Category Archives: Mort d’Ancestor

A Surfeit of Lampreys: A Surfeit of Success: 12th Century England

Exactly 877 years ago today, on 1st December 1135, King Henry I died, allegedly from over indulging himself on lampreys (one of favourite meals). His ‘surfeit of lampreys’ caused an acute intestinal reaction (possibly food poisoning) that led to a speedy end. Death from such an outwardly ludicrous cause was a somewhat inglorious conclusion to an illustrious reign. This year, 2012, marks the centenary of the birth of Charles Dickens; and Henry’s premature death is the sort of ‘comical’ demise one associates with some of the characters penned by that celebrated 19th century author. Such a judgement might be a little harsh. Over the past year, I hope that my monthly Blogs on Henry I’s reign have demonstrated his great success as Ruler of England (and Normandy) between 1100 and 1135. Indeed, such were Henry I’s achievements that the monks of Peterborough Abbey declared on Henry’s death: “He was a good man, and people were in great awe of him. No one dared injure another in his time. He made peace for man and beast.” [EHD, Volume II, page 209] Such an assessment, coming from the compilers of The Anglo/Saxon Chronicle, is praise indeed.                                                                                                                                     Over the past two years, 2011 and 2012, my monthly Blogs have analysed the reigns of King Henry I (1100 to 1135) and King Henry II (1154 to 1189). In analysing these two distinguished monarchs, I have also, from time to time, inevitably touched on the reigns of Stephen, Richard I and John. That is, my blogs have in effect covered the whole of the 12th century, so I think it is thus very fitting for me to conclude this December 2012 Blog by analysing and assessing the twelfth century as a whole.

(A) The Achievements of 12th Century England

There were, of course, setbacks to progress in the 12th century, notably the breakdown of government in Stephen’s reign (1135 to 1154). The Third Crusade of 1189 to 1192, right at the end of the 12th century, also caused tension and problems. Yet, overall, the 12th century witnessed gains to English Society.

(1) Economic Growth.

The 12th century was a period of marked economic growth. There was investment in agriculture, transport, and general building. According to John Hatcher and Mark Bailey, the volume of currency in circulation in England  greatly increased in the 12th century; from roughly £25,000 to £37,500  around the time of King Henry I’s accession (1100), to about  £250,000 at the time of King John’s accession in 1199 [Hatcher & Bailey, ‘Modelling the Middle Ages’, OUP, (2001), page 138]. This increase in currency circulation probably reflected the increasing proliferation of markets in 12th century England. The population of England also doubled in the 12th century, from roughly 1.5 million in 1100 to about 3 million in 1200 (and these figures might be even higher). Nor did this population increase imply a lessening of GDP per head. In fact, according to Hatcher & Bailey, real GDP per head might well have increased in the 12th century [Hatcher & Bailey, page 159].

(2) General Social and Political Progress for Specific Groups

In a perhaps generalised way, the condition and status of certain groups in English Society did appear to improve in the 12th century; even if these improvements were not uniform throughout the century. For example, beginning with King Henry I’s Coronation Charter in 1100, the rights of widows were increasingly protected throughout the 12th century. In fact, on one level, the 12th century was a period of political advance for women. Several notable female rulers played vital roles in 12th political life in England: Queen Edith Matilda, Matilda of Boulogne, The Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The Jewish minority in Angevin England also seemed to prosper for most of the 12th century (with the obvious exception of the 1190 Pogroms). The Jewish population in Angevin England increased to a maximum total of 5,000 by 1200, and this population increase was accompanied by a geographical spread throughout England. Up to a point, positive central government activity by English Kings helped this Jewish expansion (see my September 2011 Blog for details).

(3) Development of English Common Law

This was the greatest single achievement of 12th century England.

Beginning with King Henry I’s Coronation Charter in 1100, the 12th century saw a continual series of ground-breaking measures that collectively  established the Common Law in England (and Wales): one of the glories of European Civilisation:-

  • Leges Henrici Primi (1115) This measure designated serious crime, and enshrined the principle of Appeal. See my October 2012 Blog.
  • Assize of Clarendon (1166) This measure dealt with the criminal law, including the rights of the principal law officers. See my February 2011 Blog
  • Inquest of Sheriffs (1170) This measure enshrined the supremacy of the government over the law officers. See my March 2011 Blog.
  • Assizes of Novel Disseism & Mort d’Ancestor (c.1176) These were major innovations in civil law, dealing with rights of property. See my October 2011 Blog.
  • The General Eyre (1194) As part of the 1194 General Eyre (General Tour of Inspection by the King’s Justices), Justicar Hubert Walter ordered that, in each English shire, three knights and a clerk should act as ‘Keepers of the Pleas of the Crown’. This meant that they would be responsible for collecting and retaining evidence for criminal cases that would then be heard by the King’s Justices. This vital measure is the origin of the modern Coroner System. Note that the 12th century law officers (sheriffs) were not included as ‘Keepers of the Pleas’. Even now, our modern police force is not directly linked to the Coroner’s Court.

It is a remarkable record of legal progress, and the principles of 12th century Common Law still greatly influence English-speaking nations today: the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc. Nor have I included all the 12th century Common Law Edicts. The Jury System was written into the above Assizes. A measure of the greatness of the English Legal System in the 12th century is to contrast it with the legal structure of early 19th century England (supposedly a more ‘civilised’ era). By 1800, the English Legal System had become so convoluted (if not corrupt), that a ridiculous total of 200 crimes carried the death penalty (many of them being trivial offences). In contrast, the 12th century saw the death penalty confined to about six offences (Pleas of the Crown).  The 18th Century still conjures up an image of refined gentility, with its classical architecture, polished manners, and baroque music; yet it was also the age of the notorious (and nefarious) ‘Black Act’ of 1723. That legally abominable Act of Parliament introduced the Death Penalty in Britain for over 50 criminal offences, many of them utterly trivial (such as destroying fish ponds while disguised). It goes without saying that such a legally bizarre measure as the 1723 Black Act, would have been inconceivable in the more civilised 12th century.

(B) Final Conclusion

I began this final Blog on King Henry I by suggesting that perhaps his strange demise had overtones of a Charles Dickens novel. In retrospect, I think that Anthony Trollope would be a more appropriate author, especially when viewing the 12th century as a whole.

In the ending of the final novel of his famous Barset Series (‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’); Anthony Trollope writes: “And now, if the reader will allow me to seize him affectionately by the arm, we will together take our last farewell of Barset.” To paraphrase that celebrated author, ‘We will together take our last farewell of 12th century England.’

Like Anthony Trollope’s Barset Novels, the 12th Century was filled with a host of distinguished dramatis personae:-

  • Renowned Fighting Monarchs, such as King Richard the Lionheart of England (reigned 1189 to 1199), and King William the Lion of Scotland (reigned 1165 to 1214).
  • Illustrious Female Rulers, such as Edith Matilda (Queen Consort of England 1100 to 1118) and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine (Queen Consort of France, 1137 to 1152 and Queen Consort of England, 1154 to 1189).
  • Exceptionally talented administrators, such as Justicar Bishop Roger of Salisbury (de facto Justicar c.1110 to c.1125) and Archbishop Hubert Walter (Chief Justicar of England, 1193 to 1198).
  • Leading Financiers, such as Aaron of Lincoln (lived from 1125 to 1186).
  • Profound Philosophers, such as Archbishop Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury, 1093 to 1109). Anselm was the originator of the ontological argument for the existence of God.
  • Talented Welsh Princes, such as Rhys ap Gruffudd of Deheubarth. He was known as The Lord Rhys (Yr Argwydd Rhys). King Henry II made him Justicar of Deheubarth in 1171.
  • Gifted young persons whose lives were sadly (and prematurely) ended, such as Prince William the Adelin (lived from1103 to 1120). Prince William was Henry I’s son and heir; he tragically died in the White Ship Disaster of 1120.
  • Flawed Icons, such as Thomas Becket (Archbishop of Canterbury between 1162 and 1170).
  • Villains, such as Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, who died in 1144. He was the original ‘robber baron’, who took advantage of the breakdown of law and order in King Stephen’s reign to ransack Cambridgeshire and the Fens in 1144. Towards the end of the 12th century, Richard Malebisse took advantage of the anti-Semitic hysteria generated by the Third Crusade to play the leading role in the massacre of the York Jewish Community in 1190.
  • Exceptionally talented monarchs, such as King Henry I (reigned 1100 to 1135) and King Henry II (reigned 1154 to 1189).The latter king is probably the greatest monarch ever to reign in England.

In the words of Anthony Trollope, “To them all I now say farewell” (except Geoffrey de Mandeville and Richard Malebisse); but it is certainly not a case of farewell to my Angevinman Blog! In 2013, I hope to take a chronological  leap of 250 years into the mid-fifteenth century. The delights of the ‘Wars of the Roses’ await me and, hopefully, my readers.

Have a Happy Advent and Christmas!

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Like Grandfather, Like Grandson: The Reigns of King Henry I and King Henry II

This year, my emphasis will shift from Henry II to Henry I.

Henry I is still a relatively unknown monarch, and certainly an under-valued one; yet in many respects, he was a very successful King of England. In fact, if one was to compare Henry I and Henry II in horse racing terms, then Henry II would only beat Henry I by a few lengths. To extend the racing metaphor, it was Henry I that effectively established the Angevin stable, which Henry II was then to raise to a pinnacle of achievement. Significantly, both monarchs were active on the ‘regal turf’ for exactly the same length of time: 35 years.

In other ways too, the reigns of Henry I and Henry II were remarkably similar.

  • The province of Anjou (in France) was vital to both monarchs. Henry II was the elder son of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou; indeed, the very name of Henry II’s dynasty was derived from Anjou. However, it was in Henry I’s reign that the link between Anjou and the kings of England was forged. In 1128, Henry I knighted Geoffrey of Anjou. The alliance between Anjou and the England was then cemented a week afterwards by the marriage of Geoffrey of Anjou to Henry I’s daughter (and sole surviving legitimate heir), the Empress Matilda. The royal marriage was celebrated at Le Mans, where their son, the future King Henry II, was born in 1133.
  • The reigns of both Henry I and Henry II saw major developments in English Common Law. Last year, I analysed the key legal developments in Henry IIs reign: the Assizes of Clarendon and Northampton, the Assizes of Mort d’Ancestor and Novel Disseisin, and the Inquest of Sheriffs. Henry I’s reign saw similar advances in the development of English Common Law, especially in the provisions of Henry I’s Coronation Charter (1100), and in his ‘Leges Henrici Primi’ (1114-1118).
  •  Both Henry I and Henry II faced formidable challenges to their authority from rebellious tenants-in-chief. In 1101, Henry was opposed by William of Warenne (Earl of Surrey). In the ‘Great Rebellion’ of 1173-1174, Henry II was opposed by the Earls of Chester and Leicester. The fact that both Henry I and Henry II were opposed by rebellious magnates is in itself not so surprising, as most medieval monarchs did face such opposition sometime in their reigns. What is different about Henry I and Henry II is that both these monarchs displayed magnanimity to their opponents. In 1102 (or 1103), Henry I restored William of Warenne to his earldom. Likewise, at the Council of Northampton, in January 1177, Henry II restored the Earls of Leicester and Chester to their estates. In displaying such magnanimity to former opponents, both Henry I and Henry II were showing their strength. In contrast, both King John and Stephen nursed grudges against their opponents, reflecting their weaker personalities.
  • Both Henry I and Henry II married strong-willed, effective queens. I have already analysed Henry II’s famous queen, Eleanor. Eleanor’s marriage to Henry II undoubtedly strengthened his new Angevin regime. Not only did Eleanor bring the important duchy of Aquitaine to Henry II’s growing Angevin Empire, but Eleanor was an effective ruler in her own right. Similarly, Henry I’s marriage to Queen Edith Matilda greatly strengthened his newly established regime in 1100. Edith Matilda, the daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland, represented the Anglo/Saxon dynasty, as she was a direct descendent of Edmund Ironside. Not only that, but Queen Edith Matilda effectively acted as Henry I’s regent when he was in Normandy. Queen Edith Matilda issued writs in her own name, heard petitions, and even tried law cases; her administrative skills greatly assisted Henry I’s government in England
  • Finally, both Henry I and Henry II had the great foresight to appreciate the crucial role Normandy played in strengthening their position as Kings of England. Henry I effectively reunited England with Normandy by his great military success at the battle of Tinchebrai in 1106, when he defeated the forces of his elder brother, Duke Robert. Similarly, perhaps the vital factor explaining Henry II’s survival in the ‘Great Rebellion’ of 1173-1174 was his victory at the battle of Verneuil, in August 1173. In contrast, both King Stephen and King John were unsuccessful in regaining Normandy: this might explain their ultimate failure to defeat their rebellious tenants-in-chief.

I have concentrated on the similarities between Henry I and Henry II; but of course there were also differences, which will be analysed in my forthcoming blogs. Even so, I hope I have whetted my readers’ appetites for my 2012 historical dishes on King Henry I. In the meantime, should any of my Angevin supporters want to do some background work on King Henry I, I suggest they consult one (or perhaps both) of the following biographies:

“Henry I”, by Judith Green CUP, ISBN 978-0-521-74452-2

Henry I by C. Warren Hollister, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-09829-4

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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.

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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