This Glossary provides brief definitions of terms found in Magna Carta and elsewhere in this book. It makes no claims to catch all the senses in which the terms could be used.1 Unless stated, references to the chapters of Magna Carta are to those in the Charter of 1215.
advowson The right of nominating a cleric to an ecclesiastical benefice, most frequently a parish. The right was possessed by many lay lords of manors, as well as bishops, monasteries and cathedral chapters.
afforestation The bringing of an area within the bounds of the royal forest, thus subjecting it to royal forest law. See assart, purpresture, waste.
aid (i) A payment demanded by a lord (including the king) from his tenants by knight service. Magna Carta sought to limit such aids to three customary occasions. (ii) A tax levied by the king on the kingdom. See knight service.
amercement A financial penalty for falling into the mercy of the king or a lord through the committal of some offence. Usually the result of conviction before a court. What would now be called a ‘fine’.
Angevin empire The totality of the territory under the Angevin kings. Greatly reduced by John’s loss of Normandy and Anjou in 1204.
Angevins A term used by historians to cover kings Henry II (r. 1154–89), Richard I (r. 1189–99) and John (r. 1199–1216). Derived from Henry II being the son of Geoffrey of Anjou (‘Angevin’ meaning ‘relating to Anjou’).
appeal An accusation brought in court by one individual against another, usually of violence or theft.
assart The clearing of an area within the royal forest and thus subject to royal forest law so as to create new arable land. It was a punishable offence to create an assart without the king’s licence.
assize (i) Legislation, so ‘the Assize of Northampton’. (ii) A legal action like those named in chapter 18 of Magna Carta. See darrein presentment, grand assize, mort d’ancestor, novel disseisin and recognition.
bailiff A local official.
bailiwick A local area subject to the authority of an official, so a county or hundred.
baron In Magna Carta a lord who holds a barony from the king and owes a relief of £100. See relief. Can also be used more loosely to mean a great man.
barony The estate held by a baron from the king and for which he owes, in Magna Carta, a relief of £100. The ‘barony of an earl’ had the same structure (see fee) as the barony of a baron.
beaupleder A fine levied at the start of a session of a court by the presiding officials on those attending, in order for the latter to escape penalization for mistakes in giving evidence and other procedural errors.
bench The central court held by the king’s judges, usually at Westminster. It heard mostly civil pleas according to the procedures of the common law. Later called the court of common pleas or the common bench.
Bracton The short title for a great book on the laws and customs of England. Thought once to have been written in the 1250s by the judge Henry de Bracton. Now largely accepted that it was written in the 1220s and 1230s by the legal circle around the judge William of Raleigh, Bracton himself simply making later additions to the text.
burgage A form of tenure for town property in return for rent, with freedom of alienation.
chamber An office travelling with the king whose officials received, stored and disbursed his money.
chancery An office, mostly travelling with the king, whose clerks wrote and sealed the king’s charters, letters and writs. The head was the chancellor, although he could be an absentee. The chancery rolls were the rolls on which the chancery recorded its output, with each roll covering one regnal year. See also letters close, letters patent and writ.
chattels Movable property, especially corn and animals.
chief justiciar The king’s chief minister; in charge of government during the king’s absence from the kingdom. Sometimes just called ‘the justiciar’. There was also a chief justiciar in Ireland.
clerks Clerks were both those ordained as bishops, priests and deacons, and those who were tonsured but remained in minor orders, often with little immediate intention of proceeding to the priesthood. Many of the clerks working for the king fell into the latter category.
common law, common-law litigation See the next entry.
common pleas Civil litigation in the king’s courts that followed standard procedures common to the whole kingdom. Such litigation formed a central element in the common law. ‘Common pleas’ and ‘common-law litigation’ are largely synonymous terms. See darrein presentment, grand assize, mort d’ancestor and novel disseisin.
common term of crusaders The period within which a crusader enjoyed various privileges and protections.
coram rege This translates literally as ‘in the presence of the king’. The term for the judicial court that travelled with the king, later called the court of king’s bench.
cottar An unfree peasant smallholder.
county The chief local government division of the kingdom. The boundaries of the medieval counties remained largely unchanged until 1974. There were thirty-eight counties in 1215. In Latin, ‘comitatus’ is both the word for county and county court. In chapter 18 of Magna Carta ‘comitatus’ is used in both senses.
county farm The fixed annual payment for which the sheriff of a county answered each year at the exchequer. The farms by John’s reign had remained much the same for many years and hence in Magna Carta’s chapter 25 are described as ‘ancient’. The farm was derived from amercements imposed in the county and hundred courts, fromtraditional payments (such as ‘sheriff’s aid’), from the demesne manors of the king in the sheriff’s hands, and from any subsidiary farms of hundreds, wapentakes and ridings. See also demesne manor, increment and profit.
darrein presentment A common-law legal action, or ‘assize’, to determine who had the right to nominate to a church living, the living being usually a parish. The verdict was given by a jury of free men from the neighbourhood of the property in dispute. See advowson and recognition.
deforestation The taking of areas out of the royal forest and freeing them from royal forest law.
demesne manor A manor in a lord’s hands, rather than held from him by a tenant. The king’s demesne manors referred to in chapter 25 of Magna Carta had often been in his hands since Domesday Book.
Dialogus de Scaccario The great book written on the workings of the exchequer by Henry II’s treasurer, Richard fitzNigel. It was begun in 1177 and finished sometime in the 1180s.
diffidatio The formal act in which allegiance to a lord is renounced and the lord defied.
disparagement The offence given when an individual was married to someone of lower social status.
disseisin Dispossession, usually applied to dispossession of land, but could also be of rights.
distrain To force someone to do something, usually by the seizure of chattels and land. The corresponding noun is ‘distraint’.
distress To compel and constrain someone to do something by force. Has much the same meaning as ‘to distrain’.
dower The portion of her husband’s lands that a widow is entitled to after his death. On the widow’s death the dower reverts to her husband’s heir.
earl The English term for the Latin ‘comes’ and the French ‘count’. A largely honorary title of high status, often but not always attached to a county.
ell A unit of measurement of 45 inches.
engrossment An authorized original of a document as opposed to a later copy. To engross is to write out such a document.
escheat Land that has come into the king’s hands, often through the failure of heirs or forfeiture.
escheator The royal official who administered land that had come into the king’s hands via an escheat or wardship. See wardship.
exchequer The central institution of royal government, usually sitting at Westminster, which exacted and audited the king’s annual revenue. See also pipe roll and Dialogus de Scaccario.
eyre A visitation of the king’s justices in the localities, hence ‘justices in eyre’. See also itinerant justices. A ‘general eyre’ is a term given by historians for a visitation in which panels of judges, empowered to hear ‘all pleas’ (so both criminal and civil) and investigate royal rights and local abuses, were sent through the whole country.
fair A large annual gathering for trade held at a fixed date each year, as opposed to a market, which was usually weekly. New markets and fairs needed to be licensed by the king.
faithful man In Magna Carta, a man who has sworn an oath of fealty, that is loyalty, to the king. All adult males, free and unfree, were obliged to take such an oath.
farm A fixed annual payment owed for a county, hundred, wapentake, town, manor, forest or other bailiwick. See county farm.
fee An estate that was held by knight service from the king or other lord. The fee of an earl or a baron comprised both his demesne manors and the lands held from him by his own tenants. It might equally be called his ‘barony’ or ‘honour’. A single knight’s fee was an estate for which the service of one knight was owed. See holding land from a lord,honour and knight service.
fee farm A form of land tenure in return for rent.
felony A serious crime.
fine An offer of money accepted by the king in return for a concession or favour. ‘Offer’ has the same meaning
fine roll A roll, one for each regnal year, on which the chancery recorded the fines made with the king. A copy was sent to the exchequer so that it knew what money to collect.
forest The royal forest was the area subject to the king’s forest law.
frankpledge The ‘frankpledge’ or ‘tithing’ was a group of adult males (so aged twelve and over), often ten or twelve strong, who were sworn to keep the king’s peace and guarantee the good conduct of their fellows. All adult males of unfree status south of the Humber were supposed to be in such groups. The ‘view of frankpledge’ was the inspection made by the sheriff or bailiff at the hundred or wapentake court to check that the unfree were in their groups. The financial exactions imposed at the view were very unpopular. Chapter 42 of the 1217 Charter (chapter 35 in the Charter of 1225) stipulated that the view should only be held once a year, at the Michaelmas tourn. Seetourn.
free man Any man who was not legally unfree. See villein.
free tenant A free man who held a free tenement.
free tenement Land held freely from a lord, so in return for knight service or rent, as opposed to being held by unfree services. See knight service and labour services.
given by the hand Words that appear at the end of royal charters and mean ‘authorized by’. The ‘giver’ was the person who had authorized the charter’s writing out (engrossment) and sealing.
Glanvill The short title for the great book on the laws and customs of England that explained the forms of the early common-law legal actions. It was probably written between 1187 and 1189. Although it goes by the name of Henry II’s chief justiciar, Ranulf de Glanvill, he is not thought to have been the author, although the work was probably produced in his legal circle.
grand assize A common-law legal action to determine the ultimate right to property. The verdict was given by twelve knights chosen by four of their fellows.
hauberget A type of cloth.
heriot A payment (usually of horses and military equipment) due to a lord on the death of one of his men.
holding land from a lord An individual who ‘held’ land from a lord was in possession of the land as the lord’s tenant, and owed him services according to the terms of the tenure. See knight service, tenant-in-chief and under-tenant.
homage The ceremony in which a new tenant by knight service became the man of his lord, creating a mutual bond of loyalty. See knight service.
honour A baron’s estate comprising both his demesne manors and the lands held from him by his tenants. See fee.
honorial court A court held by a baron or other lord for his tenants by knight service. It had jurisdiction over possession of the fees held by the tenants and over services owed the lord.
hundred An administrative subdivision of a county, with its own court that met fortnightly under Henry II. In some parts of the country, notably Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, the subdivisions were called wapentakes rather than hundreds. There were around 630 hundreds and wapentakes in the thirteenth century. A good proportion of them were in private hands and thus run by a lord, and his bailiffs rather than by the sheriff. See jury of presentment.
hundred jurors Twelve men, drawn from the leading free men of the hundred or wapentake, who sat on the jury of presentment that gave evidence to the justices in eyre. Similar juries also gave evidence before numerous other government inquiries. See jury of presentment.
increment A fixed annual payment made additional to a farm. In Magna Carta’s chapter 25 the increment is that owed by the sheriff over and above the ‘ancient’ farm of his county. See county farm.
itinerant justices Justices of the king on a visitation to hear pleas in the counties. The same as justices in eyre. See eyre.
jury of presentment A jury of twelve free men representing the hundred or wapentake, which came before the justices of the general eyre and answered a series of questions about crime and royal rights since the last visitation. In effect a jury of accusation when it came to those who had committed a crime. See eyre.
justices in eyre See eyre and itinerant justices.
justiciar See chief justiciar.
knight (i) Someone who has gone through a formal ceremony making him a knight by being girded with the sword of knighthood. The girding could be performed by the king or a great lord. Knighthood was not hereditary. (ii) Someone who, without necessarily having gone through the ceremony, is regarded and described as a knight for the purposes of sitting on juries and performing other judicial tasks. Kings, earls and barons were girded with the sword of knighthood. However, the very great majority of knights in both the above categories were men of lesser wealth and status, and were under-tenants, holding their land from earls and barons in return for knight service, although some were tenants-in-chief holding directly from the king. See knight service.
knight service A form of tenure in which a tenant does homage to his lord for the land he holds from him and has to provide in return the service of a number of knights. The lord also expects counsel, money payments in the form relief and aid, and has rights over wardships and the marriages of heirs and widows. Tenants-in-chief – earls, barons and knights – held from the king by knight service and thus had the obligation to provide knights for the king’s army. Knightly under-tenants had an obligation to provide knights for their overlords when the king summoned an army, and also, more arguably, when their overlords were in rebellion. In practice, however, such military obligations were often discharged by a money payment. See scutage. For the lord, it was often his right to relief, and his control over wardships and marriages, that were the most valued aspects of tenure by knight service. See aid, relief and wardship.
labour services The services owed by an unfree peasant to his lord in return for his land. They involved providing agricultural labour to the lord, often on a weekly basis. The obligation to perform such services was itself a proof of unfreedom. See also merchet.
lay fee Land that owes secular services, so knight service or rent.
letters close Letters of the king, issued by the chancery, and closed by being folded and tied up, with a dab of wax from the seal across the fold. The usual vehicle for administrative orders. Recorded by the chancery on the close rolls. See also chancery and writ.
letters patent Letters of the king, issued by the chancery, that were left open or ‘patent’ with the seal hanging down beneath. Used for proclamations and the making of appointments. Recorded by the chancery on the patent rolls.
liberty (i) A privilege conferred by the king. (ii) An exempt area of jurisdiction such as a private hundred. See hundred.
liberty of elections The church’s right freely to elect bishops and heads of religious houses.
magnate A general term for great lord.
March of Wales The border area between England and Wales proper.
mark A term of financial account: two thirds of a pound; 160 pennies.
marriage portion In Latin maritagium. The property assigned to a woman by her natal family on her marriage. It was controlled by the husband during marriage. After the wife’s death it would usually pass to her heir, although this would depend on the terms of the initial gift.
merchet A payment made by an unfree peasant to his lord for permission to give his daughter in marriage. The making of such a payment was evidence of unfreedom.
mort d’ancestor A common-law legal action, or ‘assize’, by which free tenants could obtain their inheritances on the death of ancestors of whom they are the heirs. The verdict was given by a jury of twelve free men from the neighbourhood of the property in dispute. See recognition.
murdrum fine A fine paid by local communities when they could not prove the villein status of someone dead by other than natural causes.
novel disseisin A common-law legal action, or ‘assize’, by which free tenants could recover property of which they had recently been disseised (dispossessed) unjustly and without judgement. The verdict was given by a jury of twelve free men from the neighbourhood of the property in dispute. See recognition.
offer See fine.
ordinary An ecclesiastical official. The deputy of a bishop or a bishop himself.
peers Social equals.
penny The silver penny (in Latin ‘denarius’) was the only coin in circulation. There were 12 in a shilling, 160 in a mark and 240 in a pound.
pilgrimage In Magna Carta ‘pilgrimage’ means ‘crusade’. There was no word for ‘crusade’ as such. However, those who had taken the cross were described as ‘crucesignati’, meaning ‘men signed by the cross’.
pipe roll The annual roll on which the exchequer recorded its annual audit of the revenue due the crown. It was organized in county sections.
pleas of the crown Serious crimes that only the king can try and punish. They comprised treason, homicide, affray, premeditated assault, burglary, rape, serious theft and arson.
pound A term of financial account; 240 pennies in a pound; 20 shillings in a pound. A mark is a two thirds of a pound.
precipe See writ of precipe.
prise The king’s right to take goods by compulsory purchase. Payment might in fact be delayed, if made at all. Also called ‘purveyance’.
profit The term for the variable revenue accounted for each year at the exchequer by a sheriff over and above the county farm and any increment. A sheriff responsible for ‘profit’ was described as a ‘custodian’, and was in effect accounting for all the revenue he received. See county farm and increment.
purpresture An encroachment on an area subject to royal forest law by the making of an enclosure, erecting a building, or doing any other work. A punishable offence.
purveyance See prise.
put to law To subject a person to a legal procedure leading to trial, and also the procedures of the trial itself.
quarter A measure of capacity, sometimes the equivalent of 36 litres.
recognition A common legal action, or assize, like those mentioned in Magna Carta’s chapter 18, culminating in a verdict given by a jury from the neighbourhood of the property in dispute. The men of the jury are ‘recognitors’.
relief A payment made by a tenant-in-chief to the king or by an under-tenant, holding by knight service, to a tenant-in-chief in order to gain possession of his landed inheritance.
riding A local government division in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.
russet A type of cloth.
scutage A money payment owed by a tenant-in-chief in place of sending his quota of knights to the king, assessed on the number of knights he owed. A tenant-in-chief would endeavour to recoup the scutage he owed the king from his own tenants by knight service.
seisin Possession, usually of land. To put someone ‘in seisin’ is to put them in possession.
serjeant A professional soldier or militarily active landholder below the rank of knight; later sometimes synonymous with ‘esquire’.
serjeanty A form of tenure in return for performing duties to the king (such as providing a serjeant for his army) or giving him objects. The objects, in the example of a ‘small serjeanty’ given in chapter 37 of Magna Carta, are knives and arrows.
sheriff The king’s chief local government agent; in charge of a county; appointed and dismissed by the king.
shilling A term of financial account. There were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound.
socage A form of free tenure in return for rent. The lord had no rights of wardship over land held in socage. See wardship.
sokeman A peasant who holds his land largely or exclusively in return for a money rent. If he owes labour services, they are relatively light. Many but far from all sokemen were considered free men.
statute book An unofficial collection of legislation and legal texts, common from the second half of the thirteenth century.
surety A person who guarantees the payment of a debt owed by another person.
take the cross The act of undertaking to go on a crusade.
tallage A tax levied at the king’s pleasure on his towns and demesne manors. See demesne manor.
tenant-in-chief A tenant who holds his land directly, so ‘in chief’, from the king in return for knight service. He might be an earl, a baron or a knight. See knight service.
tenement A land-holding.
tithing See frankpledge.
tourn A session of the hundred or wapentake court at which the fullest possible attendance was demanded by the sheriff or bailiff. The tourn was limited to sessions at Easter and Michaelmas by chapter 42 of the 1217 Charter (chapter 35 in the 1225 Charter). See also frankpledge.
under-tenant A tenant who holds his land from a tenant-in-chief as opposed to the king. An under-tenant could hold by rent or by knight service. Tenants could also hold land from under-tenants, thus creating a chain of tenure. See knight service and tenant-in-chief.
vacant abbey The state of an abbey between the death of one abbot and the appointment of another. During this period the king was entitled to the revenues of the abbot. He was also entitled to the revenues of a bishopric during the equivalent interval.
view of frankpledge See frankpledge.
vill A village or small town.
villein A peasant who was legally unfree. Land held in villeinage was land for which customs and services characteristic of unfree tenure were owed. See labour services and merchet.
virgate An area of land, often between 24 and 30 acres, but could be smaller.
wainage (i) In Magna Carta’s chapter 20 a villein’s means of livelihood, so his crops under cultivation (tillage), seed corn, ploughs and plough teams. (ii) In chapter 5 (a) the same items as above but this time belonging to the person in wardship, and (b) the time of the agricultural season.
wapentake The subdivision of a county, equivalent to a hundred, found in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. See hundred.
wardrobe The wardrobe, which travelled with the king, was where he stored goods, cash and precious objects. The chamber often stored the money it received in the wardrobe. See chamber.
wardship When a tenant-in-chief died, the king had the custody, or wardship, of his estate during the minority of the heir. He also had the right to marry off the heir. A tenant-in-chief had the same rights of wardship and marriage over his own tenants by knight service. See knight service.
warrant The king’s obligation to warrant land held by another, referred to in chapters 52 and 57 of Magna Carta, meant his obligation to defend the holder’s right to the land in any lawsuit. It arose because the land was held by grant of the king.
warrens Areas where the hunting of foxes and hares was forbidden, so not just the deer and boar protected by royal forest law.
waste The felling of trees and other destruction in areas subject to royal forest law. A punishable offence.
writ In its form a writ was a letter close. The term ‘writ’ was used to describe letters close that dealt with matters connected with the judicial process. See letters close.
writ ‘of course’ A standard form writ automatically available at small cost (probably 6d) to initiate common-law legal actions such as the grand assize, novel disseisin and mort d’ancestor. See grand assize, mort d’ancestor and novel disseisin.
writ of inquisition concerning life or limbs A writ securing a trial by jury for someone accused of a crime for which the penalty might be loss of life or limbs.
writ of liberate In this case not a letter close connected with the law, but one addressed to the exchequer ordering it to disburse money.
writ of precipe ‘Precipe’ means ‘command’. The writ, referred to in chapter 34 of Magna Carta, commanded the restoration of land on pain of the case being transferred to the king’s court.