Magna Carta IV
Bill Long 1/15/05
A Provision on Hostages--Chapters 49
We have seen that the original (1215) MC had 63 chapters, which were reduced to 37 by the time that Henry III re-issued MC in 1225. These 37 chapters were also in the Charter confirmed under Edward I in 1297. Yet it is good to begin our consideration of the text of MC with the 1215 version. Several of the paragraphs, especially from about 49-63, dealing with specific abuses of King John or specific immediate remedies sought by the barons, would be dropped in subsequent issuances of the Charter. Brief consideration of some of these "dropped paragraphs," however, shines a light on John's mode of rule that cannot as easily be obtained elsewhere.
Categories of Provisions in MC
Before commenting on particular provisions, it might be helpful to categorize them generally. The 1215 Charter's 63 chapters were not arranged systematically. Nevertheless, some order is discernible in the six or seven major areas covered in MC. (1) Feudal Relationships are discusssed in chapters 2-8 inclusive and then 12, 14-16, 32, 37, 43 and 46. Thus, they tend to cluster earlier in MC. (2) In the middle are provisions dealing with Courts and the Administration of Justice. These comprise 17-24, 34, 35, 38-40, 45, 54. (3) Correction of the King's Past Wrongs are in 49-53, 55-59, 62. Then we have lesser categories, such as (4) Abuse of citizens by Local Officers in 25, 28-31; (5) what would later (in 1217) become the Forest Law in 44, 47,48; (6) provisions on Towns and Trade in 13, 33, 41-42 and 35; and (7) some sections on Debts and Estates in 9-11, 26-27. A few miscellaneous provisions confirming the freedom of the Church (whatever that really meant) and security for keeping the Charter conclude this overview. Subsequent essays will take up a number of these categories.
Chapter 49 and Hostages
The original Chapter 49 provided, in English translation (MC was written by Chancery scribes in Latin):
"We will immediately return all hostages and charters given to us by Englishgment, as security for peace or faithful service."
This chapter points to a pretty ghastly feature of John's rule. In order to secure allegiance from his barons, John would often demand that they leave a son or daughter in his "care." This, of course, would make the nobles think twice about leading a revolution. John was not unique in this practice. William the Conqueror had taken hostages with him in 1067 during a forced absence from England. Yet examples of this practice among kings between William and John were scarce. John's resort to this expedient showed that even though he ruled in England as an English king (unlike his predecessor Richard, who rarely set foot on English soil), he could in no wise be considered popular.
McKechnie, in his 1912 (2nd ed) commentary on MC, gives some examples of hostages so taken. John seized castles of his barons; the only way that one of them, a Willliam of Albini, could save his castle was by turning over his son as hostage. A particularly cruel instance of John's hostage taking ability happened after the Welsh rebellion of 1212. He had taken hostages Welsh hostages in 1211 and, after hearing about the rebellion, hanged 28 Welsh boys of noble descent.
After 1207, when the Pope put England under interdict for John's refusal to accept the papal choice of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope absolved barons of obedience to John. Yet, this led John to demand even more hostages, and often he got them. Even though some were released in 1214, when John engaged in his ultimately unsuccessful French War, the issue still lingered in the barons' mind in 1215. Hence, this paragraph. Thus, on June 23, 1215, in a letter from King John to Stephen Harengod, the keeper of his hostages, John commanded him to release all hostages immediately.
The next essay will go review demands that John remove particular people from office.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R.Long