June 15, 2015

Today is the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta by King John of England. Because of that historic anniversary, our ETW Document of the Week is the only infrastructure-related clause in Magna Carta – the right of local governments to not have to build infrastructure at the whim of the central government.

Clause 23, as translated into modern English by the British Library, reads as follows: “No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.”

An academic research project on Magna Carta organized by the British Library and several universities in the U.K. has published a clause-by-clause commentary on the Great Charter, and their explanation for clause 23 is somewhat amusing. While English kings had long claimed the right to force their subjects to construct military fortifications and bridges (the “ancient obligation” in the clause), the Angevin kings were big on hawking as a pastime (hunting small game with trained hawks – falcons were not domesticated until later).

Since the small game was easiest to find near rivers, a king who was hawking would frequently need to cross from one bank of a river to the other in order to pick up what his hawk had captured. The king and his river-keepers therefore were in the frequent habit of forcing the locals to build bridges for the primary purpose of facilitating the King’s recreation, and those who would not do so would face a fine. The Magna Carta Project reports that “by the beginning of the thirteenth century the penalty for failure to provide a bridge when the king went out after birds had become standardised at five marks – £3. 6s. 8d., a far from insignificant sum – and that it was commonly imposed, and perhaps collected, on the spot, or at any rate without reference to the exchequer.”

By 1208, King John had prohibited anyone in England except himself from hawking. The commentary says that the ban gave the king “an effective monopoly of the right to go hawking, and as an inevitable corollary, everyone, everywhere, might have had to contribute to the making of the bridges which he needed in order to enjoy his sport.  The penalty for those who did not do so was in any case severe, and seems to have been arbitrarily imposed, while because it was subject to no external control it was also open to abuse, by the king himself and also by his officials – Clause 48 of Magna Carta included the keepers of river-banks among the royal servants whose `evil customs’ were to be investigated and abolished.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in 1215 steps were taken to restrict so injurious a practice.”

The full commentary on clause 23, and links to the commentary on the rest of Magna Carta, can be found here.