The Magna Carta Project

Original Latin


Liber homo non amercietur pro parvo delicto, nisi secundum modum delicti; et pro magno delicto amercietur secundum magnitudinem delicti, salvo contenemento suo; et mercator eodem modo salva mercandisa sua; et villanus eodem modo amercietur salvo wainnagio suo, si inciderint in misericordiam nostram; et nulla praedictarum misericordiarum ponatur, nisi per sacramentum proborum hominum de visneto.


A free man is not to be amerced for a small offence except in proportion to the nature of the offence, and for a great offence he is to be amerced in accordance with its magnitude, saving to him his livelihood, and a merchant in the same manner, saving to him his stock in trade, and a villein is to be amerced in the same manner, saving to him his growing crops, if they fall into our mercy. And none of the aforesaid amercements is to be imposed except by the oath of trustworthy men of the vicinity.

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Commentary for general audience

The financial penalties known as amercements featured prominently among the consequences of encounters with government in England in the years around 1200, especially for anyone caught up in proceedings in royal courts.  Although they became increasingly standardised, and it had long been accepted, at least in principle, that penalties for wrong-doing should not be imposed at rates out of all proportion to the offence, they could still be ruinous for those the king and his agents particularly wished to punish.  Substantial sums were sometimes exacted by King John in the earlier years of his reign (as they had been under Henry II and Richard I), while a nationwide visitation by so-called `autumnal justices’ in the summer of 1210 resulted in heavy penalties being imposed on leading members of society in every county, usually for ill-defined offences.  The sums demanded were often large even when they had been reduced by half, as many of them were, and a number of the men targeted in 1210 rebelled in 1215/16.  Although John was aware of the resentment such levies aroused, he continued to exploit the processes of justice to the utmost.  Clause 20 was the result.  Not only did it reiterate the principle of proportionality, but it also upheld another long-standing practice, whereby amercements were assessed by the neighbours of offenders rather than by royal officers.  No doubt it was felt that this would moderate the penalties imposed.  Clause 20 was unique in Magna Carta in extending the protection it afforded to free men not only to merchants but also to villeins.  Although its drafters were mainly concerned to protect the interests of the latter’s lords, who would lose by the impoverishment of the people who worked their lands, the provision still constitutes striking evidence for the way the demands of John’s government could impact upon the whole of agrarian society.

Referenced in

Clause 60 (The 1215 Magna Carta)

John grants freedom of election (The Itinerary of King John)

Magna Carta 1215
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