By Phyllis Irene Radford
As always in this series you can find the full document of the Magna Carta here: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/magnacarta.asp
For a more scholarly discussion of how the Magna Carta deals with modern life: http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/magna-carta.htm
Last week we dealt with widows and their dowers. Clause #10 touches on borrowing money from the Jews. Clause #11 further defines the problem. Or not. It gets a bit convoluted, defining overlapping levels of loyalty under feudal law.
11. And if any one die indebted to the Jews, his wife shall have her dower and pay nothing of that debt; and if any children of the deceased are left underage, necessaries shall be provided for them in keeping with the holding of the deceased; and out of the residue the debt shall be paid, reserving, however, service due to feudal lords; in like manner let it be done touching debts due to others than Jews.
First we have to remember that only members of the Jewish faith and race were allowed to lend money and charge interest. In fact usury was the only profession allowed them. They could be talented goldsmiths or weavers or tanners or teachers or blacksmiths. That didn’t matter. In the misconceptions of the period, the Jews were an unending source of money. They did eventually run out of money to lend the king for his wars and were banished from England by Edward I for that sin in 1299. Technically the Jews were under the protection of the king. But no one ever guaranteed that he couldn’t prey on them as much as anyone else. Prejudice of the time made this perfectly logical. Where have we seen this in our lives today? If they adhere to a different faith they must be the enemy and legal prey.
The first sentence in Clause 11 is fairly straightforward. If a man dies indebted to the Jews, his wife doesn’t have to repay the debt. She gets her dower and withdraws from the transaction. If the children of the deceased are underage the estate will provide for them according to their station and if there is anything left over, that will pay the debt.
Oh, except that feudal dues have to come out of the estate first. Feudal dues you say? What are those? Let’s say the newly deceased was a knight with a small holding: a manor with a few acres, some sheep, and a couple of tenant farmers. This small estate would be a part of a much larger estate controlled by a Baron. When the knight took possession of his holding, he would have given the Baron an oath of fealty, promising a percentage of his proceeds plus a number of days of military service each year. The Baron in turn owed similar but higher duties to the Lord or Bishop above him, through as many layers as imaginable to the king himself. So of course they all got their cut before the heir or the people holding a lien on the property. Imagine an inheritance tax that got paid to your state legislator, your state governor, your federal congress person and senator, and the president, possibly a few Supreme Court Judges as well, and your priest, bishop, and archbishop before you can pay the nursing home.
There were ways out of these duties.
As we’ve mention before King John didn’t trust anybody, least of all his own barons. If he trusted them and they he there would be no need for this document.
Several times in his career, John called his barons to pay their feudal dues in military service. They showed up with a designated number of mounted knights and armed foot soldiers (farmers with scythes). At the last minute John would demand the dues in silver pennies instead of men. He’d then use the silver to pay mercenaries, whom he trusted not to sell him out on the field of battle as long as the money held out. This money was call scutage.
12. No scutage (money paid instead of feudal service) nor aid shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom, except for ransoming our person, for making our eldest son a knight, and for once marrying our eldest daughter; and for these there shall not be levied more than a reasonable aid. In like manner it shall be done concerning aids from the city of London.
No new taxes. We’ve heard that before. Did we have to pay for the wedding of President Nixon’s eldest daughter? Did we pay for the education of President Bush I’s children? As for ransom? John’s elder brother King Richard I (Lionheart of Robin Hood fame) was captured on his way home from the Crusdaes and held for ransom for years. The money was gathered from all the citizens of England. Rumor has it that John, as Regent in his brother’s absence, diverted that money to his own coffers. I’m willing to bet if he were captured he’d hope his barons would ransom him rather than let him rot in an Austrian prison.
And then there’s the City of London.
13. And the city of London shall have all its ancient liberties and free customs, as well by land as by water; furthermore, we decree and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports shall have all their liberties and free customs.
There is always an exception for London. It has long been seen almost independent from the rest of England. They have many freedoms and privileges that do not extend beyond their ancient wall. Even today Queen Elizabeth must request permission from the Lord Mayor to enter the original precincts.
Other cities are officially recognized here. Their original and ancient liberties couldn’t be violated. But since many of these cities evolved at different times with different customs and liberties granted them by their lords, they only keep their own traditional rules and traditions, not London’s.
Are we having fun yet? Next week we tackle a rudimentary form of Parliament.
Phyllis Irene Radford is a founding member of the Book View Café. Though raised in the seaports of America she was born in Portland, Oregon and has lived in and around the city since her junior year in high school. She thrives in the damp and loves the tall trees.
For more about her and her fiction please visit her bookshelf here on BVC http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Phyllis-Irene-Radford/
Or her personal web page ireneradford.com