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.
Clause 55 resembled Clause 52 in being intended to provide retrospective implementation of a number of Magna Carta’s earlier provisions, in this case those placing limits on the king’s ability to impose financial penalties. In ordering that these were to be pardoned or referred to the judgment of the twenty-five barons who were to oversee the implementation of the Charter, the Clause followed No. 37 among the Articles of the Barons, but it also differed in some important respects from it. Article 37 had placed no chronological limits on its coverage, but where fines were concerned it restricted itself specifically to those made for dowers, marriages and inheritances. Clause 55, however, was to be applicable to all fines and amercements that had been made `unjustly and against the law of the land’, while confining itself to those made in the reign of King John. Fines and amercements were nominally different. An amercement was a penalty for an offence, imposed by the lord or superior of the person condemned to pay it, whereas a fine was theoretically a negotiated payment intended to settle a dispute or obtain a favour. But when the dispute was with an overbearing monarch, or the favour was the ending of harassment or the remission of anger, it became hard to distinguish the resulting fine from an amercement, and in fact under John the two became ever more alike, with fines taking on an increasingly penal character.
The substance of the penalties with which Clause 55 was concerned was that they should have been made unjustly, not that they were excessive. Amercements for breaches of the forest laws were probably a major grievance, especially as they were often heavy (this was so under Henry II and Richard I as well as John), but it seems highly likely that inordinate fines were what the barons had particularly in mind. The level of fines rose steadily under the three Angevin kings, with the upward trend of Richard’s reign becoming ever steeper during John’s. There was a marked tendency for fines to be increased by the addition of supplementary payments which were recorded as consisting of hawks, dogs and horses, but which were usually paid in cash. The pressure to pay became greater, with time limits becoming shorter while the penalties for failing to meet them became more severe. And those who made a fine were increasingly liable to have to find pledges who could not only guarantee that the debt would be paid but also contribute towards its payment – pledges often gave more than the principal did. The burdens placed upon pledges inevitably had the effect of spreading the discontent aroused by John’s financial exactions throughout landowning society. The last years of his reign saw the imposition of some huge fines, culminating in the 20,000 marks (£13,333. 6s. 8d.) which Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex, undertook to pay for the right to marry Isabella of Gloucester, the king’s first wife, with possession of her lands. So obviously excessive was it that in May 1215 John himself offered to refer it to the judgment of his court. Whether the twenty-five barons ever presided over such proceedings is unknown. But that no equivalent to Clause 55 is to be found in reissues of Magna Carta after 1215 should not be understood to mean that they tried to enforce it and failed, but rather that one was no longer regarded as necessary. The clauses which it referred back to sufficed to prevent such abuses in future, so that John’s successors did not even try to raise the money they needed through massive amercements and fines.
Rochester week two, the siege of Norham and the return of Giles de Braose (The Itinerary of King John)
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