Background to the Magna Carta

Andrew Joyce, Ph.D.


The first point to bear in mind in that Magna Carta was a document produced by the nobles and presented to the monarch — in this case, King John. In this sense we should bear in mind the tensions between the nobles and the King over one chief issue — the role of Jewish usury in enabling land transfer from the nobility to the monarch. The relevant clauses are as follows:

 * (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.

So obviously these clauses weaken the ability of Jew and Crown to recoup either debt or interest on loans. It doesn’t prevent moneylending etc., but certainly we could agree that the position of Jew and King would be weakened. We must then ask, firstly, why was this necessary? And secondly, why did it suddenly disappear a year later in the 1216 charter? On the first point, as I state in my article on medieval Jewry, the relationship at this time during the Crown and the nobles was tense indeed, and the Jews were a very important factor in this tension. King John, whose actions had brought about the need for the Magna Carta, was profligate, incompetent, and utterly beholden to his Jews and their ability to provide him with seemingly unlimited funds for his misadventures on the Continent.

He was also merciless in taxation. In 1207 he raised over £60,000 from the Christian population — a vast sum in that time period. He also levied a much more lenient tax on the Jews. (Patricia Skinner [Jews in Medieval England, 42] writes that their tax was “onerous but not devastating.”) But suspecting that Jews were understating their income and wealth, John innovated by demanding that lists of all their debts be maintained and held at the Royal Treasury — he then reserved the right to purchase any of these debts that he liked the look of.

This was the beginning in earnest of the process of land transfer from the nobles to the Crown (and facilitated by Jewish usury) that I mentioned in my article. Nobles would borrow from Jews, John (or his agents) would monitor repayments on the treasury rolls — and if anyone looked like they were getting into trouble with repayments and might forfeit, John would buy the debt from the Jew and reap the land for himself.

Obviously over time this created a great deal of antagonism against Crown and Jew. Monarchs had done this on a smaller scale before, but John was utterly reckless. Skinner writes that by 1207, John “brought into his hands the largest single cache of Jewish debts since 1186; he also ordered the exchequer to begin seizing the lands of debtors.” To the remaining debtors, it was clear they were going to lose their lands and possessions to either King or Jew. Both were seen by the nobles as inseparable, and so when the Magna Carta rebellion broke out “Jews and Jewish property were among the principle targets” (Skinner, 44).

This is the primary reason why the clauses on Jews were introduced in the first place in 1215. On the question of why it was changed only a year later: firstly, John died and was succeeded by the boy King Henry III prior to the issuance of the second charter. In total, nineteen clauses were eliminated from the first (Runnymeade) Magna Carta, and the two relating to Jews and usury were among them. The boy King himself did not have anything to do with this; it was the circle of elites around him. They wished to restore order in the country and, traditionally, treatment of the Jews was a reliable barometer for Crown authority — if the Jews were left alone, then the Crown was in a solid position because it was on Crown authority alone that they remained safe. In times of transition and weak royal authority, the Jews were among the first to be attacked, because the gloves could safely come off so to speak.

For the small circle of elites around the boy king, making the Jews safe (and wealthy) was thus a priority. As part of their negotiations with the barons they pressed for and achieved:

  • 1) the elimination of the two clauses on Jews;
  • 2) the release of all Jews captured by the barons;
  • 3) the renewal and reinforcing of royal safeguards for all Jews;
  • 4) the return of bonds to Jews for collection;
  • 5) an order for port officials to permit all foreign Jews entry to England;
  • 6) the establishment of a separate Jewish Exchequer;
  • 7) special policing units established specifically for the purpose of protecting the Jews of Lincoln, Oxford, Gloucester and Bristol; 8) the exemption of Jews from the decree of the Fourth Lateran Council that all Jews should wear an identifying badge;
  • 9) the exemption of Jews from all episcopal courts;
  • 10) the active enforcement by Royal sheriffs of all debts owed by Christians to Jews (Skinner, 44).

This was an astonishing amount of freedom and protection. It’s unfortunate that more is not known about the background and motivations of the circle of advisers around the boy King. I strongly suspect that among them were people with direct financial interest in Jewish economic activities, or maybe even a few crypto-Jews.

The whole episode is extremely suspect. It bought the Jews some time, and it did reinforce for a while the impression of royal strength. However, Henry grew to be just as avaricious and over-ambitious as his predecessor. His partnership with the Jews only ratcheted the tension higher than ever. Jews certainly felt the pressure rising and some turned to crypsis to avoid conflict (Skinner, 51 describes a “flood of Jewish conversions” during the period 1230–1250s, but many Christians suspected insincerity).

Henry’s government collapsed in 1258, and his son Edward came to the throne. Edward saw the writing on the wall, banning Jewish moneylending altogether in 1275. Seeking a way to placate his increasingly annoyed barons, and ridding himself of a now fairly useless population, he sent the Jews on their way in 1290.

The removal of the clauses was thus an attempt to patch up a ship that had been coming apart at the seams for some time — the Crown-Jew alliance. The breaking up of this alliance by the barons is something that England should be forever grateful for, given the fate of other nations in which the alliance of Crown and Jew persisted for many more centuries — Poland being a prime example.

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