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The Laws of the Lion of Justice: 1115

October 1st 2012 is an important date in the legal profession of England & Wales. To begin with, it marks the beginning of the Michaelmas Law Term in England & Wales. Perhaps even more significant: today is the third anniversary of the Act of Parliament establishing the new Supreme Court of the UK (thereby superseding the historic function of the House of Lords). It is therefore fitting that my October Blog will examine the impact of Henry I’s reign on the development of  English Common Law; particularly the important legal initiative: ‘The Laws of Henry I’.

This ground-breaking document, ‘’Leges Henrici Primi”, was written about 900 years ago, in the second decade of Henry’s reign. It clearly drew on legal innovations outlined in Henry’s ‘Coronation Charter’ of 1100; but the Charter had been primarily designed to attract support for Henry’s new regime. In contrast, the Leges was more concerned with the actual advancement of the Law: it was to be a indispensable staging post in the evolution of English Common Law.

Impact of the Leges on English Common Law.

(1) The Leges formalised the Anglo-Saxon ‘Two-Tier’ System of Law Courts: Shire Courts for serious offences and Hundred Courts for lesser offences.

Clause VII(i) stated that: ”the general plea of the shire court shall be held at the recognised terms and times throughout the different provinces of England.”

Clause VII(iv) stated that: ”The shire moot and the borough moot ought to meet twice a year; and the hundred moot and the wapentake moot twelve times a year.” (All direct quotations from the Leges are taken from EHD, Volume II, pages 491 to 495).                                                                                                  The Shire and Borough Moots approximate to our  Crown Courts. The Hundred and Wapentake Moots roughly correspond to our modern-day Magistrates’ Courts. However there is at least one major difference between the 12th century Hundred and Wapentake Moots and today’s Magistrates’ Courts. There are about 350 Magistrates’ Courts in England & Wales in 2012. Nine hundred years ago, there were possibly as many as 600 Hundred and Wapentake Courts in England (reflecting the obvious difficulties in travel in 12th century England).                                                                                                                               The ‘Hundred’ was the basic Anglo-Saxon unit of local government. The ‘Wapentake’ was the basic unit of local government in what had been the Danelaw. As Professor Bartlett has pointed out, the Leges actually defined England, it stated: “The Kingdom of England is divided into three parts, Wessex, Mercia and the Danelaw.” (Quoted by Robert Bartlett, in his ‘England under the Norman and Angevin Kings,’ OUP (2000), page 155). What is impressive is that our modern Law Terms are still standardised throughout England (and also in Wales). What is also impressive is that the Danelaw was still recognised as a separate entity in England as late as the early 12th century.  The Danelaw was established as the Viking half of England in the late 9th century.

In the early 12th century, when referring to the Danelaw (or Denelaga), the Leges effectively meant Northern England (from Lincolnshire northwards). When referring to Wessex (Westsexenlaga),  the Leges effectively referred to Southern England (including London). When referring to Mercia (Merchenlaga), the Leges effectively meant what is now Central England.

(2) A key element in any formal legal system is the ‘Right of Appeal’: it is an obvious safeguard against the arbitrary use of the law. It was the Leges that contained one of the first written references to appeal procedures in England.

Clause XXXI(iv) stated that: “No man may dispute  the judgement of the king’s court, but it shall be permitted to men who have knowledge of the plea to appeal against the judgement of other courts.” What the Leges seems to be implying is that the King’s Court might well be the final Court of Appeal. (Shades of our modern Supreme Court?)

(3) It would of course be stretching incredulity to suggest that the Leges was an exact blueprint for our present day legal structure. For example, the author of the Leges deliberately wrote into the Leges a formal assertion of the legal rights of King Henry’s Tenants-in-Chief.

Clause LV(i): “Every lord is allowed to summon his men, so that he may do justice upon them in his court. If the man be resident in a manor far from the honour from which he holds, he shall none the less go to the plea if the lord summon him.”

The concept of a ‘summons’ is of course familiar to legal systems; but Clause LV explicitly allowed the Tenants-in-Chief to have their own courts, called Honor Courts (a Norman innovation).  Such private courts would of course be unthinkable in any modern democratic legal system. Even so, as Professor Bartlett has demonstrated, the Leges contained checks against ‘overmighty’ Tenants-in-Chief, as Henry I forbade ‘building a castle without permission.’ (Bartlett, page 279). This prohibition was an effective safeguard against ambitious Tenants-in-Chief. In any case,  these ‘Honorial ‘ or ‘Seignorial’ courts did not really take root in 12th century England. The Anglo/Saxon ‘two-tier’ system of shire and hundred courts remained pre-eminent in 12th century England, thereby bequeathing a two-tier court system to us.

(4) Any progressive legal system has to differentiate between categories of crime. This is where perhaps the Leges made its most important contribution to the maturation of  English Common Law. Professor Judith Green has argued that the Leges certainly did effectively identify different categories of crime.

Serious crime included rape & abduction, arson, robbery, treachery and murder. Lesser crimes included breach of the King’s Peace and contempt for the King’s Writs. (Judith Green, ‘The Government of England under Henry I’ (1989), page 102). The categorisation of rape & abduction as serious crime must have represented a real progression in the position of women in 12th century English society. One wonders if Henry’s Consort, Queen Edith Matilda, was involved ‘behind the scene’ in the implementation of the latter measure..


The pronouncement of The Laws of Henry I, around 1115, was a turning point in the evolution of English Common Law. As Professor Judith Green has pointed out, attempts to formally inscribe English Law had largely been dormant since the reign of Cnut (1016 to 1035): “it was re-born in the early twelfth century under a king whose reign became a byword for the rule of law.” (Judith Green, ‘The Government of England under Henry I’ (page 99)). Professor Green says it all: every one of us owes a great debt to King Henry I. Today, in 2012,, we must ensure that  we do not, by default, erode the legal heritage bequeathed to us by ‘The Lion of Justice.’


Just over 800 years ago, the 1st October was a dynastically significant date. Why?


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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.


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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Does Magna Carta Mean Nothing to You?

Most of us would probably pause before answering such a leading question; but I suspect that few of us would emulate the classic response  to this question by the late comedian, the great Tony Hancock: ’Did she die in vain?’ The equally brilliant scriptwriters, Ray Galton & Alan Simpson, penned this immortal quip in their script for the ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ episode of ‘Twelve Angry Men’, broadcast on BBC Television on 16th October 1959.

Galton & Simpson’s  famous witticism is ageless; but can the same be said of Magna Carta, issued  seven hundred and ninety-six years ago today, 15th June, 1215?

Background to  the Promulgation of Magna Carta

  • Baronial resentment played the critical role in the negotiations with King John in 1215 which led to Magna Carta; and part of their resentment stemmed from the financial demands placed on England by Richard I’s crusading zeal. Even so, it was John’s policies and failures that ultimately precipitated the final struggle between nobility and monarchy in 1215.  John’s Justicar, Peter des Roches, was an abrasive foreigner who greatly increased taxes. Another foreigner who antagonised English opinion, this time at local level, was Sheriff Philip Mark, from Touraine. Yes, he was Sheriff of Nottingham, so perhaps there is something in the ‘Robin Hood’ story. John would probably have survived such unpopularity, had it not been for the disastrous defeat of John’s Angevin allies by the French at the Battle of Bouvines, on 27th July 1214. This major defeat spelt the final loss of Normandy, and, with it, any hope of Angevin recovery. In England, the devastating military reverse of Bouvines shattered John’s authority, thereby igniting the baronial resentment which in turn paved the way to Magna Carta.
  • Revolt actually began in October 1214, when King John had returned to England from Europe. This revolt of ‘the Northerners’ later spread to include some tenants-in-chief from southern and eastern England. From then on, the  opposition against John gathered apace, extending to include some knights.
  • As in any political conflict, possession of London was the key to ultimate success. Both sides now tried to get London support. John granted London the right to have a mayor elected within the City, in a charter of May 1215. It did no good. The Londoners let in the opposition on 17th May 1215. At this point, John had to open up negotiations with the opposition at Runnymede, which ended with the issue of Magna Carta about a month later, on 15th June, 1215.

Was Magna Carta a ‘Freedom Charter’ for society?

  • It could well be argued that Magna Carta was essentially a ‘rich man’s charter’, as it really benefitted the barons. Chapters 2 to 16 dwelt with baronial concerns, such as scutage (taxation in lieu of military service) and reliefs (a sort-of inheritance tax). The final chapter, the so-called ‘security clause’, empowered twenty-five barons with the task of compelling the monarch to keep Magna Carta’s provisions.
  • However, Magna Carta was no mere ‘baron’s charter’. Chapters 39 & 40 were applicable to all sectors of society, and still have a resounding ring to them:-

‘No free man shall be seized, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or ruined in any way, nor shall we attack him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and the law of the land.’

‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.’

Even today, in 2011, these chapters have a resounding ring to them.

  • Magna Carta was also a freedom charter for the rest of Britain, not just England, as chapters 56 to 59 extended various rights to Scotland and Wales. Alan of Galloway, Constabule of Scotland, was one of the notables listed in the preamble to MagnaCarta.

Final Thoughts on Magna Carta

Looking back eight hundred years or so since the Runnymede agreement of 15th June 1215, Magna Carta now seems to be primarily the political swansong of the Angevin Empire; rather than the precursor of British liberties. Yet this is probably too narrow a judgement. The third re-issue of Magna Carta, in 1225, remains the earliest statute on the English Statute Book. Seen in this way, Magna Carta does mean a lot to all of us. Magna Carta is as ageless as Galton & Simpson’s classic one-liner; and is therefore a fitting accolade to a glorious empire.


As usual, I will round off this month’s blog with a little problem-solving exercise:-

Henry Fitz-Ailwin became the first Mayor of London, nominated by King Richard I in 1194. As we have seen, King John allowed London citizens to elect their own mayor in May 1215 just before issuing Magna Carta. The office of Lord Mayor of the City of London therefore has a very long history and the current Lord Mayor is Michael Bear. There also is a Mayor of London, elected by the voters. When was the office of ‘Mayor of London’ established, and who is currently the Mayor?


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Problems of Policing the country: The Inquest of Sheriffs, March 1170.

Edward IV is certainly one of the greatest English monarchs; but not quite in the class of King Henry II, and I now turn to the 1170 Inquest of Sheriffs.

In my blog entry of February 2011, I tried to demonstrate how significant was Henry II’s 1166 Assize of Clarendon in the development of English Common Law. This Assize listed the duties of the sheriffs, Henry II’s principal law officers. The sheriffs were given the power to enter any land (or property) in pursuit of fugitives, a remarkable privilege. They were also encouraged to co-operate with sheriffs in neighbouring counties to arrest fleeing suspects. This enhancement of sheriffs’ powers  was necessary to ensure that the criminal law was properly obeyed; but it also ran the risk of making the sheriffs too powerful, thereby possibly jeopardizing their honest enforcement of the law in England.

After Henry II had secured acceptance of the Assize of Clarendon in February 1166, he then immediately departed from England to his French territories, where he remained for four years. This four year sojourn in France should not surprise us. Henry II was, after all, ruler of a large Western European Empire, and he therefore had to see that all his possessions were correctly governed. Even so, there is clear evidence that some unscrupulous sheriffs had taken advantage both of Henry’s absence, and also of the powers vested in them by the Assize of Clarendon, to feather their own nests, at the expense of the smooth working of the law in England.

Straightaway after his return to England, in March 1170, Henry II acted with the vigour that was the hallmark of his kingship. Responding to growing complaints against the activities of the sheriffs, Henry set up a commission of inquiry into the administration of the sheriffs throughout England. This commission, popularly known as the ‘Inquest of Sheriffs’, was another Angevin landmark in the development of English Common Law.

Determined to get at the truth of the accusations against the misconduct of his sheriffs, Henry required that all witnesses to the commission, barons, knights, and freemen, would “speak the truth concerning that which shall be asked of them on behalf of the lord king, and that they will not conceal the truth out of love for any man, or from hatred, or for bribe or reward, or from fear or from any promise or for any cause.”  What a tremendous requirement for the witnesses! It still underpins the entire conduct of government commissions, even to this day. The key word summing up this requirement is honesty.

Section 1 of the commission’s terms of reference summed up its real purpose:-

  • “In the first place, let inquiry be made concerning the sheriffs and their bailiffs as to what and how much they have received from each hundred [unit of local government] and from each vill and from each man, since the lord king crossed over to Normandy, by reason of which the land and the people have been oppressed.” In short, the commission was to investigate the extent of the sheriffs’ corruption between 1166 and 1170.
  • If some corrupt sheriffs had panicked at the prospect of having to explain their conduct, and had accordingly tried to make restitution, it would do them little good. Section 10 of the commission’s terms of reference stated: “And let inquiry be made whether the sheriffs or any of their bailiffs, or the lords of the vills or their bailiffs, have restored any of the things which they have taken, or have made any peace with their men, since they have heard of the coming of the lord king, in order to prevent any complaint thereof reaching the lord or his justices.” Section 10 recalls the hasty measures of restitution made by certain MPs after the parliamentary expenses scandal was revealed during the last parliament by the press.

As a result of the Inquest of Sheriffs, 21 of the 28 sheriffs were removed, an amazing total. We know precisely who remained as sheriffs after the Inquest, and who were removed, as the individual names of all the sheriffs still exist. New sheriffs included Hugh of Buckland, appointed Sheriff of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. He was a fairly humble knight who held just one knight’s fee from the Abbot of Abingdon, and had declared his knight’s plot of land in an earlier survey of Henry II, the 1166 Cartae Baronom (Survey of English knights – like the recent census!).  Another fairly modest northern family, the Estoutevilles,  also benefitted from Henry II’s changeover of personnel. Robert of Estouteville became Sheriff of Yorkshire, and his brother Roger was appointed Sheriff of Northumberland. It was a wise move, both brothers valiantly defended North England in the Scots invasion of northern England in the Great Rebellion against Henry II in 1173-1175. The Estouteviles commanded the English Army at the Battle of Alnwick in 1174, even capturing King William ‘The Lion’ of Scotland. At the other extreme, some of the newly appointed sheriffs were clearly wealthy. Alfred of Lincoln, newly appointed Sheriff Dorset and Somerset, was a powerful Tenant-in-Chief, who had been assessed for the comparatively large total of 25 knights in the 1166 Cartae Baronum. It seems that Henry quite rightly was not too concerned about the background of his new sheriffs: it was their merit that mattered.  Finally, it is probably the case that some at least of the sheriffs who were removed in 1170 may have been  more  guilty of misdemeanour than outright corruption. A case in point is the removal of Ranulf de Glanville as Sheriff of Yorkshire (who was replaced as sheriff by Robert of Estouteville). Ranulf was not locally born in Yorkshire, and this may have possibly counted against him in the Inquest. His removal in 1170 was only temporary. In 1175, he was restored to the Shrievalty of Yorkshire, after proving his loyalty to Henry II at the battle of Alnwick. But this was restoration to the shrievalty was the prelude to even greater things. Ranulf rapidly rose through the ranks in Henry’s ‘civil service’, and by 1180 had reached the dizzy heights of Justicar of England. Even so, one suspects that the majority of the 21 ejected sheriffs paid the price for gross inefficiency, or gross corruption, or perhaps even both.

What, then, is the overall importance of the 1170 Inquest of Sheriffs in the development of English Law?

Policing was probably as problematic in 12th century England as it is in 2011. Like the modern day police, the 12th century sheriffs had to steer a difficult course between upholding the rigors of the law and trespassing on individual rights. We have seen in the recent London demonstrations how difficult it can be for the police to maintain law and order in the face of anarchist violence; without resorting to over-zealous policing. At the same time, society must remain vigilant against the threat of possible corruption by a minority of unprincipled law enforcement officers. The supreme importance of Henry II’s 1170 Inquest of Sheriffs was in its effective declaration of the primacy of the executive over the law-enforcement officers. We take it for granted that the police in our country  are responsible to the people they serve, whether at national or local level. It is Henry II that we must thank for helping to make this possible.

The Doc will now set a fairly straightforward question:-

Where in the United Kingdom do sheriffs still officiate in the law enforcement process?

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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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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