Over the last two weeks we have explored the how our legal system developed from early history to Anglo-Saxon codes and an attempt to unify legal system. The Anglo-Saxons introduced the first King’s Council, the Witan, and disseminated many central law codes however local traditions still took precedence in many areas. So how did the Norman’s change this?
After William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, he made a few changes to the legal system, perhaps the most significant being the separating of the lay and ecclesiastical courts, so that from this time on two distinct legal systems existed: state law and canon law.
Crime and misdemeanours were dealt with locally, the frankpledge replaced the tithing (although based on the same/similar principles) and Trial by Battle replace trial by Order.
The courts which were already in existence continued and thrived but under a more unified system and dealt with both criminal and civil matters, as well as the administration matters akin to local government today.
Lords grew in power through grants of sac and soc; they controlled the local administration of justice.
Many crimes and misdemeanours were dealt with at a local level by the manorial court Leet such as breach of the peace. In particular it was responsible for the effective working of the system of Frankpledge. Whilst this system began to decline from the 14th century, even up to the 16th century, some manors ‘clung on’ to jurisdiction in cases of petty theft, affray or drunkenness.
The regulating and administering the affairs of the manor was the responsibility of the Court Baron. It was this court which enforced local customs, dealt with minor civil disputes such as boundary disputes and debts, and the transfer of land and property rights, most commonly customary or copyhold land.
Manorial courts crossed jurisdiction with the Hundred Courts.
Over time, the principal functions of the hundred became the administration of law and the keeping of the peace. By the 12th century, the hundred court was held twelve times a year. This was later increased to fortnightly, although an ordinance of 1234 reduced the frequency to once every three weeks.
In some hundreds, courts were held at a fixed place; while in others, courts moved with each sitting to a different location. Many hundreds came into private hands, with the lordship of the hundred being attached to the principal manor of the area and becoming hereditary.
On a county basis, local justice was administered by the sheriff, the dominant law officer of the Crown, through his court also known as the Sheriff’s tourn. The court was held twice a year, within a month of Easter and within a month of Michaelmas. Every person who was a freeholder was expected to attend at least one of these courts annually. The court heard presentments (complaints) that involved felonies, larceny, arson, minor criminal cases and quarrels between neighbours.
The tourn was the bi-annual inspection of the hundreds of his shire made by the sheriff in medieval England. During it he would preside over the especially full meetings of the hundred court (more normally three-weekly) which met during the tourn at Easter and Michaelmas.
Curia Regis and General Eyre
Over the next century, criminal justice was gradually transferred to the Crown, starting with the Curia Regis – the Latin term meaning “royal council” or “king’s court” (replacing the Witan). The central governing body of the Kingdom of England.
However it was the Plantagenet who reigned England from 1154 to 1485, who truly transformed the English legal system.
Henry II, in 1166 sent out two judges from the Curia Regis to the Sheriff courts to align all the court with the King’s Central court, creating the General Eyre. These Royal judges went out “on circuit” at irregular intervals, to all the counties of England, except Durham and Chester where the royal jurisdiction. The aim was every seven years but in practice less frequently. They took the law of Westminster, both civil and criminal, everywhere with them, both in civil and in criminal cases.
The royal courts controlled them local customs, which were paid lip service, and often rejected as unreasonable or unproved: common law was presumed to apply everywhere until and unless a local custom could be proven.
Henry II also introduced the jury system doing away with the old systems of swearing on oath and trial by ordeal.
Richard I and Quarter Sessions
Sheriffs gradually acquired a reputation for dishonest practices and embezzlement. When Richard I returned from the Third crusade in 1195, he believe his sheriffs had abused their authority whilst he had been away so he commissioned knights from every shire, to assist in keeping the peace. Known keepers of the peace until 1327, when Edward III first referred to them as Justices of the Peace (JPs), they took over many cases previously heard by the Sheriffs.
The City of London sessions (the Old Bailey) were held in rooms specially hired for the purpose or in Newgate, the ‘notorious prison’ used to house prisoners from at least the end of the 12th century. The Old Bailey, named after the street besides the new prison, soon became popular as the scene of hanging of those sentenced to death. The last ‘beheading’ in the country took place outside the prison in 1820.
By the 13th century, three central courts—Exchequer, Common Pleas, and King’s Bench—applied the common law. Although the same law was applied in each court, they vied in offering better remedies to litigants in order to increase their fees.
Court of Exchequer
Originally oversaw the collection of taxes and dealt with any claims concerning Royal Revenue, but later became an equity court (see later). To bring a claim in the court of Exchequer, there had to be a real and genuine connection to royal revenue.
Court of Common Pleas
This court developed from the King’s Council to deal with claims concerning property and debt between individuals other than the crown.
Edward I (reigned 1272–1307)
Often known as “the English Justinian” introduced several statutes which an important influence on the law of the late Middle Ages. Edward’s civil statues amended unwritten common law and remained the basic statue law for centuries, albeit it often supplemented by specialist statute enacted to meet temporary problems.
Four statutes in particular where:
- Statute of Westminster (1275) making jury trial compulsory in criminal cases and altered land law
- The Statute of Gloucester (1278) limiting the jurisdiction of local courts and extended the scope of actions for damages.
- Statute of Westminster (1285) bringing about four main changes: created and fixed the legal estate of fee tail or entail in land (previously a custom of landed gentry); it made land an asset from which judgement debts could be paid; it freed restrictions on appeals to high circuit courts; and it improved the law of administration of assets on death.
- The Statute of 1290 or “Quia emptores terrarum” (“because sellers of lands”) stopped subinfeudation, that is the granting of new feudal rights by land holders other than the crown. Those holding freehold land as a result of subinfeudation would be able to deal with their property free of any interference from the original grantor.
In 1294 Edward I suspended the General Eyre replacing them with the Assizes although isolated Eyres did still continue until 1374.
Specialist Equity Courts
From the 14th century specialist courts began to emerge as a result of a growing litigation culture and failure of traditional remedies being appropriate. These were the equity courts:
- Court of Chancery – the oldest Equity court in the English legal system and remains a division of the High Court.
- Court of Requests (1483 – 1640’s).
- Court of Star Chambers (1485-1641).
- Court of Augmentation (c.1530 -1554) which specifically dealt with disputes and royal revenue following the dissolution of the monasteries.
- Court of Exchequer – which developed from the common law court of the same name.
Other specialist courts also developed such as (for more infomation see my blog from last year on the Central law courts:
- High Court of Admiralty (to be covered in more detail in a later blog)
- Court of Wards and Liveries which was developed by Henry VIII which most only administered a system of feudal dues but which also had responsibility for wardship and livery issues
- The Privy Council also developed from the Curia Regis and was a legislative, judicial and administrative body, essentially an advisory court of the Crown
- Palace Court
Following the introduction of poor laws Quarter Sessions became increasingly busy and over burdened. They no longer had sufficient time to deal with all the business in the quarterly sessions. From the 16th century therefore Justices began to meet between quarter session to deal with more minor criminal offences and conduct routine business. This could be by a single judge acting alone or two or more JP’s meeting together. These became known as the Petty Sessions.
And so, save for the introduction of Petty Sessions, by the end of the 14th century our legal system, which remained in place until 1875 for civil proceedings and 1971 for criminal proceedings was born!
Today it is often thought our legal system is out of date, but in reality our current legal system is in its infancy compared to what came before.
Next week I will consider what happened to the Ecclesiastical Courts following the division of State and Church law by William the Conqueror.