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.
At the time of Magna Carta taking hostages – living guarantees for the fulfilment of obligations – was widely regarded as an acceptable practice on the part of European rulers. Archbishop Stephen Langton himself declared that a king was entitled to take them from potential rebels, preferably their sons. Henry II and Richard I both took hostages when occasion demanded, and also sometimes gave them – in 1194 Richard was obliged to give a total of sixty-seven hostages when he negotiated his ransom and release from captivity. But John not only took hostages throughout his reign but did so in unprecedented numbers. His inability to trust his own subjects meant that he mostly took them as guarantees of loyalty, but they might also be given as security for the payment of debts. Many were children, with sons being preferred to daughters, while legitimate birth was often also required – the hostage had to be someone who mattered to the giver. Contemporary law distinguished hostages from prisoners, but both might be held in chains, from which release could be granted as a favour. Some hostages were maintained at the expense of the king, others at that of those who gave them, while one group of Welsh hostages may have lived by begging. They were often held in castles, but some were placed in monasteries (like the daughter of the piratical Eustace the Monk, who was entrusted to the nuns of Wilton Abbey), or handed over to towns, while the children of magnates might be kept at court.
Hostages stood in imminent danger if the person who gave them reneged on his or her obligations. The developing code of chivalric conduct conveyed doubts about the rightfulness of hostage-taking – William Marshal, who had himself come close to death as a hostage in Stephen’s reign, once pronounced it a shameful practice – but such reservations meant nothing to King John, or to any English lord who had dealings with the Scots, Irish and Welsh. In 1212 John notoriously had some thirty Welsh hostages hanged at Nottingham, while immediately afterwards the discovery of a conspiracy against his life led to a large-scale campaign of repression in which the taking of English hostages featured prominently. Many were taken from members of the nobility, but the king’s efforts to impose loyalty ramified far beyond their ranks, sometimes to whole communities (the men of the Channel Islands gave hostages, as did the townsmen of Dunwich), but more often to individual landowners. A number of the tenants in Essex of Robert FitzWalter, one of the foremost conspirators in 1212, were obliged to give hostages, who were then entrusted to neighbouring landowners who themselves had to give charters to the king in which each offered himself and his land as a guarantee of the hostage-giver’s faithful service in future. The keepers of hostages thus became effectively hostages themselves.
Such charters were increasingly used as an alternative, or supplement, to hostages, becoming increasingly stereotyped pledges of loyalty, on pain of perpetual forfeiture of lands. Clause 49 thus struck at practices which had become central to John’s style of government. Some hostages were released in the weeks immediately after Runnymede, though not all were, and when civil war broke out later in 1215 the king took them as whole-heartedly as before. Rebels coerced back into their allegiance were routinely required to give a fine, hostages and a charter. In the very early years of the following reign the minority government found that it could not dispense with such useful methods of enforcing obedience, but with the return of peace they were increasingly dispensed with. Clause 49 had not forbidden hostage-taking as such, but later governments found other ways of maintaining control over their subjects.