Post-classical history

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Magna Carta and the Structure of Royal Government

On his accession in 1199, John declared that he had come to ‘the rule of the kingdom of England’ ‘by hereditary right, divine mercy, and the unanimous consent and favour of the clergy and people’.1 All three sources of authority were reflected in the Charter. Chapters 52, 53 and 57 mentioned both of John’s immediate predecessors, his father, King Henry II, and his brother King Richard, from whom he had inherited the throne. The Charter also looked to the future, for it was granted by John for himself and his heirs in perpetuity. Heirs, moreover, direct heirs, John had – hence the way the security clause exempted his queen and children from any kind of personal attack. John had named his sons Henry and Richard, thus linking together the dynastic past with its hoped-for future. In his last illness, in 1216, John begged the pope’s help in securing what he called ‘the perpetual hereditary succession’ of his dynasty.2

John was not fantasizing when he claimed ‘the unanimous consent and favour of the clergy and people’ at his accession. He was referring to the moment in the coronation ceremony when, asked whether they wanted him to rule, the assembled throng had shouted their assent. It was these acclamations at William the Conqueror’s coronation in 1066 that had led his Norman soldiers, outside Westminster abbey, to think a coup was taking place.3 John was happy to proclaim this popular assent in 1199. In Magna Carta it was turned against him, not on the issue of succession to the throne, although that was to come, but over taxation that was only to be levied by ‘the common counsel of the kingdom’.

The ‘divine mercy’ that made John king was proclaimed in the Charter, both in his titles at the start and on his seal: he was king ‘by the grace of God’. It was that status which had at least something to do with the immunity from personal attack allowed him in the security clause. John had become king by God’s grace at the coronation when, shorn of his royal robes and dressed only in a silk tunic and open shirt, he was consecrated with holy oil by the archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter.4 This, more than the actual crowning, was the spiritual climax of the ceremony, hence the service was called the king’s consecration as much as his coronation. The anointing was biblical in origin, as the service showed in its references to Samuel’s anointing of King David. It did not give the king any priestly qualities. That was made very clear in a long discussion on the subject written later in the century by Robert Grosseteste, a contemporary of John, and the greatest scholar of his age. But what the anointing did do, as Grosseteste went on to say, was to pour into the king all the blessings of the Holy Spirit.5 Truly, the anointing made John king by the grace of God.

The traditional coronation oath indicated what was expected of the king. Before the anointing and crowning, in what was very much a pact with his people, John had sworn ‘that all the days of his life he would give peace and honour and reverence to God and holy church and its ordinances; that he would exercise right, justice and equity to the people committed to him; and that he would abolish evil laws and perverse customs; and he would make good laws and keep them without fraud and evil intent’.6 John would not have quibbled with this view of his task, although he might have questioned what were good and bad laws and customs. The ‘exaltation of holy church’ (as the Charter put it), the maintenance of peace, the dispensation of justice, the protection of everyone’s rights – these had always been integral to kingship. John would also have added another central thrust to his duties, indeed he may have taken an oath to that effect at his coronation. This was to preserve and recover the rights of the crown.7 That imperative, given that he would lose so much of his right with the fall of Normandy and Anjou, overshadowed the reign.

John, then, was king ‘by the grace of God’. In general terms, his duties were clear. Yet there was no way he could carry them out without an effective administrative structure. Such a structure he certainly possessed. Indeed, it was arguably the most impressive at that time in Europe.


At the heart of government was the king himself and his surrounding court. When John, in chapter 17 of the Charter, conceded that ‘common pleas’ were not to ‘follow’ his ‘court’ but were to be heard in a fixed place, he meant ‘court’ as formed by the whole body of counsellors, ministers, knights, clerks and domestic servants who were with him. The court was, as the chapter implied, itinerant. Indeed, John’s breakneck itinerary (examined in the next chapter) was a vital feature of his rule. The court was also large, probably never less than several hundred strong. Walter Map, one of Henry II’s clerks, spoke indeed of many thousands being there. Map noted that the personnel of the court was constantly changing, so that if he returned after a period of absence he could feel a stranger. Yet in structure it remained the same. ‘It is a hundred-handed giant, who if he be all maimed, is yet all the same, and still hundred-handed; a hydra of many heads.’8 The court embraced another body, known as the king’s ‘household’ (in Latin ‘domus’ or ‘familia’), to which knights, clerks and domestic servants belonged. It also had within it a series of defined offices, each integral to John’s rule. These were the chancery, the chamber with the wardrobe, and the departments that supplied the household’s food and drink.9


English royal government was driven by documents. It was through them that John conferred patronage, made proclamations, spent money, dispensed justice, and generally issued the orders on which his rule depended. From the court, there were always messengers setting out for near and far, with documents of different types and purposes directed to bishops, abbots, earls, barons, knights, sheriffs, justices, exchequer officials and so on. The court was like a beacon shooting out its rays in all directions, sparking the targets into life. The men at court who wrote the king’s documents were clerks. Their head was the chancellor, a position that dated back to before the Norman Conquest. The great seal, authenticating the documents the chancery issued, and worked by its own keeper, was likewise under the chancellor’s authority. Not all chancellors performed their duties in person. In 1215, however, the chancellor, Richard Marsh, was very much hands on. He was soon to combine the post (a usual career move) with a bishopric, in his case Durham. Most of the charters during his period of office ended with the statement that they had been ‘given by the hand of Richard Marsh our chancellor’. Magna Carta, however, was given instead by the hand of King John, testimony to its importance and the barons’ desire to pin him to it.10

The body to which the writing clerks belonged was called ‘the chancery’, although the term only came into use gradually in the twelfth century.11 How many clerks there were both over the reign as a whole and at any one time is impossible to say. The Magna Carta Project, in bringing together and distinguishing the hands of the original charters and letters of King John, will establish some minimum figures, but only minimums, for very few of the numerous less formal letters have survived. Three different hands, typical of the chancery, were responsible for three of the four originals of the Charter, and there seem at least another four hands at work in 1215, so that provides a minimum establishment of around half a dozen. But almost certainly the number of clerks was much larger than that.12 There were occasions when John’s speed of movement meant he was separated from the chancery staff, or at least from the staff with the seal, and used his ‘small seal’ or ‘privy seal’ – ‘parvum sigillum’, ‘privatum sigillum’ – to authenticate documents instead. This was the case during his dramatic dash to Bury St Edmunds in 1214, and in the days before his arrival at Runnymede in the following year.13 The chancery, however, seems in general to have followed the king’s itinerary. It had not gone out of court and become established at Westminster, as was to happen in the following century.

By John’s reign the types of documents issued by the chancery had achieved a set form. All had one cardinal feature in common, namely a final clause that indicated when and where the king or a minister had authorized their issue. In terms of hierarchy, at the topof the scale were the charters in which John made solemn and significant grants of land or rights, usually in perpetuity. Magna Carta is the grandest of these, although it differs from most charters both in being given by the hand of the king rather than the chancellor or a chancery official, and by listing the men on whose counsel the king had acted at the start, rather than having them as witnesses at the end.

Next down in importance were letters patent. These, like charters, had the seal hanging down from the bottom of the document, attached by a tag or (more rarely than in charters) a silken thread, and were thus open or ‘patent’ rather than being closed up by the sealing. They might be addressed, like charters, to everyone in the realm, although as befitted a less solemn document, the litany of archbishops, bishops, earls and barons might be omitted. They could also be addressed to individuals, or to groups such as the men of a county. Letters patent differed from charters in other ways. They lacked both the ‘given by the hand’ clause and a list of witnesses, being normally witnessed simply by the king or an individual minister. Letters patent were used to issue proclamations, make appointments, and also give important orders of a public nature. It may have been by letters patent that the greater barons were to be summoned to the assembly mentioned in chapter 14 of the Charter, although it could equally have been by letters close.

Letters close were the final type of document issued by the chancery. Like letters patent they ended by simply being witnessed by the king or a minister, but they differed in being ‘closed’. This meant that they were folded and tied up with a strip of parchment cut from the bottom, and the seal, or what was usually just a dab from it, was placed across the tie. These letters were the administrative maids of all work and were addressed in great numbers to the king’s agents, telling them to do this and that. Also in the form of letters close were the ‘writs’ (in Latin ‘breves’), which initiated legal actions. These had to be obtained by litigants from the chancery. Two of them featured in the Charter, the writ of ‘precipe’ in chapter 34, and the writ for an inquiry into matters ‘concerning life or limbs’ in chapter 36. It was likewise writs in the same form, issued in great numbers, that initiated the common-law assizes mentioned in chapter 18 of the Charter.

The production of these documents did not end the labours of the chancery clerks. Surviving from John’s reign are a series of rolls on which they recorded the charters, letters patent and letters close that they were issuing, with new sets of rolls being begun at the start of each new regnal year.14 John’s reign began with his coronation on Ascension Day 1199, and since Ascension Day varies in date according to the date of Easter, he was actually the only king in English history who had regnal years of unequal lengths. Some of the rolls have wonderful headings in large capital letters proclaiming their identity. Given the small proportion of original charters and letters that survive, it is from the copies on the rolls that we can appreciate the scale of chancery output, and through the dating clauses trace John’s itinerary often on a daily basis. In the close rolls alone for the period May 1204 to May 1205 (which John spent entirely in England), around 940 writs and other items of business are recorded. This, moreover, was only a fraction of the letters close that were issued, for the standardized writs initiating the common-law assizes were never enrolled. In June 1215 itself, Magna Carta was not enrolled. John had no desire to record a document extracted from him by force. But the chancery rolls do record five other charters, 135 letters close and over 150 letters patent. In the previous month a special keeper of the rolls had been appointed, one William Cucuel, a nickname that may refer to his cuckoo-like speech or behaviour. Was it on John’s instructions that a few weeks later the clerk writing the patent roll included the little greeting ‘I salute you William Kukke Wel’?15


Alongside the chancery, the most important office with the king was his chamber. The chancery sent out the king’s letters, the chamber received and sent out his money. Both were vital for the operation of royal government. The chancery letters communicated the king’s orders. The chamber money supplied the force behind them.

In origin the chamber was simply the room where the king slept. One of its men was ‘the porter of the king’s bed’.16 Its head, the chamberlain, could be a layman. Hubert de Burgh, named at the start of Magna Carta as ‘seneschal of Poitou’, had held the post earlier in the reign. Later, the most senior chamber clerk, before he went on to be chancellor, was Richard Marsh. What he and his fellows did was to receive, store and spend the money that the king carried with him. This money could come from the exchequer (of which more soon), from local officials, from individual debtors and from the great stores of cash that John assembled in castle treasuries. At Easter 1213, 8,000 marks were received from the treasury at Salisbury.17 It seems probable that the chamber officials often stored their money not in the chamber itself but in the king’s ‘wardrobe’, which also contained his jewels, clothes, and general bag and baggage. At major royal castles and houses, chamber and wardrobe may have had set rooms; elsewhere they used whatever space was offered. With overlapping personnel, there was often not much distinction between them.18

No written authorization seems to have been needed for expenditure out of the chamber-wardrobe. It must have been agreed to orally by the king, which shows his closeness to the officials concerned. However, the clerks did keep a detailed record of the daily expenditure, and this gives a remarkable insight into the range and extent of their activities.19 In the regnal year May 1209 to May 1210, the money going out (sometimes just transfers into castle treasuries) was all carefully added up and amounted to around £8,000, which would have been a third of the king’s total income at the start of the reign.20 This, moreover, does not include the amounts spent on food and drink, which was probably the same again. Later in 1210, the chamber-wardrobe financed John’s army in Ireland, and totalled its expenditure at over £11,400.21 In the year May 1212 to May 1213, it supplied 10,000 marks to John’s ally, Otto, the Roman emperor, and gave money to Flemish knights, sailors of the fleet at Portsmouth, and serjeants and foot soldiers going to the war in Wales. Money also went for work on castles, notably at Corfe, Dover and Nottingham, and on a plethora of gifts and payments to envoys and messengers, one of the latter bringing six amputated heads of Welshmen to the king at Rochester. There was also a great deal of expenditure on things personal to the king: on his gloves, furs, boots, robes (including a dressing gown and a nightgown), jewels, swords, bleeding, baths, urinals and gambling debts.


John was famous for his lavish hospitality, and the offices that obtained and prepared the food and drink must often have been hard at work. Of these, the most important were the kitchen, which cooked the meat; the dispensary, which baked the bread; and the buttery, which supplied the drink, ale for the general run of servants, wine for the king and his courtiers and guests. Later, when records survive under John’s son, Henry III, they show that the cost to the departments of acquiring, by either cash or credit, the food and drink served could average out at between £15 and £20 a day, the minimum annual income required to be a knight. On a great feast day, the cost could be over £200, the annual income of a wealthy baron. At the very least, John must have equalled these sums.22They understate, moreover, the total value of the daily servings, since much of the wine was acquired by special buyers at Southampton and Bristol, while supplies also came from the king’s own manors and huntsmen, and from the purchases made by local officials. For John’s Christmas at Windsor in 1213, the sheriff of Kent, Reginald of Cornhill, was to provide twenty tuns of good and new ordinary wine, both French and Gascon (a tun held 252 gallons), four tuns of best wine, red and white, for the king’s own table; 200 pigs’ heads, with all the pickled pork, 1,000 hens, 50 pounds of pepper, 2 pounds of saffron, 100 pounds of good fresh almonds and 15,000 herrings; as well as spices for making sauces, two dozen towels and 1,000 ells of linen for tablecloths. Other officials were to provide 200 more pigs’ heads, 15,000 more hens, 10,000 salted eels, and all the pitchers, cups and dishes needed for the feasts.23 All of this was over and above what was paid for by the food and drink departments themselves.

The money to pay for the departmental purchases came from the chamber-wardrobe, but it did not necessarily come at once. Instead, the departments could exploit the king’s right of ‘prise’, or ‘purveyance’, namely his right of compulsory purchase on a promise of paying later. In the case of wine, indeed, the king was allowed to take a certain amount from each ship at special low rates. Under Henry III, the departments, and the purchasers of wine, ran up great debts.24 John may here have had a cleaner record. The issue of purveyance does occur in Magna Carta. Under chapter 28 the king’s constables and bailiffs were not to take anyone’s corn or other chattels unless they paid for them immediately or were able to get a delay with the consent of the vendor. This chapter, however, seems to relate to the activities of constables of castles and local officials, rather than to the officials of the household. Given that John was cash rich, he may have more or less paid his way. That was just as well. His near permanent presence in England after 1204, compared with his brother Richard’s almost total absence, had the potential to make purveyance for the royal household a very major issue. At least this was one bad box John did not tick.


The clerks of the king’s chapel performed the king’s daily Mass, although there is no evidence John took much delight, unlike Richard, in their singing. On great ecclesiastical festivals, the clerks also sang, as they had under John’s predecessors, the ceremonial hymns, beginning ‘Christus vincit’, which cried out for Christ and the saints to bring the king victory and salvation. They had to work less hard than under John’s son, Henry III, who multiplied the occasions on which the hymns were sung many times over.25There is equally little sign in the records of the lavish expenditure on vestments, chalices and other liturgical artefacts so characteristic of Henry. John did, however, have a relic collection, housed in coffers, around which he would sometimes order that candles burn through the night.26 John’s almoner (in 1209–10 the abbot of Bindon in Dorset) was a busy man, for he distributed John’s daily alms of 36 pence (enough to feed that number of paupers), and also fed the hundreds of paupers as atonement when John, among other things, ate heartily on fast days.27


Carts, carts, carts. The cost of hiring them, repairing them and feeding the horses to pull them runs through the records of the chamber-wardrobe. Carts were, of course, essential for transporting the whole bag and baggage of a household which hardly remained anywhere for more than a few days.28 In 1212 it took ten or more carters and twenty-five horses to pull the long carts holding John’s bed and all the money, clothes and jewels of his wardrobe. Another ten carters with eighteen carthorses were needed for the kitchen, pantry and buttery. The stable establishment that looked after the carthorses and the elegant palfreys, on which the king and his entourage rode, was thus a major element of the household. The number of ‘stable boys’, as they are called, could rise to over seventy, and the number of horses being fed to nearly a hundred.29 These numbers, moreover, exclude the horses and carts of the chancery staff, which seem to have been funded from the chancellor’s own revenues. If John’s household largely paid its way when it came to hiring carts, that was hardly true of his local officials. Chapter 30 of Magna Carta forbad sheriffs and bailiffs from taking the horses and carts of any free man without his consent. The new version of the Charter of 1216 went further and said that payment should be according to the ‘ancient’ rates: 10 pence a day for a cart with two horses and 14 pence for a cart with three.


The head of the king’s household was the steward, and there was usually more than one in office at any one time. They were men of knightly status who, like John’s steward William de Cantilupe, built up estates of baronial proportions. They played a major, although varying, role in securing the king’s food and drink.30 They were also at the head of the king’s household knights.

The knights ‘de familia regis’, as they were called, seem to have numbered at any one time around a hundred, although they were far from being all at court at any one time.31 They gave kingship its punch, forming the posses when John wished, in the words of the Charter, to ‘go against’ someone and vent his ‘ill will, indignation and rancour’. When John heard that the great baron Robert fitzWalter was laying siege to Binham priory in Norfolk, he despatched at once a group of household knights and armed serjeants to arrest him. They were very disappointed to discover that he had fled.32 Some knights remained mere military heavies, but others, such as John of Bassingbourn, with more ambition and ability, became counsellors, diplomats, sheriffs and castellans. Having taken a special oath of loyalty to the king, which included the obligation to report anything said against him, they acted as his eyes and ears. At court, they were the men John liked most to be with and whom he could rely on for support.33 Several of the counsellors named at thestart of Magna Carta were or had been household knights – the Basset brothers, for example, and Robert of Ropsley. Thomas Basset combined his position at court with a long spell as sheriff of Oxfordshire. With his brother Alan, he was to lead a decisive charge at the battle of Lincoln in 1217.


Only one minister was superior to the chancellor. This was the chief justiciar.34 The post appears in four chapters of the Charter and is mentioned on no fewer than seven occasions. In chapter 18 it is the king, or if he is out of the kingdom, ‘our chief justiciar’ who is to send judges round the country to hear the assizes. In chapter 41 king or chief justiciar are to learn how English merchants are treated abroad. In chapter 48 the ‘justiciar’ (the ‘chief’ was often omitted) in the king’s absence is to be informed before the knights abolish the evil customs in the counties. And then, in the security clause, it is the justiciar, if the king is abroad, who is to redress breaches of the Charter. These chapters give a clear idea of the justiciar’s role. It was to act as governor of the kingdom during the king’s absences. On such occasions, it was normal for the king to address his orders to the justiciar alone rather than direct to officials in England. The justiciar then issued his own letters, sealed with his own seal, passing the orders on. He could also issue letters, dealing with a wide variety of issues, on his own initiative. The justiciar went on his own journeys around the country and also presided at the exchequer, of which he was the head. When the king was in the country, as John was for the most part after 1204, the justiciar’s role was more circumscribed, but he continued to act as the king’s chief minister, sometimes at court, sometimes at the exchequer.


There is no evidence that John ever had a formal council of ministers, with a defined membership, bound together with a special oath. That would have been contrary to his whole style of government, in which he took advice, as it suited him, from shifting and shifted groups of ministers and magnates. The personnel of those at court, as Walter Map recognized, was constantly changing. Ministers retired or fell from favour, left court on embassies or, in times of tension, took personal command of castles and sheriffdoms. At the same time, people were coming to court in search of concessions and favours. Those simply wanting the writs that initiated and furthered common-law litigation could get these from the chancery without involving the king at all. Those wanting something more, to buy a wardship, for example, or recover the king’s benevolence, would need to get through to the king in person. This was where the courtiers proved their worth and made their profit. Very few coming to court in disfavour had the courage and confidence of Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, who brushed aside William Marshal’s warnings and offers of mediation, and insisted on going straight into King Richard’s presence, where he seized his cloak and shook him into a good humour. In 1215 the prospective abbot of Bury St Edmunds had the justiciar, Peter des Roches, make his case. Des Roches failed (perhaps not trying very hard), but still pocketed his bribe.35

At its fullest, the king could bring together at court the great and good of the land in a formal assembly. Here the court expanded like a great bellows before contracting when the council was over. Magna Carta referred to a national assembly in chapters 12 and 14, when it said that taxes were not to be levied save by the ‘commune consilium’ of the kingdom. The Charter here was slightly ambiguous as to whether it was referring to an assembly itself, ‘the common council of the kingdom’, or to what such an assembly could do, namely give the kingdom’s ‘common counsel’, the Latin ‘consilium’ being capable of either meaning. Probably it meant the latter, hence my translation, like most others, has here ‘counsel’ rather than ‘council’. But it was really a distinction without a difference. Those summoned to give the ‘common counsel’ of the kingdom in chapter 14 became once assembled the kingdom’s ‘common council’. Great assemblies of the kingdom had long been described as ‘councils’, ‘general councils’ and ‘great councils’. In the second half of the twelfth century they were occasionally called ‘parliaments’, the name that was to become established in the reign of Henry III. The Anonymous of Béthune, writing in French (from which the word came) had the opponents of King John in 1214–15 coming together in ‘a parlement’ and agreeing to a ‘parlement’ with John at Staines. In 1244 a chancery clerk, looking back to 1215, wrote of ‘the parliament of Runnymede’. It had long been traditional to summon the king’s tenants-in-chief to such assemblies, with the greater barons receiving a personal summons. Chapter 14 of the Charter was thus trying to solidify what was customary, although the custom, as we have seen, was fast moving out of line with social reality.36


So far we have been talking about institutions of government that for the most part travelled with the king. The greatest office of all, however, was mostly resident at Westminster, meeting probably (as it did later) in chambers either side of the entrance to William Rufus’s great hall. This office was the exchequer. The exchequer is Magna Carta’s elephant in the room. It is not mentioned in the Articles of the Barons, the 1215 Charter or its successors. Yet its presence hangs over all the Charter’s financial clauses. Although the itinerant chamber-wardrobe spent a good proportion of the king’s revenues, it did not raise the revenue itself. That was the job of the exchequer. So was the annual auditing and hearing the accounts of all the money owed the king. The exchequer sent a large proportion of the money that it raised to the chamber-wardrobe, but it could also spend it in other ways on the king’s orders, as well as store it in its central treasury, or send it to one of the treasuries John established in castles around the country. With its precise procedures, voluminous records and utter determination to raise the money due the king, the exchequer was far and away the mightiest instrument of government that John possessed.

The first certain reference to the exchequer is in 1110. The name derived from the chequered cloth on which the annual audit of the debts owed the king took place. The results of the annual audit, county by county, were recorded on a great document later called the pipe roll, because rolled up it looked like a pipe. The first surviving roll belongs to the financial year 1129–1130.37 The head of the exchequer was the chief justiciar, while beneath him, often in day-to-day charge, was the treasurer of the exchequer. It was the treasurer Richard fitzNigel who wrote the Dialogus de Scaccario in the reign of Henry II.38

While Magna Carta says nothing about the exchequer, it gives a very full impression of the revenues that it had to collect. The most traditional and staple of these came from the county ‘farms’, which the Charter sought to regulate in chapter 25. The county farmwas a fixed sum of money (usually several hundred pounds) for which the sheriff of the county answered at the exchequer every year. To make up the farm he could draw on the revenues from the king’s own lands in the county, the ‘demesne manors’, that is, which are also referred to in the chapter. The farm, too, came from a range of traditional payments, such as ‘sheriff’s aid’, and from the proceeds of pleas and exactions in the county and hundred courts. The exactions in the hundred courts were regulated in chapter 42 of the 1217 Charter. The county farm could also be derived, from the individual farms of its component local government divisions, namely ‘the hundreds, ridings and wapentakes’ mentioned in chapter 25 if, that is, they were leased out.

The aim of chapter 25 was to prevent the king increasing the county farms and the subsidiary farms of hundred, riding and wapentake. It excepted, however, from the restriction the king’s demesne manors. Some of these contributed directly to the county farm, and so that element of it could still be increased. By 1199, many other demesne manors, after appropriate deductions, had been removed from the farm and were accounted for separately by the sheriff or another keeper. Also accounted for separately, often by their men, and forming another staple part of the king’s income, were the farms due from the king’s cities and boroughs. That neither these nor the farms due from the king’s demesne manors were restricted in Magna Carta was partly at least due to an acceptance that the king’s own personal properties were a matter for him, in a way other revenues were not. The Charter likewise said nothing about tallage, which was a tax levied at the king’s pleasure on his cities, boroughs and demesne manors. The Articles of the Barons in chapter 32 had mentioned tallages, but their attempt to have those levied on London and other privileged cities made dependent on the common consent of the kingdom never made it into the Charter itself.39

Another part of the king’s private demesne was the royal forest. In the large areas of the country within the royal forest, and thus subject to forest law, this meant that amercements could be imposed for poaching or hunting deer and boar. They could also be imposed for damaging the actual growth of the forest through the ‘purpresture, waste and assart’ mentioned in chapter 4 of the Forest Charter of 1217. Purpresture was putting up buildings and enclosures; waste was cutting down trees; and assart was clearance for the creation of new arable land. The king asserted that these amercements, because of the special status of the forest, were entirely a matter for him, and were not subject to the usual customary constraints. Hence the Dialogus de Scaccario stressed that the law of the forest, in contrast ‘to the common law [communi iure] of the kingdom’, depended on the arbitrary will of the king alone: ‘solius regis arbitrio’.40 The Charter did not deal explicitly with forest amercements, but they were presumably covered by the amercements regulated in chapters 20–22.

Equally part of the king’s ‘own’ were the Jews, whom he could tallage as he wished. There was not even a suggestion in 1215 that these tallages, unlike the ones imposed on London and other towns, should be made subject to the common consent of the kingdom, although in fact such tallages pressed down indirectly on all who owed the Jews money. After all, the only way the Jews could pay the taxes was to get money in from their debtors. The king could also find many reasons for taking the assets of Jews, which were essentially the debts that were owed them, into his own hands. As a result, the debtors ended up owing their money to the crown. Chapter 10 of the Charter sought, in that case, to reduce the king’s potential profit. He was only allowed to exact the original debt, rather than the debt plus interest.

The Charter gives a full picture of the revenues derived from the tenurial relationship between the king and his tenants-in-chief, the ‘feudal’ revenues, if one likes, derived from relief, wardships, the sale of marriages and impositions on widows, all of which were the concern of chapters 2 to 8. This same relationship brought the king profit from the church, since, after the death of bishops and abbots, he had custody of the lands that they held from the crown until a new appointment was made. Magna Carta said nothing about this directly. However, the duration of such vacancies would have been limited by John’s earlier charter promising free and speedy elections of bishops and abbots, which Magna Carta confirmed in chapter 1. The 1216 Charter, however, extended to ecclesiastical vacancies the same protections from exploitation that Magna Carta gave to secular wardships.

Chapters 12 and 14 of the Charter revealed the king’s income from scutages and aids, although these could be very different things. Scutage, as we have seen, was paid by tenants-in-chief in place of providing the king with military service. An aid could likewise be a payment owed by the tenant-in-chief to the king as part of his tenurial obligations. The Charter tried to limit the occasions it was due to the ransoming of the king’s person, the knighting of his eldest son and the marrying once of his eldest daughter. Aids, however, could also be general taxes paid by everyone in the realm, and these, levied as a percentage of everyone’s rents and movable property (chiefly corn and farm animals), could bring in sums incomparably greater than anything in the form of scutage. Before 1215, there was already a feeling that such aids required the consent of the kingdom. Indeed, when levying his great aid of 1207, John claimed, however spuriously, that consent had been given.41

The profits of justice had long made a major contribution to royal revenue and on these the Charter was eloquent. Chapters 20 to 22 dealt with amercements, the financial penalties for falling into the king’s ‘mercy’, as the result of being convicted of some offence, either before the king’s judges or the king himself. Chapter 32 showed that the king was entitled to hold for a year and a day the lands of those convicted of felonies (serious crimes). Although this was not mentioned in the Charter, he was also entitled to the chattels of outlawed and executed criminals. Chapter 36 showed the payments that might have to be made for writs. Chapter 40 issued its famous blanket ban on the sale of justice.

One of the most lucrative sources of royal revenue were ‘fines’, which the Charter dealt with in chapter 55. These were offers of money accepted by the king for concessions and favours, and could be made in many of the areas mentioned above. On the one hand, they could be entirely voluntary, so for a wardship, or for a writ to start a legal action. On the other hand, they could be pretty much compulsory, as when they were made to obtain the king’s forgiveness and benevolence. The Articles of the Barons had sought to redress unjust fines made for dowers, inheritances and marriages. The Charter went further and demanded redress of all unjust fines without any qualification.

These revenues were not, of course, of equal incidence or value. The county ‘farms’ came in every year, and were an absolute staple. Other revenues were more occasional; those from ecclesiastical vacancies and wardships depended on death; those from judicial and forest amercements depended very largely on the periodic visitations of the king’s judges. Great taxes, on the kingdom itself, or on the Jews, could transform the king’s finances but they could not be levied very often. In the financial year covering John’s accession (so that from Michaelmas 1198 to Michaelmas 1199), the king’s cash revenue, as calculated by Nick Barratt from the pipe roll, was some £22,183. This breaks down as follows: county farms 14.6 per cent; royal demesne manors outside the farm, and farms of cities and boroughs, 11.6 per cent; judicial revenues 29.5 per cent; feudal revenues (payments for reliefs, marriages and wardships) 10.9 per cent; scutage 10.7 per cent; tallage 10.9 per cent; forest 5.4 per cent; Jews 2.3 per cent. These are not untypical figures for early in the reign, although there was no revenue from ecclesiastical vacancies. In 1200–1201 that was worth £1,165 and in the next year £1,582. Later in the reign, large sums were raised from general taxation and taxation on the Jews, while there were also increasing revenues from the royal forest.42

The exchequer’s work of raising the king’s money began every year with the preparation of what were called the ‘summonses’. These were lists of the debts that the sheriff of each county had to collect. The lists would begin with the county and other farms, and then go on to all the debts owed by individuals. When Magna Carta in chapter 26 spoke of the sheriff showing ‘our letters patent of summons’ for a debt owed the king by a deceased tenant-in-chief, it was referring to this annual list.43 These letters patent for our summons, like a whole range of letters close about getting in the revenue, were issued, in the king’s name, by the exchequer itself and sealed with its own seal. The seal was kept by the chancellor of the exchequer, hence the name of that office. The exchequer, therefore, had the power to take independent action. It used that power to devastating effect when ordering debts to be gathered in by distraint.

The exchequer knew what debts to put on the list of summonses in various ways.44 It included recurring farms and old debts from the record of the last audit on the pipe rolls or from other related material. As for new debts arising from amercements, the exchequer was sent regular lists of those imposed before the king, before the court at Westminster and before the king’s judges in the counties. It also received on a roll (called the originalia roll) the list of fines accepted by the king as he travelled the country. These had been recorded by the chancery on fine rolls of which the originalia rolls were a copy. Although, therefore, the king was personally involved in accepting fines, he handed them over to the exchequer for collection and audit, which just shows the central part it played in the workings of royal finance. Of course, the king could always fasten on a particular debt and order that it be paid into the chamber-wardrobe rather than the exchequer. However, when he did so, he informed the exchequer, so that it could make due allowance for the payment when the debt was audited. The only occasions when the exchequer was bypassed altogether was when the king took over the total management of a debt, or when a fine was paid cash down, immediately and in full into the chamber-wardrobe. As far as can be seen, this did not happen very often.

The sheriff, when he received the summonses, had then to set about collecting the money. If a debtor did not pay, then the sheriff could enforce payment by the distraint mentioned in chapters 8, 9, 16, 23 and 29 of the Charter. This involved seizing and selling the debtor’s chattels, which would chiefly be his corn and animals. If these did not suffice, the Charter acknowledged that land and rents might be possessed; and after that the sheriff could turn to the resources of the debtor’s sureties. Chapter 26 of the Charter implied that sheriffs, on the death of tenants-in-chief, had simply gone in and seized whatever they liked on the excuse of some debt, without bothering over its size.

The sheriff collected most of the money personally, but it was permissible for a baron to make his own payments, with the sheriff just notifying him of the amount owed.45 The payments were due in two instalments each year, at Easter and Michaelmas, and were made into a branch of the exchequer called the exchequer of receipt or lower exchequer. This was presided over by two chamberlains of the exchequer, an hereditary position. One of the chamberlains, Warin fitzGerold, although he does not have his title there, appears among John’s counsellors in the preamble to the Charter. As a receipt for each individual payment, the sheriff and other payees received a tally. This was a wooden stick on which the amount of the payment was recorded in notches. The stick was then split down the middle, with half being kept by the exchequer and half by the payee. For identification purposes, the nature of the debt and the amount of the payment was also written on both the halves.

The exchequer of receipt kept its money in its ‘treasury’, and only dispensed it as ordered by special letters close sent by the king to the treasurer and chamberlains. These letters (called ‘writs of liberate’) might order the exchequer to send money to the king, where it would be paid into the chamber-wardrobe, or spend it in a whole variety of other ways. It was really just a matter of convenience whether the king paid for something with money from the chamber-wardrobe, the exchequer treasury, the castle treasuries or the funds in the hands of the sheriffs and other local officials.

The actual work of hearing the accounts, as of preparing the summonses, was done by the upper exchequer or exchequer of audit. After Michaelmas each year, in a long procession that lasted sometimes until the following Easter or beyond, each sheriff came before the upper exchequer to account for the debts which he had been summoned to pay in the previous year, so at the previous Easter and Michaelmas. The exchequer went through the list of summonses and the sheriffs handed over their tallies as proof of payment, the exchequer matching up the proffered half with the half it had kept. At the same time the sheriffs proffered any writs that had ordered them to spend revenue locally, so that due allowance could be made for that too. If baronial stewards had paid in money for their masters, then they would also attend the audit and go through the same procedure. The audit itself was done on the exchequer cloth where counters in the form of silver pennies were set out representing each individual debt. Beneath them were placed counters representing the amount paid or allowed against it. The latter were then subtracted from the former, revealing what was still owed. The state of play on the debts was then recorded on the pipe rolls, with the debtors being quit or left still owing. If the sheriff had failed to raise money and could show it was not his fault, he might be ordered to distrain more vigorously for the sums outstanding. If it was his fault, he could be subject to imprisonment, as might the stewards of barons if they too had defaulted.

In John’s reign we see the pipe rolls in their full pomp. As printed by the Pipe Roll Society, all of them down to 1211 have more than 200 pages, many over 250. On a rough count, a typical roll contains more than 4,500 names of people, places and institutions, most of them owing money to the king. The rolls reveal John’s success in increasing his revenues, as also the pressure he was placing on individuals. They show just how the grip of the exchequer ranged from top to bottom of society: from lay and ecclesiastical barons owing gigantic sums, through knights and townsmen, down to peasants and peasant communities amerced in numerous ways by the king’s judges.

Not all the king’s revenues are revealed in the pipe rolls. They show nothing about the flow of treasure from Ireland, which may well have averaged out at over £1,000 each year. In terms of English revenues, they have nothing about the great tax of 1207, although we know its yield from another record source. Nor do the pipe rolls contain records of the taxation imposed on the Jews. This is because such taxation was the responsibility of a sub-branch of the exchequer, with its own records, called the exchequer of the Jews. The latter was also responsible for collecting the debts owed the Jews that had come into the king’s hands. When these were large and owed by great men, they were sometimes placed under the main exchequer and appear on the pipe rolls, but the great majority of such debts stayed under the exchequer of the Jews. Since its records hardly survive for this period, the precise yields of Jewish taxation, and of Jewish debts in royal hands, will never be known, a big gap in our knowledge. The emergence of the exchequer of the Jews was linked to a reform of 1194 that sought to regulate the whole process of Jewish moneylending. Henceforth, the contracting of loans was to be limited to major towns under the oversight of two Christians, two Jews and two clerks of the Jewish exchequer. Each town had a chest (an ‘archa’) in which a copy of the charter recording each loan was deposited, the other copy being kept by the Jew. This is the ‘charter’ referred to in Magna Carta, chapter 10, where it says that if a debt owed to a Jew came into the king’s hands, he would only extract the capital sum, ‘catallum’, found in the charter, in other words he would not extract interest. All this bureaucracy made it easier for the king to protect the Jews and also to extract their money both through taxation (for the king could find out exactly what resources there were to tax) and through debts taken into his own hands.


‘All counties and hundreds, ridings and wapentakes, are to be at the ancient farms without any increment’, ran chapter 25 of the Charter, thereby laying bare the basic structure of royal government in the localities. For administrative purposes, England was divided up into counties. There were thirty-eight of these of very different sizes, ranging from the tiny Rutland to the gigantic Yorkshire. Counties were subdivided into smaller administrative divisions called hundreds or wapentakes. Of these there were around 630. Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, given their size, were also divided into groups of wapentakes, the ridings of chapter 25.

It was a tribute to the power of royal government in the twelfth century that nearly all the counties were under the control of sheriffs appointed and dismissed by the king. In other words they had not fallen under the control of earls or hereditary sheriffs.46 The sheriffs make nine appearances in the Charter, being saddled with a series of dos and don’ts. It was the malpractices of the sheriffs and forest officials that were to be investigated in chapter 48. Three of John’s sheriffs were named among those who were to be removed from their offices in chapter 50. Apart from their role as debt collectors, the sheriffs also had major responsibilities in the field of justice and law and order. The Crowland chronicler described them as providing peace for local people as well as carrying out the business of the ‘fisc’.47 The sheriffs thus presided over the county and hundred courts, arrested and hanged criminals, empanelled common-law juries and implemented judgements.

As the king’s chief officers in the shires, the sheriffs received a stream of orders on a multiplicity of subjects. Under chapter 14 of the Charter, for example, they were to summon the lesser tenants-in-chief to a national assembly. They were continually being told to spend the money they were collecting on a range of purchases and payments, instead of paying it into the exchequer. The resulting allowances on the pipe rolls are a remarkable testimony to the range of their activities. Some sheriffs were great regional commissars, controlling wardships (as chapter 4 of the Charter indicated), escheats, royal manors and castles, as well as several counties. Most sheriffs had as their main base the royal castle in the county town.

The king’s castles, ‘the bones of the kingdom’ as they were called, were a vital source of royal power.48 In 1214 there were ninety-three of them, which was roughly half the number of baronial castles.49 A castle’s strategic purpose, as John indicated when he ordered one to be built in Dublin in 1204, was to project power outwards, thereby controlling a town or strategic area.50 John also used his castles to hold his prisoners and house large amounts of treasure. Some castles were under sheriffs, others under separate constables. The Charter told of the measures to maintain the castles. Chapter 28 forbad constables and bailiffs from taking anyone’s corn or other chattels without immediate payment, unless the vendor consented to the delay. The Charter of 1216, however, allowed a delay in payment where the corn and chattels had been taken from the vill where the castle was situated.51 Chapter 31 of the 1215 Charter stipulated that bailiffs were not to take wood for castles, save with the permission of the owner. Chapter 29 dealt with the garrisoning of castles and allowed knights, if they wished, to serve personally or provide an ‘upright man’ as a deputy, as opposed to being forced to give money in place of service.


When Magna Carta commissioned its inquiries into the malpractices of the king’s local officials, in chapter 48, the list of those officials was headed not by the sheriffs but by the king’s foresters.52 Without an extensive administrative apparatus, there was no way that the king could make money for offences against the forest law. The Forest Charter of 1217 was not bothered at all with what it called the king’s ‘demesne woods’, the forest that is on his own manors and properties. The trouble was that the royal forest and forest law extended much further than that and enveloped woods and lands held by bishops, abbots, earls, barons, knights and free tenants. This was why the Unknown Charter, in its chapter 10, demanded privileges for knights who had their woods in the king’s forests. In John’s reign there was royal forest in twenty counties. It embraced large parts of Cumberland, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire, and all of Essex. In total it covered about a third of the kingdom.53Its main purpose was not to provide kings with areas for hunting, although they certainly were great huntsmen. It was to provide them with money.

The individual forests were administered by chief foresters, some of them hereditary, who were liable to dismissal and ferocious punishment, usually financial, for any failures in their duty. They in turn employed numerous subordinate officials who preyed on the local population. One aim in chapter 7 of the 1217 Forest Charter was to limit the number of such pests. There were also groups of officials (often local knights) called ‘regarderers’, who monitored the bounds of the forest, and ‘verderers’, who made records of the offences committed. The activities of these officials were coordinated at forest courts, and they were all subject to the chief justice of the forest. For much of John’s reign this was Hugh de Neville, named in the preamble of the 1215 Charter, although without his title, perhaps by design, for it was hardly one that brought him honour. The Charter, in chapter 44, did refer to the forest ‘justices’, or judges, and it was from their periodic visitations of the forest counties, often led by the chief forester, that the great bulk of the revenue came. The judges tried those accused of offences and imposed the amercements. Where the offenders were important, they might be amerced directly by the king. The judges also made money by summoning men to attend their sessions even though they lived outside the bounds of the forest. If such men did not turn up, they were amerced. In reaction, chapter 44 of the Charter laid down that no one living outside the forest had to attend unless they were involved directly or indirectly in a plea. The penalties were not only financial, however. Those for offences against the protected beasts of the forest, the deer and boar, could be corporal, probably because many poachers were peasants with few resources worth amercing. The Unknown Charter had John conceding that no man was to lose life or limb for an offence against the beasts of the forest. The Anonymous of Béthune liked to think that this was in the Charter itself, but in fact it had to wait until the Charter of 1217.


The royal forest was an unmitigated disaster for the king’s subjects. It had no benefits for them. The king’s dispensation of justice, in part at least, could be looked at in a different light. At the local level, there were two public courts presided over by royal officials, those of the county and the hundred or wapentake. The Charter of 1217, in chapter 42, regulated both. The former were to meet once a month, unless a longer interval had been customary. As for the latter, the sheriff was only to hold the especially well-attended sessions, called the ‘tourn’, twice a year, at Easter and Michaelmas. How often the hundred courts should meet beyond the tourn became a matter for dispute. The government in 1234, trying to settle the issue, said the sessions had been fortnightly under Henry II, but now might be once every three weeks.54 The overlapping jurisdiction of both the hundred and the county courts embraced minor disputes over land, debts and distraint, as well as criminal cases of a type that did not involve breaches of the king’s peace.

Above the local courts of county and hundred, there were other superior types of royal court. One was held, nominally at least, in the king’s presence, ‘coram rege’, wherever he was on his journeys. Another was presided over by the king’s judges at Westminster. There were also courts of varying jurisdictions held by the king’s judges when they visited the localities. In chapter 59 of the Charter, John agreed that the claims of ‘Alexander, king of Scots’ should be settled ‘by judgement of his peers in our court’. Given that these claims were of great moment, this was clearly a court that would be presided over by the king himself and where great barons (Alexander’s peers, for he held an English barony) would be present to give judgement. The Articles of the Barons were thinking of the same court when they laid down in chapter 25 that those disseised unjustly by Henry II and Richard should have ‘right without delay by judgement of their peers in the court of the king’. This was also the court in which disputes between the barons themselves would be heard. Chapter 17 of the Charter indicated something else, when it directed that ‘common pleas’ should not follow the king’s court but be heard in a fixed place.55 In other words, John’s court at court, if one may call it that, had heard not merely cases involving great men, but also quite routine civil litigation of the common-pleas variety. In those cases, it would have been presided over by the king’s professional judges rather than by the king personally, unless he was especially interested in a case, as sometimes he was.

The Charter of 1215 did not specify where the fixed place for common pleas to be heard might be. Its 1217 successor was more informative since it referred, in chapters 14 and 15, to cases being heard by ‘the justices of the bench’. The bench, until suspended by King John, usually sat at Westminster, and, presided over by professional judges, heard a whole raft of disputes about property. The king’s judges also went on visitations (or ‘eyres’) of various types around the counties. One type is shown in the judges who were to visit the counties to hear the common-law assizes under chapter 18 of the Charter. These were eyres entirely for civil pleas. The king’s judges also came to hear criminal pleas, when they tried the cases of those imprisoned in county gaols. Most impressive of all, as a manifestation of royal justice and power in the localities, were the great ‘all pleas’ eyres. Here the judges heard both criminal and civil pleas and also carried out investigations into the king’s rights. These visitations are often called by historians ‘general eyres’, both because of the scope of their jurisdiction and because they were usually arranged as part of circuits that covered the whole country. In a large county, such eyres could mean thousands of people being concentrated together before the king’s judges.56


The Charter twice referred to the peace that would end the civil war. It also, in chapter 49, referred to the ‘peace or faithful service’ that John had sought to obtain by taking hostages. Here, then, it was interpreting peace as the opposite of rebellion and civil strife. Chapter 42 of the 1217 Charter, on the other hand, was thinking of peace in the law-and-order sense when it made arrangements so that ‘our peace shall be kept’. The maintenance of the peace in both these senses was a fundamental duty of kingship. At the local law-and-order level, it was intimately linked to the ‘pleas of our crown’ mentioned in chapter 24 of the Charter, since these gave the king a near monopoly over the trial and punishment of serious crime, over that is, the homicide, affray, premeditated assault, burglary, rape, (serious) theft and arson that John had listed in 1201 as ‘those things which belong to our crown and justice’.57

Chapter 42 of the 1217 Charter linked together three basic elements of local law enforcement when it said, rather incomprehensibly for modern readers, that ‘the view of frankpledge shall be held so that the peace is kept and the tithing is full’. The tithing was a group of ten or twelve adult males, usually unfree, who were sworn to keep the peace and guarantee the good behaviour of their fellows. Supposedly all the unfree population south of the Humber were grouped in tithings and it was these that the sheriffs checked at Michaelmas each year, in the hundred or wapentake courts at their ‘view of frankpledge’ – ‘frankpledge’ here being simply another word for the tithing. The sheriffs, in so doing, had many opportunities for imposing penalties on the tithing groups – for example, when men failed to arrest criminals, or when they had given false evidence or evidence not in the proper form.58 It was unjust exactions on such occasions that chapter 42 sought to restrain, as it also sought to limit the tourn to two a year.

The Articles of the Barons in 1215 had demanded that sheriffs should not interfere in the pleas of the crown without the coroners. It was the coroners, introduced in 1194, and usually county knights, whose duty it was to make a record of the pleas of the crown, and in so doing to hold inquests into all cases of death other than by obviously natural causes. The Articles implied that the sheriffs were usurping the function of the coroners in this area when it said that, without them, they were not to interfere with the pleas of the crown. The Charter itself, in chapter 24, was concerned with a wider usurpation, and laid down that sheriffs, constables, coroners and bailiffs were not to hear the pleas of the crown. There had been a time when sheriffs heard pleas of the crown routinely in the county and hundred courts, but increasingly in the twelfth century this had become the prerogative of the king’s judges sent to the counties. Stopping the sheriffs hearing such pleas was probably an issue on which, in normal circumstances, the king could see eye to eye with his critics.

When the judges arrived in a county, a man could accuse or ‘appeal’ an individual of any of the offences coming under the heading of ‘pleas of the crown’. The rights of women in this area were more restricted, as we have seen.59 The great majority of crimes, however, came before the justices not through private appeals but through a system of public accusation. Twelve jurors from each hundred or wapentake (chosen by knightly electors) were charged with revealing the cases of serious crime since the last visitation. They also gave evidence about usurpations of the rights of the crown. Chapter 38 of the Charter, which said that no bailiff was ‘to put anyone to law’, meaning essentially to put anyone on trial, by his own, unsupported accusation ‘without trustworthy witnesses’, was designed in part to ensure the use of such juries. Guilt or innocence could be determined by the ordeal of hot iron or water, by the swearing of oaths by supporters of the accused, and also, in cases of appeal, by trial by battle. However, there was pressure for more rational procedures, and chapter 36 of the Charter laid down that the ‘writ of inquisition concerning life or limbs’ should be conceded freely. This meant that someone accused of a serious offence, essentially a plea of the crown, for which the penalty was death or mutilation, could obtain a writ that ordered his case to be heard by a jury. From 1218 onwards, after the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 had banned attendance of the clergy at ordeals, the use of juries became general practice.60

The usual punishment in the thirteenth century was death by hanging, although it had earlier been mutilation. The great majority of criminals, however, were not brought to justice. Instead they fled and were outlawed. Chapter 42 of the Charter excepted those ‘outlawed according to the law of the kingdom’ from those allowed free exit and entry into England. Some of those envisaged here were doubtless magnates outlawed for political crimes, but the great majority would have been absconding criminals. Nearly all of these, judging from the value of their chattels, were of peasant status.

Criminal justice brought great financial profit to the crown, as we have seen – profit from the chattels of criminals, and, as the Charter indicated, from the right to hold their lands for a year and a day. There were also numerous amercements imposed on tithings, juries and local communities, for offences real or concocted. When the Charter, in chapter 20, laid down that villeins were to be amerced, saving their wainage, by upstanding men of the neighbourhood, it had in mind above all the amercements imposed at the eyre.61For local society, any benefits brought by the eyre’s maintenance of the peace seemed far outweighed by the financial burdens. The great increase in the numbers of those suffering such burdens, as revealed in the financial accounts of the eyres on the pipe rolls, is a striking indication of how far royal power had advanced after 1154 and how it dug down deep into society.


Thrice in the Charter, in chapters 52, 53 and 57, John promised to give ‘full justice’ to those complaining of abuses committed by himself or his predecessors. The king equally had a duty to give justice to everyone (or everyone who was free) in their disputes with each other. As he put it in 1210, ‘we desire justice according to the custom of our kingdom of England to be shown to all who complain of wrongdoing’.62 If the wrongdoing involved breaches of the peace, then that came under the criminal side of the king’s jurisdiction. If, on the other hand, it involved disputes over lands, rights and other properties, then there was a whole set of other legal actions, developed under Henry II, which could bring such cases before the king’s justices.63 The most famous of these, as in chapter 18 of the Charter, were called ‘assizes’. Resort to the new assizes was entirely voluntary. Although there was an established rule, set out in Glanvill, that anyone claiming a free tenement held by another had to begin the action with a writ obtained from the king, the case could then proceed by a variety of procedures in a variety of courts.64 That so many people did resort to the assizes is, therefore, a sure indication of their value.

The most important of the new procedures were those mentioned in chapter 18 of Magna Carta. This laid down that the king was to send two justices to each county four times a year to hear ‘recognitions of novel disseisin, of mort d’ancestor and of darrein presentment’. A recognition, used interchangeably in the chapter with ‘assize’, meant a legal action culminating in the verdict of a jury. The recognitions in question were open to the free but not to the unfree. They could be used by women, although married ones needed to litigate with their husbands. Novel disseisin dealt with cases where a plaintiff claimed that he had been disseised, that is dispossessed, unlawfully of a free tenement, free tenement here meaning land and or other property held for free as opposed to villein services. The assize could also be brought if a free tenement had been encroached on by the erection of a bank or making of a road. The offence had to have been relatively recent, hence ‘novel disseisin’. ‘Mort d’ancestor’ was a remedy for those who claimed that they had been denied succession to an inheritance in land. Darrein presentment, much less frequently used, dealt with disputes over the right to appoint a clerk to a church living, usually a parish church.

All three assizes were commenced by securing a writ from the chancery or, if the king was out of the country, from the chief justiciar. This writ was one ‘of course’ – ‘de cursu’ – which meant that it was standard form, cheap and issued automatically. When Magna Carta in chapter 36 asked that the writ of inquisition concerning life or limbs be given without payment and not denied, it was asking for such writs to be likewise ones ‘of course’. It was not literally true that such writs were free, since they probably cost 6d, so the equivalent of four days’ wages for a labourer.65 There were other costs, including those of actually going to court to get the writs, but still they were probably within reach of all but the very poorest of free tenants.

The writ ordered the sheriff to summon a jury of twelve free and lawful men from the neighbourhood of the land in dispute to come before the king’s judges on their next appearance in the county to give the verdict in the case. In novel disseisin, the jury had to determine whether the plaintiff had been disseised of the land unjustly and without judgement, the criteria for unjust disseisin being usually a disseisin made without the judgement of a court. In mort d’ancestor, the jury had to answer two questions. Was the plaintiff the nearest heir of the deceased person from whom he was claiming to inherit? Did the deceased actually die in possession of the land being sought ‘as of fee’? The ‘as of fee’ here meant that the land had been held with some vestige of hereditary right and not simply for a term of years, nor at the lord’s pleasure. If the jury found for the plaintiff, then the justices would give judgement in his favour, and issue a writ in the king’s name (but witnessed and sealed by the senior judge) ordering the sheriff to put him in possession. The defendant would then be amerced, as would an unsuccessful plaintiff. The amercements, however, at least in routine cases, were not so large as to deter litigation.

Novel disseisin and mort d’ancestor were far and away the most popular of the new legal actions, but others were developed on comparable lines dealing with a range of further issues, one of the most used being that open to widows trying to recover their dowers. There was also a more elaborate procedure, much used in John’s time, called the grand assize, in which juries made up of twelve knights determined the question of ultimate right to land, as opposed to just answering the narrow questions put to them in the other assizes. All these actions were the same, or ‘common’, throughout the country, from Cornwall to Cumberland. They were thus at the heart of the ‘common pleas’ to which Magna Carta referred in chapter 17, and by extension at the heart of what contemporaries called ‘the common law’. These actions could be used by great men in their litigation, but the bulk of the litigants (as one can see from the plea rolls that survive from the 1190s) were lesser men, knights and free tenants. They might be litigating upwards against lords or downwards against tenants, but equally a good deal of the litigation, often over very small amounts of land, was between neighbours on much the same social level.

The appeal of the actions to wide sections of society is understandable. The writ setting them off was routinely available at a small cost. The decision was in the hands of a local jury as opposed to being determined by oath swearing or trial by battle. Indeed, the rationality of the new procedures was one of their merits canvassed in Glanvill.66 The case was heard in a court presided over by the king’s judges as opposed to the court of a lord or the court of the hundred or wapentake presided over by the sheriff. And the whole procedure could be speedy. Indeed, speed was specifically aimed at in novel disseisin, where the jury was to give its verdict even if the defendant did not turn up, whereas other litigation could be dragged out ad infinitum by a whole series of non-appearances.

The new procedures appeared very differently from the perspective of great barons, for they had the potential to harm their jurisdictional control over their tenants. If two tenants by knight service were in dispute over who should rightfully hold land from a particular lord, then the lord was bound to think that the proper venue for the case was his own honorial court.67 Equally, the lord would think that his court was the proper forum for any dispute between himself and a tenant over failure to perform services or over the succession to a fee. With the new procedures, however, it was easy for litigants to remove cases from the court of the lord. In an action over right, the defendant could do so by putting himself on the grand assize. At least such a case would have started in the lord’s court, but if the issue was simply one of disseisin, then a writ of novel disseisin would take the case at once before the king’s judges, bypassing the lord’s court altogether.68 If the disseisor had the lord’s favour, or indeed was the lord himself, the plaintiff had every reason to do just that, thereby escaping a court that must always have been dominated by the lord’s interests.69 The fear of comeback from a novel disseisin action must also have deterred lords from disciplining tenants by simply seizing their land without legal process.70 As for the assize of mort d’ancestor, this too started the case from scratch before the king’s judges. So much the better for the plaintiff if it was the lord himself who was denying him entry into his inheritance. Lords inevitably now found it more difficult to prevent the succession of an unwelcome tenant. One comment on a particular decree of Henry II probably reflects well enough the lordly view of developments as a whole: ‘the king had made an ordinance in his kingdom, which caused the barons of the country much harm, whereby each lost his court by a false oath’.71


Courts held by great lords for their tenants by knight service were not the only private courts. All lords of manors held manorial courts for their peasant tenants, courts that dealt with such matters as succession to the tenements and disputes over services, as well as minor cases of disorder. Such manorial courts, unmentioned in Magna Carta, were entirely under the jurisdiction of the lord. Lords could also enjoy some share of the king’s jurisdiction, either through a specific grant from the king or through long usage. These ‘liberties’, as they were called, included ‘infangenthief’, which gave the lord the right to try, and execute on his gallows, a petty thief taken red handed on his property. The liberty could be attached to a manorial court. It could also be attached to a hundred.72 In 1215 perhaps some 250 of the roughly 630 hundreds and wapentakes were in private rather than royal hands. The balance across the country was uneven. Nearly all the hundreds were private in Devon, Oxfordshire and Sussex. Nearly all were royal in Warwickshire and Lincolnshire. Many hundreds had long been in the hands of bishops and abbots. Others were held by great secular lords. Indeed Magna Carta comes in the middle of the period in which lords were busily securing grants of hundreds from the king. Here they gained some compensation for the inroads of the common law. John made fifty-five such grants, mostly to lay lords, Henry III made 108. William de Ferrers, earl of Derby, started John’s reign with no private hundreds. By the end of it he had six, three through an inheritance, three by grant of the king. Thomas Basset, likewise, gained from John the hundreds of Bullingdon and North Gate outside Oxford. He also had the hundred, ‘my hundred’, of Colyton in Devon.73 The rights of lords in private hundreds varied. In some the sheriff still entered and shared the profits. In the most privileged, he did not enter at all and handed the king’s writs (so those summoning juries, executing verdicts and collecting debts) to the bailiff of the lord.74 In most private hundreds it would be the lord’s bailiff who presided over the hundred court and heard the view of frankpledge every Michaelmas, although one would never have thought so from chapter 42 of the 1217 Charter, which dealt simply with the exactions of the sheriff. Equally exempt from the jurisdiction of the sheriffs were many of the privileged cities and boroughs mentioned in chapter 13 of the Charter. They had the right to choose their own officials, who presided over the town court and answered directly to the exchequer for the farm.75 The Londoners had the right both to choose their own sheriffs and, by John’s concession in 1215, their mayor.

Lords certainly derived power, money and status from their manorial, liberty and honorial courts. Sometimes the same meetings carried out all three types of business and the courts tended to merge together, which made them all the more impressive. The relationship between the liberties and royal government has been much debated by historians. From one point of view, they can be seen as fitting naturally and harmoniously into a hierarchy of courts, with the king’s at the top.76 Certainly the king had no objection to liberties as such and was often prepared to grant them away to make money or reward service, as did John and Henry III. Those with private hundreds, such as the abbot of Bury St Edmunds, were very aware that they could be confiscated by the king, and ran them in that light.77 The procedures in private courts, moreover, often imitated those found in the courts of the king. Yet, on the other hand, for judges, sheriffs and officials of the exchequer, the liberties were a pain in the neck. Again and again sheriffs explained their failure to raise debts and produce litigants and jurors on the grounds that they had handed the order to a private hundredal bailiff who had then done nothing about it. In the 1270s and 1280s Edward I made a determined effort to check ‘by what warrant’ all the liberties were held.78


The unpopularity of John’s rule, and the exigencies of his situation, placed a premium on one ultimate source of power, a power that stood behind everything he wished to do. This was his ability to use force. In its highest degree, force meant armies, armies with which the king might put down revolts in England, dominate Britain and Ireland, and maintain and recover the continental possessions. John in one way was permanently armed. He had at any one time around a hundred household knights, who could form the core of royal armies. He also had military forces in the localities, for all the sheriffs and castellans had under their command crossbowmen and serjeants, whom they paid from local revenues, varying the numbers up and down according to the situation. When he was forming an army, John supplemented his household knights in two main ways. For all his campaigns, he summoned his tenants-in-chief to provide him with knights, as they were obliged to do by the terms of their tenure. John also summoned the knights holding from baronies that had come into his hands.79 Whereas many tenants-in-chief were allowed to pay scutage in place of service, many others did indeed come personally with their due contingents. Such contingents, however, were far smaller than those on which scutage was owed. The great northern baron Gilbert de Gant owed scutage on over sixty fees, yet was expected to bring to royal armies only six or ten knights.80 How this discrepancy between nominal obligation and actual performance had come about is obscure, but it certainly preceded John’s reign.81 It may in part have been a quid pro quo for the service lasting longer than the customary forty days. Even in producing these reduced contingents, however, John’s tenants-in-chief often did not pay their way. Instead, for their maintenance during a campaign, for example in Ireland in 1210 and Poitou in 1214, they received money in the form of loans from the king. Loans left open whether the service was being performed as part of a tenurial obligation, but since John rarely asked for the money back, he was in practice paying wages. It was with wages, straight out, that the king recruited the second type of force that strengthened his armies, namely paid knights recruited from abroad, notably from Flanders and Brabant, both great sources for mercenary soldiers.

Essentially then, if John wanted to muster and maintain armies of any size, he had to pay for them. For much of the reign, given his buoyant finances, he was able to do so. Indeed, he may well have invented the loan system that he used to support his forces.82 In contemporary terms, he was certainly able to raise armies of some size. The one that he took to Ireland in 1210 consisted of around 800 named knights and 1,500 serjeants and crossbowmen. Even in December 1215 just one of John’s field armies included forty-seven household knights, and another 403 knights mostly recruited from the continent. The knights were divided up into ‘constabularies’, each about twenty-five strong, which gives a good indication of how the force was organized. One of these constabularies was commanded by the Anonymous of Béthune’s patron, Robert de Béthune.83

In an ideal world John should never, of course, have needed an army to put down internal revolt. His keeping of the peace and dispensation of justice should have justified his exaction of revenue and insistence on his rights. His subjects would see the need for the second, the extraction of revenue, in order to enjoy the first, the keeping of the peace. Unfortunately, by 1215 it was very hard to see any such balance in the rule of King John. Hence the need for Magna Carta.

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