Liber homo non amercietur pro parvo delicto, nisi secundum modum delicti; et pro magno delicto amercietur secundum magnitudinem delicti, salvo contenemento suo; et mercator eodem modo salva mercandisa sua; et villanus eodem modo amercietur salvo wainnagio suo, si inciderint in misericordiam nostram; et nulla praedictarum misericordiarum ponatur, nisi per sacramentum proborum hominum de visneto.
A free man is not to be amerced for a small offence except in proportion to the nature of the offence, and for a great offence he is to be amerced in accordance with its magnitude, saving to him his livelihood, and a merchant in the same manner, saving to him his stock in trade, and a villein is to be amerced in the same manner, saving to him his growing crops, if they fall into our mercy. And none of the aforesaid amercements is to be imposed except by the oath of trustworthy men of the vicinity.
In the context of Magna Carta, amercements were monetary penalties imposed for offences against the king’s peace or interests, above all in the royal courts, and they had become both a major source of royal revenue and perhaps the commonest way for the central government to make its presence felt throughout the realm, at every level of society. Clause 20 was unique in giving protection not only to the free men to whom the Charter was granted but also to villeins. Admittedly this was primarily for the benefit of the latter’s lords, who would suffer if the men who worked their lands were ruined by the king’s demands, but the provision still constitutes striking evidence of the penetrative power of King John’s government, extending to every level of society. By 1215 the rates at which amercements were levied were becoming increasingly standardised, while the principle set out in Clause 20, that they should be proportionate to the offence for which they were imposed, had been nominally accepted since at least the beginning of the twelfth century, but this did not prevent the king or his agents from sometimes exacting very large sums, which might take years to pay and could be ruinous to those from whom they were demanded. King John’s financial needs were such that he came to exploit his power to amerce his subjects to the utmost.
Some heavy amercements were imposed in the earlier years of his reign, but this was only a foretaste of the exactions to come, above all in 1210, when a nationwide visitation in high summer by royal justices (conventionally referred to as `autumnal justices’) imposed substantial penalties upon leading men in every county visited, so large that even when their victims were pardoned part of their debts, as happened in a number of cases, the sums that remained to be paid were still much larger-than-average amercements. To make matters worse, the offences for which these men were punished, as recorded, were very ill-defined – usually just `trespass’, for which the usual penalty was 6s. 8d. or 10s. but here often cost offenders 100 marks or £100. Unsurprisingly, these exactions were deeply resented, and many of the men amerced in 1210 rebelled five years later. There were occasional signs that John was aware of the hostility his exactions aroused, but he did little to scale them back until Clause 20 forced controls upon him. It restated the principle of proportionality, and also demanded the observance of a practice which had certainly been in use over fifty years earlier but may have been ignored more recently, that amercements should be assessed by neighbours rather than by the king’s officers. No doubt it was believed that this would result in lower demands, more appropriate to the offence and also to the offender’s ability to pay.
Clause 60 (The 1215 Magna Carta)
John grants freedom of election (The Itinerary of King John)
Please note: commentaries are presently available only for clauses marked with *; more commentary to be added in due course.