The Assize of Northampton, January 1176

Angevinman wishes all loyal Angevin supporters in the UK and France a ‘Happy New Year‘ for 2011. I have been especially pleased to receive loyal petitions from Charles Hill and Daniel Jheeta, two of my loyal barons when I was Tenant in Chief at Leeds Grammar School, under the sovereignty of King Mark I (a worthy ruler and superb historical chronicler). I have also been very pleased to receive a charter from my own daughter, the Lady Rachel, a most excellent scribe in the office of the Justicar. Could anyone reading my angevin blog pass on details to any other Leeds Grammar School barons with whom they are in contact?

In my writ of 29th December, I promised you details of Henry II’s great law reforms. I shall be outlining details of Henry’s enlightened Common Law reforms over the winter, beginning with the far-reaching Assize of Northampton, promulgated 835 years ago in January 1176.

First of all, I think I should explain what is meant by the term: ’Assize’. I say this because this designation was abolished forty years ago in 1971 in England and Wales. Under Angevin authority, an ‘Assize’ was a regulation (or a rule) enforced on the authority of the Crown, with baronial support, to become a law. The appellation ‘assize’ was considered too old-fashioned by the acolytes of the late Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and it was therefore scrapped in the 1971 Courts Act. In allowing this cultural transgression, the adherents of Edward Heath forgot that part of the legitimacy of any code of law depends on the role of tradition,

The Assize of Northampton was perhaps not so ground-breaking as the 1166 Assize of Clarendon (to be reviewed next month); but it was still very important in the development of English Common Law, as it dealt with both Civil and Common Law. Regarding the latter, Clause 1 of the Assize of Northampton stated that:

“If anyone has been accused before the justices of the lord king of murder or theft or robbery or of harbouring men who do such things, or of forgery or arson by the oath of twelve knights of the hundred [a  medieval unit of local government], or, if knights be not present, by the oath of twelve free and lawful men and by the oath of four men from each vill of the hundred, let him go to the ordeal of water, and if he fail, let him lose one foot. And at Northampton it was added for the sake of stern justice that he shall likewise lose his right hand with his foot.”

This might well seem harsh justice, but the Assize of Northampton may have been a necessary response to the general lawless atmosphere that had been engendered by the Great Rebellion of 1173/74 against Henry II. Note also the emphasis on the role of the jury, which is still a vital part of our legal tradition. The reference to trial by ordeal too often produces a disdainful response from 21st century readers, especially from those deluded persons who are convinced that our present-day legal system has all the answers. In his analysis of the Pipe Rolls and plea rolls under the Angevins, Professor Robert Bartlett has demonstrated that just under two-thirds of those who underwent the ordeal passed: see his ‘England under the Norman and Angevin kings’ (OUP). In any case, the ordeal itself had been superseded by the jury verdict by in the administration of English Law by 1215.

The Assize of Northampton was just as significant in the development of civil law in England. Clause 4 of the Assize of Northampton stated that:

“If any freeholder has died, let his heirs remain possessed of such ‘seisin’ as their father had of his fief on the day of his death; and let them have his chattels from which they may execute the dead man’s will.”

(The medieval term ‘seisin’ means possession )

Clause 4 is part of what has become known as the Assize of Mort d’Ancestor. It is a great measure, which has entered into the very fabric of our democratic culture. We are only too familiar with dictatorial regimes which use any excuse to appropriate personal property. Just think of it, henceforth the plaintiff was awarded seisin (possession) of his father’s lands if the jury recognised that the father had died in freehold ‘ownership’, and that the plaintiff was his father’s heir. It is almost part of the basis of our inheritance rules on intestate estates. An obvious potential problem was that poorer claimants might be dissuaded from following their legitimate rights by the excessive length of settling inheritance claims. To get round this problem, the Assize of Mort d’Ancestor involved a writ being issued to the local sheriff, who would then summon ‘twelve free and lawful’ men from the neighbourhood to view the land, and then make a judgement, called a ‘recognition’, which would be enforced, if necessary, by the justices. Once again, the role of the jury was paramount, and in theory at least, the legal rights of the humble were protected.

Next month, I shall extend my analysis of Angevin Common Law developments by examining the importance of the 1166 Assize of Clarendon, with its impact on both the evolution of criminal law, and also the role of the principal law officers (then the sheriffs) in the operation of criminal law. My January Angevin Newsletter has perhaps been a little ‘highbrow’: so, to finish off, I will imitate medieval custom and offer my readers a suitable conundrum. I have discussed the importance of the 1176 Assize of Northampton. It so happens that the present day football club, Northampton Town, is one of only four football clubs in either the Premiership or the Football League whose names begin and end with the same letter. Name the other three clubs (without using Google!). I’ll offer a purse of ten groats for the first correct answer . . .



Filed under Angevins, English Common Law, Henry II, History, Law degree courses, Medieval History

4 responses to “The Assize of Northampton, January 1176

  1. Eleanor

    That’ll be Aston Villa, Charlton Athletic and Liverpool… if you include non-league you can have York City, too.

    There’s another four north of the border if anyone’s interested… and no, I didn’t google it, I work in an office of football fans!

    • What a prompt and erudite response to my medieval riddle. It is exactly the witty reply I would expect from a fair lady bearing the regal name of Eleanor, especially one who knows so many football fans and obviously loves the beautiful game. I think that the Angevins’ successors tried to ban football and promote archery – they failed!

    • Tea_eagle

      Dundee United, Alloa, East Fife, Kilmarnock……

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