The Assize of Clarendon, February 1166: An Englishman’s home is not his castle

My previous entry for January analysed the importance of the 1176 Assize of Northampton. That particular Assize actually developed common law measures first promulgated ten years before, in the ground-breaking Assize of Clarendon. It is no exaggeration to say that this great reforming measure is  both the basis of our modern criminal law, and  also the regulations governing our principal  law officers.

Use your Doctor Who time-machine to transport yourself backwards 845 years ago to Angevin England. It is a cold February day in 1166. King Henry II is in a characteristic hurry to get this vital law and order measure promulgated in England before his imminent departure to Normandy . England may well be the ‘jewel in Henry II’s Angevin Crown’; but he knows he cannot ignore the other components of his mighty West European Empire – which forms a sort of ‘Medieval European Union’ (with all its concomitant political stresses). Henry II wanted to strengthen royal authority in criminal matters in England, especially necessary after the calamities of Stephen’s reign. What better way to achieve this than by tightening up on law and order – as popular a cause then as now. Another job that had to be tackled was the need to ensure the sheriffs, the principal law officers in England since Anglo-Saxon times, did not themselves become too powerful. Not only would all-powerful sheriffs harm the operation of the law, but they might even threaten Henry’s own authority. Nor was this an idle threat. During the unstable reign of Henry II’s predecessor, King Stephen, all-powerful sheriffs had appeared. Most notable of these bully-boys had been Geoffrey de Mandeville. By 1143, he was actually sheriff of Essex, Middlesex, and London. He was the archetypical ‘robber baron’, who terrorised  local communities in Cambridge and the Fens. Geoffrey de Mandeville also arrogantly assumed that his sheriffdoms were his by right, a sort of fiefdom. His egotism was a threat to freedom. The rough modern equivalent to the medieval sheriffdom of London is the mayoralty of London. Perhaps candidates for the 2012 mayoral election might take note? Two full terms as Mayor of London is surely quite enough?

But I must return to that winter of 1166. Henry II and his barons working under pressure, achieved a momentous settlement that laid the ground rules for our modern criminal law and also the powers of our principal law officers.

Clause I of the Assize ordered that there should be inquiries in the counties and in the hundreds (local government units) by “twelve of the more lawful men” (i.e. juries), to estimate how pervasive crime was in their local regions.

Once the extent of local crime had been assessed, then the sheriffs were to take control of the situation, if only to prevent local citizens taking the law into their own hands (as had happened in Stephen’s time). If suspected criminals had been identified by the process of inquiry instituted in Clause 1, then Clause 4 of the Assize ordered the sheriffs to “send word to the nearest justice by some well-informed person that they have arrested such men.” To ensure the speedy administration of justice, the sheriffs were now specifically empowered to co-operate with other sheriffs. Clause 17 stated that “ If any sheriff shall send word to another sheriff that men have fled from his county into another county, on account of robbery or murder or theft or the harbouring of them, or on account of outlawry or of a charge concerning the king’s forest, let him (the second sheriff) arrest them.” Such encouragement for cross-border co-operation between the law officers (i.e., sheriffs) is something we usually now take for granted. But if the sheriffs were to be successful in tracking down suspected malefactors, they had to have the decisive power of entry into premises; yet this would violate the principle of private property. Ultimately, the demands of law and order won out. In a major enhancement of sheriffs’ police powers, Clause 11 of the Assize stated: “Let there be none in a city or a borough or a castle or without it, who shall forbid the sheriffs to enter into their land or their soke to arrest those who have been accused.”

I have deliberately chosen today, Tuesday 15th February 2011, to write my February Angivenman blog. The reason is that today is the 137th anniversary of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s birth (15th February 1874). Sir Ernest Shackleton exhibited all the leadership qualities that were so characteristic of Henry II despite the obvious differences in their geographical regions and spheres of responsibility!

In the BBC’s famous 2002 Poll of the ‘100 Greatest Britons’ Sir Ernest Shackleton was placed a very worthy 11th position. King Henry II was only placed 90th, but at least that higher than his great-grandson, King Edward I (he was 94th)! King Henry had set in motion great legal changes in his 1166 Assize of Clarendon, in particular, enhancing the sheriffs’ powers. The question is: would the sheriffs’ increased powers threaten the authority of the monarch? My March Blog might answer this question. Watch this space!

PS A purse of 10 groats is offered to the first Angevin loyalist who correctly tells me what ‘soke’ means. As a clue, it has nothing to do with being ‘wet’! No Angevin could possibly be regarded as wet!


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Filed under Angevins, British Kings and Queens, English Common Law, Henry II, History, Law degree courses, Medieval History

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