Blogging the Magna Carta #13

by Phyllis Irene Radford

In the middle of the Magna Carta we encounter clauses that are often glossed over because they are boring and deal with economic issues.  In truth this is the heart of King John’s problems with his barons.  If these issue were not being violated, they would not have to be addressed.  Both sides blatantly disregarded the core of their feudal vows because they distrusted the other party.  Without that trust the feudal system of interlocked protection and support did not work.

So we continue with King John’s economic peace treaty with his barons.

29. No constable shall compel any knight to give money in lieu of castle-guard, when he is willing to perform it in his own person, or (if he cannot do it from any reasonable cause) then by another responsible man. Further, if we have led or sent him upon military service, he shall be relieved from guard in proportion to the time during which he has been on service because of us.

This looks like a reverse draft.  Men can no longer pay to get out of military service,  (as if anyone would do that today) but by the same token, they can’t be forced to pay to get out of military duty if they are willing to serve.  John preferred to hire mercenaries for his wars, as well as his royal guard because he knew they were loyal to the money he paid them.  The barons were and the armies they raised were loyal to the land and themselves.  They distrusted the mercenaries because they didn’t have enough cash to buy their loyalty.  Truce and compromise.

30. No sheriff or bailiff of ours, or other person, shall take the horses or carts of any freeman for transport duty, against the will of the said freeman.

In modern TV and movies, we see police, military, and spies confiscating the cars of average citizens out of their need to bring criminals and enemies of the state to justice.  Obviously this was happening long before the advent of script writers and action oriented directors.

With Hollywood in charge we expect that the owners of the confiscated vehicles will be reimbursed by the authorities (especially if they trash and crash the car) or by insurance companies.  (Don’t count on that.  Most policies have “Act of war or insurrection” clauses that will be stretched to include police confiscation).  In 1215 insurance hadn’t been invented yet.

31. Neither we nor our bailiffs shall take, for our castles or for any other work of ours, wood which is not ours, against the will of the owner of that wood.

We all acknowledge that forests are valuable, not only for their timber and firewood, but as game preserves for hunters–the major hobby of most nobility.  Robin Hood movies make a big deal out of poaching game.  Poor men trapped rabbits and sometimes deer to feed their families over a long cold winter when stores ran out and spring was a long way away.  Many of the forests in Medieval England belonged to the king.  Barons and landed knights owned the rest.  Tenant farmers, towns, and others had privileges to take a certain amount of firewood from specified lots owned by their overlords.  No poaching on another’s woodlot, either game or wood.  No taking extra during a really bad winter unless you begged permission and promised extra feudal dues in return.  Robin Hood broke the law every time he cooked breakfast.

Did it work in protecting the forests?  Not for long.  Around 1300, the little ice age struck the northern hemisphere and lasted for five hundred years.  Firewood became as precious as gold.  There’s a reason the English denuded Scotland of nearly every tree when they invaded.  They’d run out of their own.  Re-forestation since World War II is making headway.  Some.

Today, in the US an ordinary person can get a permit to cut wood in state and national forests, but only so much.  Timber companies have their own restrictions.  Where I live the forest wetlands are protected even if you own the land.  Permits can be had, for a price, and a logical plan to protect the wetlands.  More than one person has bought a lot, logged it off, and then let the property go back to the county for taxes.  But when the county finds stumps and out of control wetlands the previous owner is in big trouble.  Fines are something like double the value of the timber.  We have a lot of trees.  How long will they last if climate change triggers another little ice age? Or more likely, our magnificent Douglas Firs give way to more warmth loving trees like life oak, or cypress?


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

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


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

Or her personal web page



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 #13 — 3 Comments

  1. Ok, let me rant a bit about forests and misapprehensions here.

    First off, a forest in English law is a place of deer. It is not a place of trees, so getting forests that are not or only intermittendly wooded is par for the course.

    Second, deer played two roles in the economy: one, as a source of meat (the hunting-for-fun thing is a side effect, not the main reason) and b) as a source of income. People would ‘poach’ the king’s deer and pay a fine for it and everybody was happy… unless the fines weren’t paid.
    (Rabbits, for the most part, weren’t wild – they were kept in warrens and belonged to someone. Same thing applies.)

    Woodland-related rights are a very complex field and go far beyond a brief post – but there’s not just ‘collecting wood’ but ‘cutting wood’ (coppice or pollard) and the whole, even more contentious issue of timber trees. Plus pannage (fattening swine) and the right to keep cattle or sheep on common ground some of which may be wooded. Hedgerows and copses were an additional and extremely valuable source of both firewood (and foodstuffs) and, in some areas, timber (in the form of hedgerow trees).

    Last but not least, WWII was a time of heavy deforestation; but there has been extremely little reforestation – what has happened, to a great degree, is the conifer plantations, but they’re a relatively short-lived crop; which get more or less clear-felled and don’t support much in the way to wildlife. Reestablishing deciduous woodland needs a fair amount of management and tends to be done only by enthusiasts, although in recent years there has been more interest in coppicing practices. (I noticed that a farmer local to me has pollarded his willows. YAY.)

    • You are more familiar with English forestry laws than me. Owning and poaching, logging and gleaning firewood is an ongoing issue all over the world.

      In the US forest laws are just as complex and contradictory. I am a bit familiar with reforestation in Scotland because the semester I spent at University of Scotland, Edinburgh, my professor was involved in the project. After WWII the “experts” chose Pacific Northwest Douglas fir trees because they are fast growing and sturdy–able to withstand northern winters. However, they provide a different canopy and ground vegetation than the hardwoods that were there first. The fauna did not thrive. So after thirty years they either logged it off or let it go wild and started over with slower growing but native hardwoods. You don’t hear much about it now because it is a much slower process.

  2. Thanks again, Phyl, for your long-perspective insights. Sometimes the forest protections don’t work — here in the PNW, a lot of developers just go ahead and cut trees illegally, causing runoff and erosion that damages neighbors (happened to my sister), and they get a little slap on the hands with no obligation to fix the problems. *sigh* And we Certainly wouldn’t have a pseudo-president or two who “bought” their way out of the military draft….