The Magna Carta Project

Original Latin


Si aliquis tenens de nobis laicum feodum moriatur, et vicecomes vel ballivus noster ostendat litteras nostras patentes de summonitione nostra de debito quod defunctus nobis debuit, liceat vicecomiti vel ballivo nostro attachiare et inbreviare catalla defuncti inventa in laico feodo, ad valentiam illius debiti, per visum legalium hominum, ita tamen quod nihil amoveatur, donec persolvatur nobis debitum quod clarum fuerit; et residuum relinquatur executoribus ad faciendum testamentum defuncti; et, si nihil nobis debeatur ab ipso, omnia catalla cedant defuncto, salvis uxoris ipsius et pueris rationabilibus partibus suis.


If anyone holding a lay fee of us dies, and the sheriff or a bailiff of ours shows our letters patent of summons for a debt which the dead man owed us, it is to be lawful for the sheriff or our bailiff to attach and record the chattels of the deceased found on the lay fee to the value of the debt, by the view of law-abiding men, so that nothing is to be removed thence, until the clear debt is paid to us; and the residue is to be relinquished to the executors to carry out the testament of the deceased; and if nothing is owed us by him, all the chattels are to go to the deceased, but reserving their rightful shares to his wife and children.

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Commentary for general audience

Clause 26 is concerned with debts owed to the king when they died by tenants-in-chief – men (as they nearly always were) who held their lands directly from him, and therefore included many of his leading subjects – and with how what was left when those debts had been paid was disposed of. The way in which government deals with the possessions of the recently-deceased has probably always been a sensitive issue. In the years around 1200 it was made much more so by the imprecise state of the law, which made it easy for kings and their officers to take too much, to keep more than they should of what they had taken, and to interfere with bequests. Hence the stress on formal summonses and record-keeping, intended to ensure that those affected should know both what was owed and what was subsequently removed by way of payment. The existing procedures had clearly put the heirs and dependents of the deceased at a severe disadvantage, with the result that they often found it necessary to bargain with the king in order to keep sheriffs and bailiffs off their lands, which might otherwise be stripped of goods and crops even though little or nothing was in fact owing.

The right to make a testament (in modern parlance, a will), and to have it observed, was one that the barons had been seeking for over a century. Early in his reign John declared that bishops were entitled to dispose of their goods and chattels in this way, but though he does not seem to have tried to prevent laymen from making testamentary bequests, many still felt obliged, or found it prudent, to pay for a right which they had come to feel entitled to. By the early thirteenth century it had become customary for the moveable property (not the lands) of a dead layman to be divided into three equal parts, of which two were reserved for his wife and children, while the third was expected to be devoted to pious works for the salvation of his soul. In a religious age, any interference with this process was likely to be keenly resented. The barons did not object to the principle that the king should be able to recover what he was owed by those who died in debt to him, rather they aimed to bring order to the procedures involved, and to prevent their becoming a means of extortion.

Magna Carta 1215
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