Nec villa nec homo distringatur facere pontes ad riparias, nisi qui ab antiquo et de jure facere debent.
Neither township nor man is to be distrained to make bridges over rivers, except those who should of old and rightfully do so.
Although English kings had an undeniable right to demand bridge-building from their subjects as an aid to the defence of the realm, there is no reason to believe that this was the abuse against which Clause 23 was directed. Rather it was concerned with the arbitrary extension of hunting – or more precisely, hawking, a sport which involved the pursuit mostly of river-birds with trained falcons – rights, and the resulting demands which were made on communities situated near rivers, to provide makeshift bridges, so that the king and his companions could cross from one bank to the other and keep up with their hawks as they flew in pursuit of their prey. Henry II and his two successors were all keen falconers, so much so that by 1189 debts to the crown were often paid in birds as well as, or instead of, cash. John was highly enthusiastic, and this would have made a greater impact because he spent much more time in England, and travelled more widely in it, accompanied by his hawks, than either of his predecessors. Hawking was a seasonal sport, practised from autumn to spring, but it was subject to no geographical limits, and the records of John’s reign, supported from evidence from Henry III’s, shows that the king and his birds went out after ducks, herons and cranes in many parts of England, mostly in the midlands and south but also further north – in February 1213 he took nine cranes in Lincolnshire.
In 1208, if the chronicler Roger of Wendover is to be believed (admittedly he is not the most reliable of sources), John prohibited the taking of birds throughout the country, so giving himself a monopoly on hawking, and a limitless capacity for punishing violations of it. Perhaps the story is unfounded, but is certain that officials were appointed to supervise rivers where the king went hawking, and that both communities and landowners were liable to punishment when they ignored or disobeyed orders to provide bridges, or otherwise prevented the king enjoying his sport. By John’s reign the standard penalty for failing to provide bridges had apparently become fixed at five marks (£3. 6s. 8d.), a large sum which seems usually to have been imposed, and perhaps collected, on the spot. Lords who had been commanded to order their tenants to make bridges, but failed to do so, also risked punishment. Some communities were traditionally required to act in this way. It was the arbitrary extension of this liability to other places, along with the penalties for its infringement, which had become intolerable, and which Clause 23 was intended to prevent.
The copies of Magna Carta 1216 (Features of the Month)
King John’s Lost Language of Cranes (Features of the Month)
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