Blogging the Magna Carta #9

by Phyllis Irene Radford

The fact that the Magna Carta spends so much time on the issue of courts and justice is a good indication of how haphazard the system was before this “clean up.”  From what my research suggested to me, King John was the instigator of imposing some uniformity.  Like King Arthur of legend he actually made progress in eliminating the Might Makes Right attitude of many Barons.

As always, you can find the full text of the Magna Carta here:

For a more learned discussion of how the Magna Carta impacts modern life, you can go here:

18. Inquests of novel disseisin (a legal procedure to provide redress for those who have had their freehold unjustly taken), of mort d’ancester (a legal procedure to provide redress for those who have been denied an inheritance), and of darrein presentment (last presentation), shall not be held elsewhere than in their own county courts and that in manner following,—We, or, if we should be out of the realm, our chief justiciar, will send two justiciars through every county four times a year, who shall, along with four knights of the county chosen by the county, hold the said assize in the county court, on the day and in the place of meeting of that court.

Circuit Courts!  We saw this in US history mostly in tales of the Old West.  Many communities did not have the population or resources to hire a judge and lawyers full time.  So they rode a circuit, arriving at specified times to hear the accumulated cases since their last visit.  Clause #18 provides for judges and a rudimentary jury system—those four knights chosen by the county (other knights and men of property, not the populace).  No more situations of one lord wielding all the power in his fiefdom.  No more legalized lynch mobs.  Can we hope for common justice at this point in history?  Looks like an attempt anyway.

 19. And if any of the said assizes cannot be taken on the day of the county court, let there remain of the knights and freeholders, who were present at the county court on that day, as many as may be required for the efficient making of judgments, according as the business be more or less.

A logical provision for handling cases when they pile too high to be handled in an efficient manner during the normal allowance of days.  Today jurors can be excused for family issues and sometimes crises at work.  In 1215 similar issues arise.  Justicars have to move on to keep their schedule.  Knights have to go back to work as do freeman.  So a provision to handle the leftovers with leftover officials…  I can only hope that they shifted the schedule to deal with complex issues requiring a lot of evidence and testimony when they had the professionals on hand and pushed traffic tickets to the bottom of the list.  Sort of a Justice of the Peace dealing with misdemeanors and leaving the real crimes to the experts.

As I said above: the fact that they had to formalize this means something wasn’t working before.

20. A freeman shall not be amerced (punished by fine, punished arbitrarily) for a slight offense, except in accordance with the degree of the offense; and for a grave offense he shall be amerced in accordance with the gravity of the offense, yet saving always his “contenement;” (means of livelihood) and a merchant in the same way, saving his “merchandise;” and a villein shall be amerced in the same way, saving his “wainage” (wagons and carts)—if they have fallen into our mercy: and none of the aforesaid amercements shall be imposed except by the oath of honest men of the neighborhood.

The IRS should look at this.  If you confiscate a man’s means of making a living they can’t continue to pay their fines and taxes.

If you’ve ever watched a court drama, or been to court yourself, there is the ritual of swearing that what you are about to say is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  We see the beginnings of that in requiring the oath of honest men of the neighborhood.  Of course there is no provision for punishment if you lie through your teeth to cover your own guilt or take revenge for buying that pregnant pig and keeping the litter.  We call it perjury and it is a crime.

If you read closely, this clause addresses freemen and villeins.  Not nobles.  Common people (not serfs, a form of slavery making them non-people legally) have a chance of being treated fairly here.  Let the punishment fit the crime and in minor infractions, leave the guilty party enough to continue as an honest citizen and not have to take to the road as an outlaw to feed his family.

Makes sense to me.

Next week we’ll talk about how Nobles are treated as well as Clerics—members of the clergy.


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.

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