Si aliquis tenens de nobis laicum feodum moriatur, et vicecomes vel ballivus noster ostendat litteras nostras patentes de summonitione nostra de debito quod defunctus nobis debuit, liceat vicecomiti vel ballivo nostro attachiare et inbreviare catalla defuncti inventa in laico feodo, ad valentiam illius debiti, per visum legalium hominum, ita tamen quod nihil amoveatur, donec persolvatur nobis debitum quod clarum fuerit; et residuum relinquatur executoribus ad faciendum testamentum defuncti; et, si nihil nobis debeatur ab ipso, omnia catalla cedant defuncto, salvis uxoris ipsius et pueris rationabilibus partibus suis.
If anyone holding a lay fee of us dies, and the sheriff or a bailiff of ours shows our letters patent of summons for a debt which the dead man owed us, it is to be lawful for the sheriff or our bailiff to attach and record the chattels of the deceased found on the lay fee to the value of the debt, by the view of law-abiding men, so that nothing is to be removed thence, until the clear debt is paid to us; and the residue is to be relinquished to the executors to carry out the testament of the deceased; and if nothing is owed us by him, all the chattels are to go to the deceased, but reserving their rightful shares to his wife and children.
Dealing with what is owed to it by the heirs and dependents of the recently deceased is a test of the sensitivity, as well as the efficiency, of any government. Clause 26 suggests that King John’s government was much more efficient than sensitive, and was both aggressive and predatory in its pursuit of its claims. The barons responded by trying to prevent royal agents from taking more than was owed, by requiring that before anything was removed a formal summons should be issued setting out exactly what was owed, and that a full inventory should be taken of the dead man’s goods, which would help to ensure that anything taken in excess of the debt was later returned. In this way the clause pinpointed the two principal malpractices committed by the king’s men as they went about the task of debt-collection.
The clause also dealt with the disposal of such goods as were left when any debts had been cleared. By 1200 it was customary for these to be divided into three equal portions, of which the widow and children received one each, while the remaining third was placed in the hands of the dead man’s executors, who traditionally distributed it for the good of his soul, in alms or in gifts to the church. Securing the right to dispose of their goods in their testaments (nowadays usually referred to as wills) was something the barons had been trying to achieve for over a century before 1215. In a religious society, the saving of souls was a vital responsibility for the heirs and executors of the deceased, and anything that endangered it was likely to be resented and resisted. The barons did not dispute that debts to the king should be paid, but they objected to the often violent and dishonest methods used to achieve this, and to the way in which the king exploited his power at the expense of dead men’s dependents.
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