Si quis fuerit dissaisitus vel elongatus per nos sine legali judicio parium suorum, de terris, castellis, libertatibus, vel jure suo, statim ea ei restituemus; et si contentio super hoc orta fuerit, tunc inde fiat per judicium viginti quinque baronum, de quibus fit mentio inferius in securitate pacis: de omnibus autem illis de quibus aliquis disseisitus fuerit vel elongatus sine legali judicio parium suorum, per Henricum regem patrem nostrum vel per Ricardum regem fratrem nostrum, quae in manu nostra habemus, vel quae alii tenent, quae nos oporteat warantizare, respectum habebimus usque ad communem terminum crucesignatorum; exceptis illis de quibus placitum motum fuit vel inquisitio facta per praeceptum nostrum, ante susceptionem crucis nostrae: cum autem redierimus de peregrinatione nostra, vel si forte remanserimus a peregrinatione nostra, statim inde pleman justiciam exhibebimus.
If anyone has been disseised or dispossessed by us, without lawful judgment of his peers, of lands, castles, liberties, or of his right, we will restore them to him immediately. And if dispute should arise concerning this, then it is to be dealt with by judgment of the twenty-five barons named below in the security for peace. But concerning all those things of which anyone was disseised or dispossessed, without lawful judgment of his peers, by King Henry our father or King Richard our brother, which we have in our hand, or which others hold and which we ought to warrant, we will have respite during the usual crusader’s term [of exemption], except for those matters over which a plea was begun or an inquest held on our orders before our taking of the cross. But when we have returned from our crusade, or if perchance we have stayed at home without going on crusade, we will then at once do full justice in such cases.
Clause 52 was one of the longest in the 1215 Magna Carta. Expressing the determination of the barons to enforce retrospectively an important element in Clause 39 of the Charter, its basic issue was a simple one, the right of free landowners who had been deprived – `disseised’ – of estates, castles and rights by King John, or by his father, Henry II, and elder brother, Richard I, to recover what had been unlawfully taken from them. That the Clause differed in significant respects from no. 25 of the Articles of the Barons, on which it was based, was principally due to complications resulting from John’s having taken the cross on 4 March 1215, and from his claim that he was therefore entitled to the exemptions from legal processes which had come to be granted to crusaders. Eventually it was decided that he must restore immediately what he himself had had taken, but that seizures by his father and brother should await his return from the Holy Land, or alternatively, his decision not to go there.
The wording of Clause 52 makes it clear that the barons expected resistance from King John. When that happened, the twenty-five barons in whose hands the enforcement of the whole Charter was to be placed were to give judgment. There was likely to be much for them to do, since John had disseised men and women of their lands throughout his reign. His actions could have been justified on a variety of grounds, for instance a failure to pay debts owing to the crown, but often arose from political or personal considerations. Many disseisins followed the conspiracy of 1212 against John’s life, while in the weeks before Runnymede he had ordered the seizure in every county of the estates of those he now described as his enemies, creating a good deal of confusion in the process. Disseisins could be carried out through chicanery, for instance by manipulating the proceedings of the courts, but most were implemented by force. A number of orders for their rectification were given in the weeks following the negotiation of Magna Carta, and show that those affected had been free landholders of all ranks, but inevitably the claims of the magnates for repossession received most attention and are best recorded.
How far the twenty-five barons were involved in dealing with them is unclear – in some cases John may have pre-empted their intervention by ordering restitution himself – but it seems likely (not least because a number of them had themselves been disseised by the king) that they did play a part, perhaps a significant one, in restoring the king’s victims to their lands, and to the rights and castles to whose recovery they were also entitled. A number of castles were handed back, while Eustace de Vesci, one of the conspirators of 1212 and one of the twenty-five in 1215, regained hunting rights in Northumberland which King John, with characteristic petty-mindedness, had evidently withheld when Eustace recovered his lands in 1213. Other barons seized the opportunity presented by the king’s weakness to claim more than they had lost, or even what they had never held. William de Mowbray, a leading baron in Yorkshire, asserted his right to hold the king’s forest in that county and the royal castle in York, proffering as evidence the findings of an inquest which probably never took place. John successfully resisted Mowbray’s claim, as he also did that of Nicholas de Stuteville to Knaresborough Castle, which he had held since 1205 as pledge for Nicholas’s payment of a huge fine for the right to succeed to his family’s lands. The fine was never paid, and the castle was not given back, in defiance of a direct order by the twenty-five barons. The cases of York and Knaresborough, like Clause 52 itself, illustrate both John’s methods of government and the breakdown of relations between king and barons which resulted from them.
Clause 55 (The 1215 Magna Carta)
Clause 55 (The 1215 Magna Carta)
Clause 60 (The 1215 Magna Carta)
Please note: commentaries are presently available only for clauses marked with *; more commentary to be added in due course.