Blogging the Magna Carta #10

by Phyllis Irene Radford

There has always been a different justice system for the rich, whether we acknowledge it or not.  Those with money can afford to hire the sneakiest and most powerful lawyers.  I’m told there are also ways to delay proceedings and manipulate schedules to get the most sympathetic judge.  Jury doctors (people who profile the perfect jury for your case then set about making sure those are the only, or at least the majority, of the jurors chosen) are in high demand, if you can afford them.

People without a lot of disposable income either rack up enormous debt going through the court system or accept whatever is given them in legal aid lawyers and the first 12 jurors who qualify.

The system though different in 1215, also favored the rich, especially those with titles.

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:

21. Earls and barons shall not be amerced except through their peers, and only in accordance with the degree of the offense.

This repeats the idea of the punishment fitting the crime, a concept that does go back deep into common law where service to the victim often proved more valuable than gold.  By the same token, personal grudges could not allow a justicar, or the king as chief justicar, to increase the fines, amercements, or punishment above those set by common law for the degree of the offence.

We also see the idea of being convicted by our peers, others of equal rank.  A knight can only face a jury of other knights, not freemen or tenants.  But since the king is now subject to the law, who are his peers?  We are told the Barons are legally his peers, but remember when a king is crowned and anointed by a bishop his coronation is seen as the blessing of God.  He rules by the grace of God.  (In Scotland the monarch is still referred to as “Your Grace” instead of “Your Majesty” because of this.) Deposing him by coup d’etat or invasion was common. Bringing him before a court of law was unheard of at this juncture.

22. A clerk shall not be amerced in respect of his lay holding except after the manner of the others aforesaid; further, he shall not be amerced in accordance with the extent of his ecclesiastical benefice.

Clerk here refers to the clergy: deacons, priests, bishops, abbots, monks etc.  Many of the Church hierarchy, usually higher in rank, owned land, ships, and trade monopolies in their own names, without connection to the Church, either from an inheritance, gifts of the king, or earned before taking vows.  If they commit a civil crime, a civil court can only collect fines against these privately held properties.  Lands and businesses they control as part of their duties to the Church are subject only to Church law since they belong to the Church and not the individual.

In many cases the clergy were the only educated men in the county.  I can see them shuffling paperwork to deed private lands to the Church before the trial—backdated to before the crime —then grant them back to themselves afterward.  That gets a bit tricky because once the Church’s name is on the deed they don’t let go very easily.

Not that anyone would do such a thing in today’s world.  This isn’t why the paper shredder was invented was it?

There is also a small contradiction in this clause.  Back in Clause #1 John firmly vows that the “English church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate.”  One of those rights before the Magna Carta was the issue of bringing to trial a member of the clergy for a civil crime.  The Church insisted they were the only ones who could bring a cleric to trial for either a civil or clerical crime.  Can they amerce a cleric’s private lands?  Or can only a civil justicar levy fines against that private land?

Even under Protestant reform this issue was not resolved until the 19th C.  Even a little vagueness or contradiction in the law gives the educated and creative thinker room to wiggle out from under the law.


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 #10 — 1 Comment

  1. Thanks for more fascinating history, Phyl! I can attest to the fact that our justice system today still favors the wealthy or corporations –they can afford to hire teams of fancy lawyers to endlessly delay, reschedule hearings, and harass witnesses until the injured party runs out of time and money and energy to keep fighting for “justice.” The more things change, the more they stay the same?