Civil Law and the individual: What we all owe to Henry II . . .

Today, Monday 3rd October 2011, is an especially propitious day. To begin with today will see the admittance and licensing as a Reader in the Anglican Church of my wife. Proof positive that I am magnanimous enough to overlook the Church’s error as regards its attitude to Becket! Today also marks the start of the Michaelmas Law Term in the two UK countries most strongly influenced by the Common Law: England & Wales. Today is therefore a timely reminder what we all owe to King Henry II.

I have already described Henry II’s contribution to the development of criminal law in my February 15th Blog: the Assize of Clarendon. I have also analysed the vital nature of Henry II’s Inquest of Sheriffs in my March 30th Blog. The latter measure, by asserting the primacy of the government over the principal law officers, struck a powerful blow for freedom from tyranny. The recent political exchanges between government ministers and senior police officers in the wake of the August urban riots have reminded us how vital it is that the legal government must, if necessary, assert its primacy over the law-enforcement officers. Even so, if Henry II and his government officials had been exclusively concerned with the criminal law and the law-enforcement officers, then Henry II’s contribution to the common law would not have been so important. What sets Henry II apart is that his reign also witnessed significant developments in civil law.

  • Hopefully, very few of us will be involved in criminal law proceedings, either as the perpetrator or as the victim of crime. In contrast, probably all of us will be involved in the civil law at some stage in our lives: perhaps buying a house, or making a will. When we engage in either of these two legal activities, we shall be effectively engaging in a statutory process inaugurated by the Angevin Regime over eight hundred years ago. The two key Angevin measures affecting the development of the Common Law were the Assizes of Novel Disseisin and Mort d’Ancestor.
  • Before I proceed further, some explanation of medieval terminology is required. As I may have explained before, an ‘Assize’ was a royal edict (or pronouncement), made by the monarch and his officials, usually in conjunction with the tenants-in-chief. Such ordinances then effectively assumed the force of law. The term ‘assizes’ survived in England & Wales until forty years ago, when the 1971 Courts Act abolished Assize Courts, replacing them by ‘Crown Courts’, in the process discarding the experience of eight hundred years of our history. The term ‘seisin’ meant feudal possession, and, over the course of time, was effectively transformed into what we would now recognise as freehold possession.
  • Precisely dating both Assizes of Novel Disseisin and Mort d’Ancestor is difficult; the late Professor Warren, whose magisterial biography of Henry II was published in 1973, dates both these Assizes at about 1176. He partly arrived at this date by a process of elimination. There seems to be no legal process involving ‘Novel Disseisin’ before the first Judicial Tour of England after the Great Revolt of 1173 to 1174. This judicial tour was commissioned in January 1176; but the term Novel Desseisin appeared soon afterwards. However, the editors of Volume II of the equally magisterial ‘English Historical Documents would disagree on Warren’s dating. They agree that Novel Disseisin does appear in the 1176 Assize of Northampton, but feel that it may have appeared ten years earlier, in the 1166 Assize of Clarendon. The editors of EHD agree with Warren on dating the Assize of Mort d’Ancestor in 1176. It would therefore seem to be the case that King Henry II’s great law reforms all occurred in the period 1166 to 1176, which must therefore rank as one of the greatest decades of reform in the entire history of the UK.

Assize of Novel Disseisin

This epoch-making measure sought to redress the grievances of anyone illegally deprived of their freehold. It involved the inter-play of monarch, sheriff, justices and jury; in addition to the two contending parties. A good description of this procedure is outlined in a famous legal treatise of about 1189, called: “Concerning the Laws and Customs of thye Kingdom of England.” This treatise is usually ascribed to Rannulf de Glanville, Henry’s justicar between 1180 and 1189 (though the authorship is still disputed). Clause XXXII, Book XIII, stated that when anyone unjustly dispossessed another of his freehold, the injured party could now obtain a Writ in the King’s Court, phrased as follows:-

“The king to the sheriff greeting. N has complained to me that R has unjustly and without a judgement dispossessed him of his free tenement in such-and-such a village since my last voyage into Normandy; therefore I command you that, if the aforesaid N should make you security for prosecuting his claim, then you shall cause possession of that tenement to be restored to him, together with the chattels taken on it. And you shall cause the tenement with the chattels to be in peace until the Sunday after Easter, and in the meantime you shall cause twelve free and lawful men of the neighbourhood to view the land, and have their names enrolled. And summon them by good summoners to appear before me or my justices prepared to make the recognition. And put R (or his bailiff, if he cannot be found) under safe pledge to be there at that time to hear such recognition” [Quoted in EHD, Volume II, page 509].

What a wonderful document! The late Professor Warren regards the Assize of Novel Disseisin “to be of crucial importance in the history of the English common law.” (See his ‘Henry II’, Yale University Press, new edition, 2000, page 337). Of course, he is correct in this view. No longer could some bullying baron ride roughshod over the legal rights of modest landowners. The sheriff had to see that landowner’s rights were protected, and the jury was to see that justice was done. Doubtless there were still anomalies involving land ownership, because no system of law is perfect (even our own!); but a major step had been taken in bringing about legal equity. At the same time, there was now a clear incentive for a dispossessed individual to seek legal redress through the courts, rather than resorting to direct action themselves, a mark of an enlightened legal system.

Assize of Mort d’Ancestor 

This reform gave legal protection to deprived heirs. The legal heir to a deceased landowner could now obtain his father’s estate if he could prove (a) that his father was legally possessed of the freehold at the time of his death and (b) the claimant was actually the legal heir of the deceased. Where there were several claimants to the freehold, and one of them had, perhaps illegally, taken passion of the freehold, the other heirs could now obtain a writ in the manner of Novel Disseisin, in which case the sheriff would summon a jury to decide the matter. At the same time as adjudicating between rival claimants, Mort d’Ancestor anticipated the present day legal arrangements on intestate estates, because if there was only one heir to an estate, then the heir would receive it, on the basis of (a) and (b) above. Once again, this Assize was a breakthrough in the development of common law in England.

Conclusion

We all now live in a nation increasingly dominated by statute law, much of it emanating from the European Union. In this process of legal transformation, the common law has inevitably become less relevant. There is probably little point in bewailing such a legal metamorphosis, as change is the life-blood of human society. Nevertheless, the progressive erosion of common law procedures within the UK in no sense diminishes King Henry II’s achievement. Building on the groundwork of his grandfather King Henry I, Henry II and his officials constructed a cohesive system of law in England. It was a magnificent achievement, marvelled at by generations that followed. Today marks the start of a new law term in England & Wales. One trusts that our present-day servants of the law, in whatever capacity, will imitate their Angevin predecessors in assiduously discharging their legal responsibilities.

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Filed under Angevins, Becket, British Constitution, British Kings and Queens, Church of England, Civil law in the UK, Criminal Law, English Common Law, Henry II, History, Law degree courses, Legal proceedings, Legal profession, Magna Carta, Medieval History, Mort d'Ancestor, Novel Disseisin, Police, Sheriffs, UK urban riots, Wales

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