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CHAPTER FORTY–NINE. - Misc (Magna Carta), Magna Carta: A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John, with an Historical Introduction 
Magna Carta: A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John, with an Historical Introduction, by William Sharp McKechnie (Glasgow: Maclehose, 1914).
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Omnes obsides et cartas statim reddemus que liberate fuerunt nobis ab Anglicis in securitatem pacis vel fidelis servicii.
We will immediately restore all hostages and charters delivered to us by Englishmen, as sureties of the peace or of faithful service.
A feature of John’s system of government was the constant demand for hostages as guarantees of his subjects’ loyalty. Such an expedient was, indeed, naturally resorted to in the Middle Ages upon special occasions, as, for example, to secure the observance of a recent treaty, or where the leaders of a rebellion, newly suppressed, had been spared on condition of future good behaviour. Thus the Conqueror, in 1067, during a forced absence from England, took with him Edgar Atheling and the Earls Morkere and Edwin. Such cases were, however, exceptional, until John resorted to such a policy, not merely in face of danger, but as a constant and normal practice in times of peace.
John lived in his native England like a conqueror in the midst of a hostile race, keeping sons and daughters in his clutches to answer for their parents’ attempts at revolt. This ingenious but unfair practice accords well with what we know of John’s character and general policy. It was a measure of almost devilish cunning for obtaining his immediate ends, but likely to recoil on himself whenever a critical state of his fortunes arrived. Its efficacy lay in this, that it forced the hand of discontented magnates, compelling them to decide, upon the instant, between the desperate expedient of open rebellion and delivery of their children to an unscrupulous enemy, thus renouncing, perhaps for ever, the possibility of resistance or revenge, thereafter to be purchased at too dear a price—the life of the hostage. By thus paralyzing his enemies one by one, John hoped to render disaffection innocuous.1
The history of the reign shows of what excessive practical importance this question of hostages had become. Thus, in 1201, John seized the castles of certain of his barons; and one of them, William of Albini, only saved his stronghold of Belvoir by handing over his son as a hostage.1 In the same year, the men of York offended the King by omitting to meet him in procession when he visited their city, and by their failure to provide for the billeting of his archers. John, as usual, demanded hostages, but ultimately allowed the citizens to escape on payment of £100, to buy goodwill.2
Hardly a year passed without similar instances; but, apparently, it was not until 1208 that the practice was enforced wholesale. In that year, the King’s abject fear of the effects of the Pope’s absolution of his barons from their allegiance, led to his demand that every leading man in England should hand over his sons, nephews, or other blood relations to the King’s messengers.3
The danger of failure to comply with such demands is illustrated by the fate of Maud of Saint–Valery, wife of William de Braose, who refused point–blank to hand over her grandchildren to a King who, she was unwise enough to say, “had murdered his captive nephew.”4 Two years later John, after failing to extort enormous sums in name of fines, caused her, with her eldest son, to be starved to death, a fate to which her own imprudence had doubtless contributed.5 John’s drastic methods of treating his hostages may also be illustrated from the chronicles of his reign, for example, from the fate of the youths he brought from Wales in June, 1211. When he heard of the Welsh rebellion of the following year, he ordered his levies to meet him at Nottingham. At the muster, early in September, John found awaiting him a great concourse, who were treated to an object lesson which long might haunt their dreams. His passion at white heat, John incontinently hanged eight–and–twenty defenceless boys of the noblest blood of Wales.1 This ghastly spectacle could not have been forgotten, when later in the same month the King, in the throes of sudden panic, fled to London; and, secure in the fastnesses of the Tower, demanded hostages wholesale from all the nobles whose fidelity he doubted. Eustace de Vesci and Robert fitz Walter preferred to seek safety in flight.2 The others, with the Nottingham horror fresh in their memories, were constrained to hand over sons and daughters to the tender mercies of John, cunning and cruel by nature, and rendered doubly treacherous by suspicion intensified by fear.
The defects of this policy, in the long run, may be read in the events which preceded Magna Carta. When John’s hold on the hostages was relaxed, because of the campaign of 1214, ending as it did in discomfiture, the disaffected were afforded their long–desired opportunity, and were stimulated to rapid action by the thought that such a chance might never occur again. John, on his return, held comparatively few hostages, and the northern barons saw that they must act, if at all, before their children were once more in the tyrant’s clutches.
Even in June, 1215, however, John had still a few hostages, and this chapter demands the immediate restoration of those of English birth (the Welsh receiving separate treatment), together with the charters which John held as additional security. This provision of Magna Carta was immediately carried out. Letters were dispatched to the custodians of royal hostages, ordering an immediate release.3 The practice of taking hostages, however, by no means ended with the granting of the Great Charter. Before a year had run, some of the insurgent nobles, repenting of their boldness, succeeded in making terms with John by the payment of large sums of money and the delivery of their sons and daughters in security for their future loyalty. Simon fitz Walter, for example, thus gave up his daughter Matilda.1
[1 ]The only magnates not exposed to this dilemma were the prelates, whose celibacy cut them adrift from acknowledged family ties. They had no hostages to give, and were, further, in the normal case, exempt from fear of personal violence.
[1 ]See R. Hoveden, IV. 161.
[2 ]See Rotuli de Finibus, p. 119.
[3 ]See R. Wendover, III. 224–5, and M. Paris, II. 523.
[4 ]R. Wendover and Matthew Paris, ibid.
[5 ]See authorities cited by Miss Norgate, John Lackland, p. 288.
[1 ]Cf. supra, p. 25.
[2 ]Cf. supra, p. 25.
[3 ]See letter of 23rd June to Stephen Harengod in Appendix.
[1 ]See Rotuli de Finibus, 571. The custody of hostages might be a desirable office; in 1199 Alan, the earl’s son, offered three greyhounds for the custody of a hostage of Brittany, Rotuli de Finibus, p. 29.