Si quis fuerit dissaisitus vel elongatus per nos sine legali judicio parium suorum, de terris, castellis, libertatibus, vel jure suo, statim ea ei restituemus; et si contentio super hoc orta fuerit, tunc inde fiat per judicium viginti quinque baronum, de quibus fit mentio inferius in securitate pacis: de omnibus autem illis de quibus aliquis disseisitus fuerit vel elongatus sine legali judicio parium suorum, per Henricum regem patrem nostrum vel per Ricardum regem fratrem nostrum, quae in manu nostra habemus, vel quae alii tenent, quae nos oporteat warantizare, respectum habebimus usque ad communem terminum crucesignatorum; exceptis illis de quibus placitum motum fuit vel inquisitio facta per praeceptum nostrum, ante susceptionem crucis nostrae: cum autem redierimus de peregrinatione nostra, vel si forte remanserimus a peregrinatione nostra, statim inde pleman justiciam exhibebimus.
If anyone has been disseised or dispossessed by us, without lawful judgment of his peers, of lands, castles, liberties, or of his right, we will restore them to him immediately. And if dispute should arise concerning this, then it is to be dealt with by judgment of the twenty-five barons named below in the security for peace. But concerning all those things of which anyone was disseised or dispossessed, without lawful judgment of his peers, by King Henry our father or King Richard our brother, which we have in our hand, or which others hold and which we ought to warrant, we will have respite during the usual crusader’s term [of exemption], except for those matters over which a plea was begun or an inquest held on our orders before our taking of the cross. But when we have returned from our crusade, or if perchance we have stayed at home without going on crusade, we will then at once do full justice in such cases.
The large Clause 52 provided for the restoration to their previous owners of lands of which they had been dispossessed – `disseised’ – by King John, his father or his elder brother. In doing so it was in effect retrospectively implementing Clause 39, in which disseisin was one of the actions against his free subjects which the king renounced for the future. The length of Clause 52 was largely due to the complications arising from John’s having taken the cross on 4 March 1215, and his claim to the right allowed to crusaders to be exempted from legal proceedings while they were absent on crusade. Eventually it was decided that his own disseisins must be remedied at once, but that those of Henry II and Richard I should wait until his return. That still left much needing attention. Disseisins could be effected by stealth, or by the manipulation of the processes of the exchequer or of the courts, but they were most often carried out by force. John had been dispossessing men of their estates from the beginning of his reign, often temporarily but sometimes for extended periods. The conspiracy of 1212 had led to many disseisins, and the same was also true of the outbreak of rebellion immediately before Magna Carta was negotiated, when sweeping orders for the seizure of lands created much confusion.
It was clearly anticipated that John would resist at least some of the efforts which would be made to recover estates he had confiscated. When that happened the twenty-five barons responsible for enforcing Magna Carta as a whole were to give judgment. It is not clear how often they were called to do so. There is some evidence that they were active in this way, but it is also possible that John sometimes anticipated their decisions and had lands handed back before he could be instructed to do so. In other instances he certainly dug his heels in, for instance that of Knaresborough Castle, which had come into his hands as the pledge for a huge fine offered, but never paid, by Nicholas de Stuteville. Although the twenty-five eventually ordered the castle’s surrender to William, he could not recover it. His case was typical in that although the orders and claims made in the weeks after Runnymede show that the potential beneficiaries of Clause 52 came from all levels of free society, it was the wealthy and powerful who had been most often targeted by John. Nor had they only lost lands, for as the Clause records, they were also entitled to recover rights – like Eustace de Vesci’s freedom to hunt with dogs on his home territory in Northumberland – and castles, an essential asset for any self-respecting magnate. Some barons, indeed, seem to have claimed more than they were entitled to, either in lands or in castles; William de Mowbray’s bid to obtain York Castle, by reference to the findings of an inquest which had almost certainly never taken place, was a particularly egregious example. Like Clause 52 itself, Mowbray’s attempt to exploit a moment of royal weakness for personal advantage underlines the extent to which relations between king and barons broke down during John’s reign.
Clause 55 (The 1215 Magna Carta)
Clause 55 (The 1215 Magna Carta)
Clause 60 (The 1215 Magna Carta)
Please note: commentaries are presently available only for clauses marked with *; more commentary to be added in due course.