Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Magna Carta's dirty secret

Melvyn Bragg's otherwise extremely informative introductory series on Magna Carta does not touch on the clauses we were not told about in school.

The British Library has an English translation of the charter which King John put his seal to - but later repudiated - in 1215. The offending clauses are:

(10) If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands. If such a debt falls into the hands of the Crown, it will take nothing except the principal sum specified in the bond.

(11) If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands. The debt is to be paid out of the residue, reserving the service due to his feudal lords. Debts owed to persons other than Jews are to be dealt with similarly.

As Jonathan Romain lays out here, there are other clauses which do not mention Jews by name, but clearly do apply especially to the Jewish money-lenders who the rebel barons wanted to be free of. (I did suggest some time ago that substituting "pay-day loan merchant" for Jew in the foregoing might justify reviving the clauses.) However, they were dropped from the last revision of the charter, the one that matters, the one that was agreed to by the governing council of Henry III in 1225.

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