Comites et barones non amercientur nisi per pares suos, et non nisi secundum modum delicti.
Earls and barons are not to be amerced except by their peers, and not except in proportion to the nature of the offence.
Clause 55 (The 1215 Magna Carta)
Please note: commentaries are presently available only for clauses marked with *; more commentary to be added in due course.
Clause 21 is a follow-up to Clause 20. Both dealt with the imposition of amercements (monetary penalties), but whereas Clause 20 extended right across society, to free men, merchants and villeins, its sequel was concerned only with the rights of earls and barons - a small number of wealthy and powerful people. In the early thirteenth century ranks and titles were still in flux, and the word `baron’, in particular, could still be a synonym for tenant-in-chief, someone holding lands directly from the crown, and may also have been sometimes applied to a royal servant. But however defined, the punishment of such men’s transgressions was reserved to the king and his officers, which usually meant that it was handled in the exchequer. The result could be a heavy penalty, assessed in proportion to an offender’s means rather than to his offence. This was equally true of amercements as such, and of many fines which, though they were supposedly negotiated settlements, were in reality punishments, agreed to by their victims as a way of recovering the king’s favour. The magnates wanted treatment that would be fairer in itself, and also special in accordance with their status, at a time when they were beginning to form a separate stratum in society. But they hardly achieved this, for the leading officials in the exchequer were also known as barons, and during the thirteenth century it came to be accepted that these men were the peers of the magnates, at any rate when it came to assessing the latter’s amercements, which therefore remained effectively under the king’s control.