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Suit and Service in United Kingdom

This phrase expresses the essential obligations inherent in the very nature of the feudal tie. It may be expanded (as regards tenure in chivalry) into the duty of attendance at the lord’s court, whether met for administrative or judicial purposes, or for reasons of mere display, and the further duty of military service under that lord’s banner in the field. Suit had ceased to be an urgent question before the reign of John. Indeed, the barons were gradually approaching the modern conception, which regards it as a privilege rather than a burden to attend the commune concilium—the embryo Parliament—of the King.

It was otherwise with the duties of military service, which were rendered every year more unwillingly, partly because of the increased frequency of warlike expeditions, partly because of the greater cost of campaigning in distant lands like Poitou, partly because the English barons were completely out of sympathy with John’s foreign policy and with him. We have seen that the want of definition in the Conqueror’s reign left to future ages a legacy of strife.

William and his barons lived in the present; and the present did not urgently call for definition. Therefore, the duration of the military service, and the conditions on which exemption could be claimed, were originally vague; but the return due (servitium debitum) for each knight’s fee was gradually fixed by custom at the service of one fully armed horseman during forty days. There were still, however, innumerable minor points on which disputes might arise, and these remained even in 1215.

Indeed, although several chapters of the Charter attempted to settle certain of these disputed points, others were left as bones of contention to subsequent reigns: for example, the exact equipment of a knight; the liability to serve for more than forty days on receiving pay for the extra time; what exemption might be claimed by churchmen; how far a tenant might compromise for actual service by tendering money; whether attendance and money might not both be withheld, if the King did not lead his forces in person; and whether service was due for foreign wars equally as for home ones. Some of these questions might be answered by the terms of special charters: the Hundred Rolls (1279) relate how Hugh de Plesens must go with the King for forty days at his own, and thereafter at the King’s expense. (Rot. Hund., II. p. 710; cf. for France, Établissements de St. Louis, I. c. 65).

Difficulties increased as time went on. The Conqueror’s followers had estates on both sides of the Channel: his wars were theirs. Before John’s reign, these simple relations had become complicated by two considerations. By forfeitures and the division of inheritances, holders of English and of Norman fiefs had become distinct. On the other hand, the expansion of the dominions of the English kings increased the number of their wars, and the expense of each expedition. The small wars with Wales and Scotland formed sufficient drain on the resources of English magnates without their being summoned to fight in Maine or Gascony.

Were the barons bound to follow John in a forlorn attempt, of which they disapproved, to recover his lost fiefs from the French Crown? Or were they bound to support him only in his legitimate schemes as King of England? Or were they, by way of compromise, liable for services in the identical possessions held by William the Conqueror at the date when their ancestors first got their fiefs—that is, for wars in England and Normandy alone? So early as 1198 the Knights of St. Edmunds refused to serve in Normandy, while offering to pay scutage.

The northern barons in 1213 declared that they owed no service whatsoever out of England.3 This extreme claim put them clearly in the wrong, since John could produce precedents to the contrary. When, on his return from the unfortunate expedition of 1214, he demanded a scutage from all who had not followed him to Poitou, the malcontents declared that they had no obligation either to follow him out of the kingdom, or to pay a scutage in lieu thereof.

Pope Innocent was probably correct in condemning this contention as founded neither on English law nor on feudal custom.2 There is some ground for believing that a compromise was mooted on the basis that the barons should agree to serve in Normandy and Brittany, as well as in England, on being exempted from fighting elsewhere abroad.

A definite understanding was never arrived at: chapter 16 of Magna Carta provided that existing services were not to be increased, without defining what these were. This was to shelve the difficulty: the dispute went on under varying forms and led to an unseemly wrangle between Edward I. and his Constable and Marshal, dramatized in a classic passage by Walter of Hemingburgh.4 Strangely enough, the Confirmatio Cartarum of 1297, which was, in part, the outcome of this later quarrel, omits (like Magna Carta itself)5 all reference to foreign service.

The omission from both charters of all mention of the chief cause of dispute is noteworthy. It must be remembered, however, that the question of liability to serve abroad had practically resolved itself into that of liability to scutage, and that chapters 12 and 14 of the Charter of 1215 provided an adequate check on the levy of all scutages; but this is a subject that requires separate and detailed treatment.

Source: Part II. Magna Carta: A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John, with an Historical Introduction, by William Sharp McKechnie (Glasgow: Maclehose, 1914).

See Also

Magna Carta
History of Magna Carta in the English Encyclopedia
English Court System in the Legal Encyclopedia
Feudal Rival Courts
Royal Courts
Events Leading to Magna Carta
Feudal Courts

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  • Article Name: Suit and Service
  • Author: International
  • Description: This phrase expresses the essential obligations inherent in the very nature of the feudal tie. It may be expanded (as [...]

This entry was last updated: May 29, 2015

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