Omnes obsides et cartas statim reddemus quae liberatae fuerunt nobis ab Anglicis in securitatem pacis vel fidelis servitii.
We will immediately surrender all hostages and charters which have been handed over to us by Englishmen as security for peace or loyal service.
The giving and taking of hostages – living pledges that the person giving them would fulfil obligations towards, or refrain from hostile acts against, whoever received them – was generally regarded as an acceptable practice on the part of European rulers in the years around 1200. Richard I had had to find a total of sixty-seven hostages for the payment of his ransom in 1194. Clause 49 did not forbid King John to take hostages in future, but in its wording it pin-pointed what was most objectionable in his exploitation of them, that he took hostages and also charters – written documents promising faithful service on pain of perpetual forfeiture of lands – from his own subjects, and did so in large numbers. That he did so reflected his own suspicious personality, and his inability to govern except through threats and fear. He took hostages at all times in his reign, sometimes holding them for several years, when they might be detained in castles, monasteries and towns, or even in the keeping of the queen. Contemporary law distinguished hostages from prisoners, but both might be kept in chains, while hostages lived under threat to life and limb. This especially applied to those from countries outside England’s borders – John notoriously had some thirty Welsh hostages hanged in 1212. That year’s conspiracy against the king’s life led to a quantum leap in hostage-taking, creating whole networks of intimidation which extended throughout the kingdom – a development which explains the inclusion of Clause 49 in Magna Carta. Some hostages were then released, but the outbreak of civil war later in 1215 saw John revert to his previous practices, and rebels who surrendered in the last months of the reign were regularly required to pay a fine and give hostages, together with a charter pledging future loyalty. Such constraints were still needed by the minority government at the start of Henry III’s reign, but were soon dispensed with, and were very seldom revived thereafter.
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