Nullus distringatur ad faciendum majus servitium de feodo militis, nec de alio libero tenemento, quam inde debetur.
No person is to be distrained to do more service for a knight’s fee, or for another free tenement, than is owed for it.
In the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, the king became the ultimate lord of all the land in England, and in that capacity was entitled to demand services, especially military ones, from those to whom he or his predecessors had granted lordships and estates. By around 1200 such services, involving attendance in the royal host with horses, weapons and armed followers, were still sometimes required, but it was increasingly common practice for the king to commute them for money, in the form of payments known as scutage (from the Latin word scutum, meaning a shield), which could then be put towards the cost of hiring mercenaries. Under King John, eleven scutages were imposed in a reign lasting sixteen years, at rates consistently higher than had been demanded by Henry II and Richard I. John also forced such payments from men who owed non-military services, and should therefore have been exempt, and compelled a number of crown debtors to settle their obligations by agreeing to fund bodies of knights whose wages could be expected to cost more than the payment of their debts would have done. The impact of these money-raising practices was felt throughout English society, since each level sought to recover its outlay from the one beneath. Clause 16 recognised this, when it applied its stipulation to all free tenements, and not just to knights’ fees, and in doing so granted the same protection to sub-tenants against their lords that it gave to tenants-in-chief (those who held their lands directly from the crown) in their dealings with the king.
Equally contentious was the issue of service overseas, above all in campaigns which John hoped would win back the French lands which he had lost in 1204. Participation in foreign ventures (except crusades) was never popular, and a number of barons, both lay and ecclesiastical, at various times claimed exemption from it. The justice of their case was doubtful, however; John could have argued that precedent was against them, and added, perhaps, that he was expected to preserve his rights and possessions and recover any he had lost. He could also have asserted, against those who disputed the lawfulness of his demands for service at home, that as king he was ultimately responsible for the defence of the realm, and obliged to take steps to ensure its protection against external attack – as indeed he did, in 1205 and 1213. These conflicting claims, with the king’s duties set against what were increasingly seen as his excessive, and in many cases actually unlawful, demands for money and services, were almost impossible to reconcile, with the result that Clause 16 of Magna Carta had to be composed in unspecific terms, giving it the appearance of a protest at least as much as a programme for reform.
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