl of Chester, as is still the case today.

The book "The Magna Carta of Cheshire" costs £6 and is available from the Cheshire Record Office in Duke Street, Chester