Blogging The Magna Carta #15

by Phyllis Irene Radford

Something we take for granted:

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” [cloth made of mixed color, worn chiefly by monks.]), to wit, two ells within the selvages; of weights also let it be as of measures.

Until the Magna Carta, each district defined their own measurements.  In London, a foot was the length of the king’s foot; an inch the length from the king’s fingertip to the first knuckle.  But King Richard I was said to stand well over six feet tall.  King John is reputed to measure barely five feet seven.  And if a child became king then grew…

Or suppose a lady needed 10 ells of cloth for a new gown.  An ell being the measurement from the tip of the fingers to the elbow.  In London she’d get adequate cloth as the merchants tended to use the king’s arm as the standard measurement.  In York she’d come up short on her new gown as the cloth was measured against someone else’s arm.  And if she ordered from Paris, she’d get an entirely different length.

The same with weights of food and containers of wine or oil.

The trigger for this clause comes from outfitting an army.  War was a primary occupation of kings and nobles.  Outfitting an army was expensive even if one relying upon feudal oaths in lieu of salaries.  The king or his nobles, whoever was in charge, needed to know how much grain and ale he could buy with his silver penny and therefore how many pennies to keep on hand.  If he got short measures because that was the standard in the district he might not have enough money to keep his army in the field. He needed to get the same amount in Devonshire, Yorkshire, Shropshire, or London.

With this clause, we have a standardization for the first time in England.  We’re still using the same measures in the US as defined in 1215.  Much of the rest of the world has converted to the metric system.  We’re still working toward a worldwide uniform agreement.


Now this is a procedure that might clear our clogged judicial system: Disputants often had to pay a fee for the right to take their case to court.

36. Nothing in future shall be given or taken for a writ of inquisition of life or limbs, but freely it shall be granted, and never denied.

That life and limb phrase bothers me.  I don’t think a man had to amputate his arm in order to get his case heard by a justicar.  More likely this refers to major crimes involving loss of life or limb.  If plaintiffs had to pay a fee to sue in court, would we see so many marginal cases for monetary compensation for say… recovery of the value of the litter when a pregnant pig was sold?

We hear about people who literally make their living by causing auto accidents and then suing the person who rear ends them, claiming exaggerated injuries. What if they had to pay the court to file suit? Certainly they have to pay the lawyer, but that person often takes a percentage of the pay out. If the court wanted their share up front before any proceedings could begin, how many people would pursue a frivolous claim?

37. If anyone holds of us by fee-farm, by socage (feudal tenure of land involving payment of rent or other non-military service to a superior), or by burgage (tenure of land in a town on a yearly rent), and holds also land of another lord by knight’s service, we will not (by reason of that fee-farm, socage, or burgage) have the wardship of the heir, or of such land of his as is of the fief of that other; nor shall we have wardship of that fee-farm, socage, or burgage, unless such fee-farm owes knight’s services. We will not by reason of any small serjeanty which any one may hold of us by the service of rendering to us knives, arrows, or the like, have wardship of his heir or of the land which he holds of another lord by knight’s service.

Another issue that attempts to untangle the complex relationships in a feudal society.  In our world this would apply if a man owned property in several different states.  Say he has a farm in upstate New York and a vineyard in California.  He doesn’t have to pay property tax for the vineyard to New York, or for the farm to California.  In 1215 he owes his landlord only for the property held for that landlord, the king or another baron can’t step in and say he owes him for all property he holds regardless of the landlord.  The same for inheritance and wardship.  To each his own and nothing more.

This is a concept we now take for granted.


For the entire Magna Carta, you may go here:

For a more scholarly analysis of the Charter and its relevance to modern life:


Phyllis Irene Radford is a founding member of the Book View Café.  She first became interested in the Magna Carta while researching her master work series “Merlin’s Descendants.”  Book View Café is proud to reissue these five volumes in a variety of DRM free e-book formats.  You can read more about the author on her bookshelf:

The first book in the series, “Guardian of the Balance” can be found here:




About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.


Blogging The Magna Carta #15 — 4 Comments

  1. So the standard width of fabric was two ells? Because Wikipedia states that an English ell is 45″, which is standard fabric measure here in the United States. 90″ width sounds somewhat cumbersome.

    Well, so much for SCA garb made with artificially narrow fabric because “medieval looms couldn’t handle wide strips.” Maybe on a Viking loom?

    • Pat, the standards still vary here — everything from 45″ through 54″ to 60″, plus odd sizes for exotics like silk and linen bolts.

      Sometimes standardization is a wonderful thing, but we don’t have it yet — at least not in cotton muslin!

    • Pat, If an ell is measured from finger tips to elbow, on me, a short female that’s 16 inches, making fabric 32″ wide. Let’s say the ell becomes 20-22″ measured on a larger male. That’s still only 44″ wide. So making cloth from 36-45″ wide fabric is realistic. Not 90″ unless you take the measure from a giant.

  2. The width of a piece of fabric (i.e. selvage to selvage) is controlled by the loom. You can weave a piece of cloth narrower than the loom, but you can’t get it wider. It would be possible, but rather silly, to narrow the width of fabric to match up to the measure of the monarch. For practical reasons you nearly always want to weave cloth to be as wide as you can; it is as much work to weave it wide as it is to weave it narrow.
    The -length- of a piece of cloth is controlled by the length of the warp — the long threads that you thread the loom with. (Then you go back and forth with the weft fiber, which is on a shuttle, to weave the fabric.) Since in the old days a warp thread was of a limited length, there is a limit to the length of any handwoven fabric. I believe the max length is the length of Roman togas — 8 feet. (Which is why togas were luxury wear in Rome; each garment was not only of expensive wool but took the full production of a loom and its weaver.)
    If you were buying fabric you could buy the full length, but in theory you could also buy a cut — a couple yards or so, enough to make a tunic or dress. It must be this unit of measure that varied by monarch.