Omnes fines qui injuste et contra legem terrae facti sunt nobiscum, et omnia amerciamenta facta injuste et contra legem terrae, omnino condonentur, vel fiat inde per judicium viginti quinque baronum de quibus fit mentio inferius in securitate pacis, vel per judicium majoris partis eorumdem, una cum praedicto Stephano Cantuariensi archiepiscopo, si interesse poterit, et aliis quos secum ad hoc vocare voluerit: et si interesse non poterit, nihilominus procedat negotium sine eo, ita quod, si aliquis vel aliqui de praedictis viginti et quinque baronibus fuerint in simili querela, amoveantur quantum ad hoc judicium, et alii loco eorum per residuos de eisdem viginti quinque, tantum ad hoc faciendum electi et jurati substituantur.
All fines which have been made with us unjustly and against the law of the land, and all amercements made unjustly and against the law of the land, are to be completely remitted, or dealt with by judgment of the twenty-five barons named below in the security for peace, or by judgment of the greater part of them, together with Stephen, archbishop of Canterbury, if he can attend, and others whom he may wish to convoke to act with him in this. And if he cannot attend, let the business nonetheless proceed without him. On condition, however, that if one or some of the aforesaid twenty-five barons are involved in such a plea, they are to be removed in respect of this judgment, and others chosen and sworn by the rest of the twenty-five to act in their place in this case only.
Most of the clauses in Magna Carta were concerned to forbid abuses of royal power and so prevent their continuance in the future; Clause 55 was one of a few concerned to rectify past misdeeds, in this instance the financial exactions known as amercements and fines. Ostensibly they were different. Amercements were penalties imposed by courts or institutions like the exchequer, whereas fines were settlements negotiated in order to end a dispute or obtain a favour. But under John’s rule fines became increasingly like amercements, not only in becoming ever larger but also in being effectively agreed to under duress, and so were imposed just as amercements were. Clause 55 differed in some significant respects from No. 37 of the Articles of the Barons on which it was based. The Article specified that the fines needing to be pardoned or renegotiated were those made to obtain dowers, marriages and inheritances. These were indeed assets for which many substantial fines were made, but there were also others, and Clause 55 recognised this by widening its scope to cover all fines and amercements, and thus the entire range of John’s financial demands. On the other hand (and unlike Clause 52, another retrospective clause), Clause 55 confined its remit to that king’s actions, and did not extend it back to those of his father and older brother.
The fines and amercements which under Clause 55 were to be either annulled or referred to the judgment of the twenty-five barons responsible for enforcing Magna Carta as a whole, were those made `unjustly and against the law of the land’, a phrase which probably meant that they had not been assessed by the peers, or at any rate the reputable neighbours, of those required to pay them. The drafters of the Clause may have had the penalties for breaches of the forest laws particularly in mind, since these were always both arbitrary and heavy. Nothing was said about the size of amercements and fines, only about the manner of their making, but it is hard to believe that size was not an important consideration behind the Clause, and above all where fines were concerned – amercements affected many more people, especially those imposed by royal justices itinerant, but the fines made by the wealthy and powerful brought much more money into the royal coffers.
All the Angevin kings levied large fines, and the last years of Richard I’s reign saw a marked increase in the sums involved. This upward trend continued and steepened under King John. Fines were increased not only in purely monetary terms but also by John’s practice of demanding additional payments in the form of hawks, dogs and horses, though these were almost invariably converted into cash – an ordinary horse, or palfrey, could add £3. 6s. 8d. to the bill, a warhorse as much as £20. Pressure to pay also intensified. Deadlines became tighter and were more rigorously enforced, so that those who failed to meet them might see their lands sequestrated and then devastated as the king’s agents set about raising the money owed. And the burden of payment was increasingly extended by the practice of demanding that a debtor find pledges, whose number sometimes ran into hundreds, who could not only guarantee that an obligation would be met but might also to be made responsible for meeting it – the pledges often paid a higher proportion of a debt than the principal did. The effect of such methods was to make the impact of fines with the king felt increasingly widely in landowning society, spreading an anxiety and fear which the sheer size of some of the fines made in the last years of John’s reign can have done nothing to alleviate. The king himself may have belatedly understood how much harm his financial measures were doing him, since in May 1215 he offered to refer two massive fines to the judgment of his own court – £6000 owed by Giles de Briouze, bishop of Hereford, for his family’s forfeited lands, and the huge fine, inordinate by any standards, of 20,000 marks (£13,333. 6s. 8d.) made by Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex, for the right to marry Isabella of Gloucester, the king’s first wife, and for possession of her lands. It is not known if in the weeks after Runnymede the twenty-five barons acted as prescribed to deal with fines and amercements, but Clause 55 did not form part of any of the later reissues of Magna Carta. Probably this was because other clauses prevented the abuses which that Clause had been intended to correct, just as later kings found other, usually less objectionable, methods of raising the money they needed.
Rochester week two, the siege of Norham and the return of Giles de Braose (The Itinerary of King John)
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