Blogging the Magna Carta #8

By Phyllis Irene Radford

One of the things about King John that is often overlooked, or shoved aside because it does not blacken his name, is that he was a dedicated and learned judge.  He set the precedent of having his judgments and legal reasoning recorded.  Those written accounts were shipped off to a central location, the Chancery, so that other justicars and future kings could look them up to help them decide court cases, taking them into account as well as that vague collection of remembered wisdom known as common law.

The British Constitution is not the single document, frequently amended, we find in the U.S. but rather an ever-evolving body of laws and court cases handed down generation after generation.  The Magna Carta is only one small piece of this procedure.

For the entire document of the Magna Carta, you may go here:

For a more scholarly analysis of the Charter and its relevance to modern life:

16. No one shall be distrained for performance of greater service for a knight’s fee, or for any other free tenement, than is due therefrom.

In the intricate layers of feudal loyalties, each position contained specific fees and duties for both parties.  If a man pays his overlord for the privilege of a knighthood, then he can only be asked to return the duties of a knighthood, not that of a baron or abbot.  Nor can the overlord demand a higher fee without a higher rank, income, and privileges.  A skilled craftsman or farmer also had fees and duties, no more than set forth in the loyalty oaths sworn to the next person above them.  This does away with the concept of unpaid overtime and required work at no additional pay on holidays we see frequently in corporate environments today.

King John had the same legal restraint placed upon him as every other overlord.  He couldn’t require an Earl’s service from a Baron.  Nor could he arbitrarily change the conditions of a loyalty oath.

This is part of the concept that the king is not above the law even if he makes the laws.

17. Common pleas shall not follow our court, but shall be held in some fixed place.

King John, his ancestors, and, for many generations, his descendants did not have a single place they called home.  By John’s time a few manors and castles were held and maintained by the crown, but he spent most of each year on the road.  He and his extensive entourage wandered from manor to castle to lodge maintained by his feudal tenants (i.e. the entire kingdom).  In part he consumed taxes in kind in the form of food and lodging since little money existed.  While visiting he would hold court—literally sit in judgment over legal cases in the area.

Petty disputes, such as who should gather the fruit of an apple tree that grew on the boundary line between two properties, or if a man sold a sow for slaughter not knowing she was pregnant and the purchaser kept her alive until the litter was born, who then owned the piglets, became so numerous and time consuming, the king didn’t have time to listen to matters of greater legal import.

Because the king’s judgment was akin to our Supreme Court in being final and indisputable, plaintiffs often followed the king and his court around the country for months waiting to present their cases when he was in the proper mood.  His decision could be made six counties away from the plaintiff’s home, and he was the only one from his home jurisdiction to hear the verdict.  Could he return home and report differently?

They didn’t have cell phones and video clips, often not even written documents, until King John began the practice.  Who would dispute the plaintiff?  He announced a favorable verdict in the name of the king and that was final.

Murder, breach of marriage contract, destruction of neighboring property with willful malice, were often held for a year or more until the king could issue a binding judgment no one could dispute.  By the same token, someone expecting a royal decision to go against them could overload the court with small disputes until the king dismissed the bigger cases for lack of time.

Clause #17 does away with this legal manipulation.

We begin to see some uniformity in the legal system.  No more “Might makes right”.  Now it is the “law makes right.” For this King John and the Magna Carta should be praised.

In later versions of this document, after John’s death, the Pope demanded these two clauses be removed.  The Pope was above the law, both clerical and civilian, answerable only to God.  He could not allow a precedent to be made to reduce his absolute authority.


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

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About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.


Blogging the Magna Carta #8 — 4 Comments

  1. I have noticed that all laws, regulations, SOPs, and so on, are forced by harsh circumstance to steadily evolve. Some dicey situation arises (my pregnant pig!) and the matter has to be settled by a new rule or law. Why do we have to take off our shoes before we get onto an airplane? Because some jerk spoiled it for all of us — every time I fly I am forced to console myself by reflecting on how unpleasant his life must now be.
    This does not bode well for those efforts to simplify the US legal code. However, keeping a record of all the previous decisions at least saves time — you don’t have to freshly ponder and resolve each piglet situation when it comes up.

  2. Can I just say how much I love these posts, Phyl? I knew a good bit of this stuff, but other things are absolutely new to me, and you put it with both clarity and humor. (I have always thought that King John, like Richard III, got the fuzzy end of the history lollipop in some ways.)