Si aliquis liber homo intestatus decesserit, catalla sua per manus propinquorum parentum et amicorum suorum, per visum ecclesiae distribuantur, salvis unicuique debitis quae defunctus ei debebat.
If any free man shall die intestate, his chattels are to be distributed by his nearest kinsmen on both sides of his family, under the supervision of the church, but saving to everyone the debts which the dead man owed him.
Clause 27 accompanies and completes Clause 26. The latter was concerned with the implementation of testaments, disposing of moveable goods (wills were concerned with landed property) after debts to the king had been paid, while its successor dealt with the possessions of those who died intestate, without making a testament. It is significant that the involvement of the church is spelt out. By the early thirteenth century it had become customary for chattels to be divided into three equal parts at a man’s death, with one third apiece going to his widow and children, while the last was at his own disposal. He was expected, however, to distribute it for the good of his own soul, and his doing so was increasingly regarded as a religious duty, one which it was a grievous sin to omit. Like all sins, this one was the church’s concern, but perhaps because it affected earthly possessions it could give the crown an excuse for intervention, and there are signs under Henry II of attempts to treat intestacy as grounds for the confiscation of a dead man’s property. These petered out, however, except, by an unexpected paradox, in a few cases when the intestate was a bishop. The church’s control of intestacy was ultimately too firmly-established to be overcome, and even King John seems to have tried only very occasionally to have tried to claim an interest in unbequeathed goods. As a result, Clause 26 was dropped from the subsequent re-issues of Magna Carta, and intestacy remained the monopoly of ecclesiastical officials and courts.
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