Front Page Titles (by Subject) 4.: ALICE STOPPARD GREEN, THE CENTRALIZATION OF NORMAN JUSTICE UNDER HENRY II 1 - Select Essays in Anglo-American Legal History, vol. 1
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4.: ALICE STOPPARD GREEN, THE CENTRALIZATION OF NORMAN JUSTICE UNDER HENRY II 1 - Committee of the Association of American Law Schools, Select Essays in Anglo-American Legal History, vol. 1 
Select Essays in Anglo-American Legal History, by various authors, compiled and edited by a committee of the Association of American Law Schools, in three volumes (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1907). Vol. 1.
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THE CENTRALIZATION OF NORMAN JUSTICE UNDER HENRY II1
THE building up of his mighty empire was not the only task which filled the first years of Henry’s reign. Side by side with this went on another work of peaceful internal administration which we can but dimly trace in the dearth of all written records, but which was ultimately to prove of far greater significance than the imperial schemes that in the eyes of his contemporaries took so much larger proportions and shone with so much brighter lustre.
The restoration of outward order had not been difficult, for the anarchy of Stephen’s reign, terrible as it was, had only passed over the surface of the national life and had been vanquished by a single effort. But the new ruler of England had to begin his work of administration not only amid the temporary difficulties of a general disorganization, but amid the more permanent difficulties of a time of transition, when society was seeking to order itself anew in its passage from the mediæval to the modern world; and his victory over the most obvious and aggressive forms of disorder was the least part of his task. Through all the time of anarchy powerful forces had been steadily at work with which the king had now to reckon. A new temper and new aspirations had been kindled by the troubles of the last years. The deposition of Stephen, the elections of Matilda and of Henry, had been so many formal declarations that the king ruled by virtue of a bargain made between him and his people, and that if he broke his contract he justly forfeited his authority. The routine of silent and submissive councils had been broken through, and the earliest signs of discussion and deliberation had discovered themselves; while the Church, exerting in its assemblies an authority which the late king had helplessly laid down, formed a new and effective centre of organized resistance to tyranny in the future. Even the rising towns had seized the moment when the central administration was paralysed to extend their own privileges, and to acquire large powers of self-government which were to prove the fruitful sources of liberty for the whole people. . . .
It was these new conditions of the national life which constituted the real problem of government—a problem far more slow and difficult to work out than the mere suppression of a turbulent baronage. In the rapid movement towards material prosperity, the energies of the people were in all directions breaking away from the channels and limits in which they had been so long confined. Rules which had been sufficient for the guidance of a simple society began to break down under the new fulness and complexity of the national life, and the simple decisions by which questions of property and public order had been solved in earlier times were no longer possible. Moreover, a new confusion and uncertainty had been brought into the law in the last hundred years by the effort to fuse together Norman and English custom. Norman landlord or Norman sheriff naturally knew little of English law or custom, and his tendency was always to enforce the feudal rules which he practised on his Norman estates. In course of time it came about that all questions of land-tenure and of the relations of classes were regulated by a kind of double system. The Englishman as well as the Norman became the “man” of his lord as in Norman law, and was bound by the duties which this involved. On the other hand, the Norman as well as the Englishman held his land subject to the customary burdens and rights recognized by English law. Both races were thus made equal before the law, and no legal distinction was recognized between conqueror and conquered. There was, however, every element of confusion and perplexity in the theory and administration of the law itself, in the variety of systems which were contending for the mastery, and in the inefficiency of the courts in which they were applied. English law had grown up out of Teutonic custom, into which Roman tradition had been slowly filtering through the Dark Ages. Feudal law still bore traces of its double origin in the system of the Teutonic “comitatus” and of the Roman “beneficium.” Forest law, which governed the vast extent of the king’s domains, was bound neither by Norman forms nor by English traditions, but was framed absolutely at the king’s will. Canon law had been developed out of customs and precedents which had served to regulate the first Christian communities, and which had been largely formed out of the civil law of Rome. There was a multitude of local customs which varied in every hundred and in every manor, and which were preserved by the jealousy that prevailed between one village and another, the strong sense of local life and jurisdiction, and the strict adherence to immemorial traditions.
These different codes of law were administered in various courts of divers origins. The tenant-in-chief of the king who was rich enough had his cause carried to the King’s Court of barons, where he was tried by his peers. The poorer vassals, with the mass of the people, sought such justice as was to be had in the old English courts, the Shire Court held by the sheriff, and, where this survived, the Hundred Court summoned by the bailiff. The lowest orders of the peasant class, shut out from the royal courts, could only plead in questions of property in the manor courts of their lords. The governing bodies of the richer towns were winning the right to exercise absolute jurisdiction over the burghers within their own walls. The Forest courts were held by royal officers, who were themselves exempt from all jurisdiction save that of the king. And under one plea or another all men in the State were liable for certain causes to be brought under the jurisdiction of the newly-established Church courts. This system of conflicting laws was an endless source of perplexity. The country was moreover divided into two nationalities, who imperfectly understood one another’s customary rights; and it was further broken into various classes which stood in different relations to the law. Those who had sufficient property were not only deemed entirely trustworthy themselves, but were also considered answerable for the men under them; a second class of freeholders held property sufficient to serve as security for their good behaviour, but not sufficient to make them pledges for others; there was a third and lower class without property, for whose good conduct the law required the pledge of some superior. In a state of things so complicated, so uncertain and so shifting, it is hard to understand how justice can ever have been secured; nor, indeed, could any general order have been preserved, save for the fact that these early courts of law, having all sprung out of the same conditions of primitive life, and being all more or less influenced and so brought to some common likeness by the Roman law, did not differ very materially in their view of the relations between the subjects of the State, and fundamentally administered the same justice. Until this time too there had been but little legal business to bring before the courts. There was practically no commerce; there was little sale of land; questions of property were defined within very narrow limits; a mass of contracts, bills of exchange, and all the complicated transactions which trade brings with it, were only beginning to be known. As soon, however, as industry developed, and the needs of a growing society made themselves felt, the imperfections of the old order became intolerable. The rude methods and savage punishments of the law grew more and more burdensome as the number of trials increased; and the popular courts were found to be fast breaking down under the weight of their own ignorance and inefficiency.
The most important of these was the Shire Court. It still retained its old constitution; it preserved some tradition of a tribunal where the king was not the sole fountain of justice, and the memory of a law which was not the “king’s law.” It administered the old customary English codes, and carried on its business by the old procedure. There came to it the lords of the manors with their stewards, the abbots and priors of the county with their officers, the legal men of the hundreds who were qualified by holding property or by social freedom, and from every township the parish priest, with the reeve and four men, the smiths, farmers, millers, carpenters, who had been chosen in the little community to represent their neighbours; and along with them stood the pledges, the witnesses, the finders of dead bodies, men suspected of crime. The court was, in fact, a great public meeting of the whole county; there was no rank or order which did not send some of its number to swell the confused crowd that stood round the sheriff. The criminal was generally put on his trial by accusation of an injured neighbour, who, accompanied by his friends, swore that he did not bring his charge for hatred, or for envy, or for unlawful lust of gain. The defendant claimed the testimony of his lord, and further proved his innocence by a simple or threefold compurgation—that is, by the oath of a certain number of freemen among his neighbours, whose property gave them the required value in the eye of the law, and who swore together as “compurgators” that they believed his oath of denial to be “clean and unperjured.” The faith of the compurgator was measured by his landed property, and the value of the joint-oath which was required depended on a most intricate and baffling set of arithmetical calculations, and differed according to the kind of crime, the rank of the criminal, and the amount of property which was in dispute, besides other differences dependent on local customs. Witnesses might also be called from among neighbours who held property and were acquainted with the facts to which they would “dare” to swear. The final judgment was given by acclamation of the “suitors” of the court—that is, by the owners of property and the elected men of the hundreds or townships; in other words, by the public opinion of the neighbourhood. If the accused man were of bad character by common report, or if he could find no friends to swear in his behalf, “the oath burst,” and there remained for him only the ordeal or trial by battle, which he might accept or refuse at his own peril. In the simple ordeal he dipped his hand in boiling water to the wrist, or carried a bar of red-hot iron three paces. If in consequence of his lord’s testimony being against him the triple ordeal was used, he had to plunge his arm in water up to the elbow, or to carry the iron for nine paces. If he were condemned to the ordeal by water, his death seems to have been certain, since sinking was the sign of innocence, and if the prisoner floated he was put to death as guilty. The other alternative, trial by battle, which had been introduced by the Normans, was extremely unpopular in England; it told hardly against men who were weak or untrained to arms, or against the man of humble birth, who was allowed against his armed opponent neither horse nor the arms of a knight, but simply a leathern jacket, a shield of leather or wood, and a stick without knots or points.
At the beginning of the reign of Henry II. the Shire courts seem to have been nearly as bad as they could be. Scarcely any attempt had been made, perhaps none had till now been greatly needed, to improve a system which had grown up in a dim and ruder past. The Norman kings, indeed, had introduced into England a new method of deciding doubtful questions of property by the “recognition” of sworn witness instead of by the English process of compurgation or ordeal. Twelve men, who must be freemen and hold property, were chosen from the neighbourhood, and as “jurors” were sworn to state truly what they knew about the question in dispute, and the matter was decided according to their witness or “recognition.” If those who were summoned were unacquainted with the facts, they were dismissed and others called; if they knew the facts but differed in their statement, others were added to their number, till twelve at least were found whose testimony agreed together. These inquests on oath had been used by the Conqueror for fiscal purposes in the drawing up of Doomsday Book. From that time special “writs” from king or justiciar were occasionally granted, by which cases were withdrawn from the usual modes of trial in the local courts, and were decided by the method of recognition, which undoubtedly provided a far better chance of justice to the suitor, replacing as it did the rude appeal to the ordeal or to battle by the sworn testimony of the chosen representatives, the good men and true, of the neighbourhood. But the custom was not yet governed by any positive and inviolable rules, and the action of the King’s Court in this respect was imperfectly developed, uncertain, and irregular.
It is scarcely possible, indeed, to estimate the difficulties in the way of justice when Henry came to the throne. The wretched freeholders summoned to the Shire Court from farm and cattle, from mill or anvil or carpenter’s bench, knew well the terrors of the journey through marsh and fen and forest, the dangers of flood and torrent, and perhaps of outlawed thief or murderer, the privations and hardships of the way; and the heavy fines which occur in the king’s rolls for non-attendance show how anxiously great numbers of the suitors avoided joining in the troublesome and thankless business of the court. When they reached the place of trial a strange medley of business awaited them as questions arose of criminal jurisdiction, of feudal tenure, of English “sac and soc,” of Norman franchises and Saxon liberties, with procedure sometimes of the one people, sometimes of the other. The days dragged painfully on, as, without any help from trained lawyers, the “suitors” sought to settle perplexed questions between opposing claims of national, provincial, ecclesiastical, and civic laws, or made arduous journeys to visit the scene of some murder or outrage, or sought for evidence on some difficult problem of fact. Evidence, indeed, was not easy to find when the question in dispute dated perhaps from some time before the civil war and the suppression of the sheriff’s courts, for no written record was ever kept of the proceedings in court, and everything depended on the memory of witnesses. The difficulties of taking evidence by compurgation increased daily. A method which centuries before had been successfully applied to the local crimes of small and stationary communities bound together by the closest ties of kinship and of fellowship in possession of the soil, when every transaction was inevitably known to the whole village or township, became useless when new social and industrial conditions had destroyed the older and simpler modes of life. The procedure of the courts was antiquated and no longer guided by consistent principles. Their modes of trial were so cumbrous, formal, and inflexible that it was scarcely possible to avoid some minute technical mistake which might invalidate the final decision.
The business of the larger courts, too, was for the most part carried on in French under sheriff, or bailiff, or lord of the manor. The Norman nobles did not know Latin, they were but gradually learning English; the bulk of the lesser clergy perhaps spoke Latin, but did not know Norman; the poorer people spoke only English; the clerks who from this time began to note down the proceedings of the king’s judges in Latin must often have been puzzled by dialects of English strange to him. When each side in a trial claimed its own customary law, and neither side understood the speech of the other, the president of the court had every temptation to be despotic and corrupt, and the interpreter between him and his suitors became an important person who had much influence in deciding what mode of procedure was to be followed. The sheriff, often holding a hereditary post and fearing therefore no check to his despotism, added to the burden of the unhappy freeholders by a custom of summoning at his own fancy special courts, and laying heavy fines on those who did not attend them. Even when the law was fairly administered there was a growing number of cases in which the rigid forms of the court actually inflicted injustice, as questions constantly arose which lay far outside the limits of the old customary law of the Germanic tribes, or of the scanty knowledge of Roman law which had penetrated into other codes. The men of that day looked too often with utter hopelessness to the administration of justice; there was no peril so great in all the dangers that surrounded their lives as the peril of the law; there was no oppression so cruel as the oppression wrought by the harsh and rigid forms of the courts. From such calamities the miserable and despairing victims could look for no help save from the miraculous aid of the saints; and society at that time, as indeed it has been known to do in later days, was for ever appealing from the iniquity of law to God,—to a God who protected murderers if they murdered Jews, and defended robbers if they plundered usurers, who was, indeed, above all law, and was supposed to distribute a violent and arbitrary justice, answering to the vulgar notion of an equity unknown on earth.
We catch a glimpse of a trial of the time in the story of a certain Ailward, whose neighbour had refused to pay a debt which he owed him. Ailward took the law into his own hands, and broke into the house of his debtor, who had gone to the tavern and had left his door fastened with the lock hanging down outside, and his children playing within. Ailward carried off as security for his debt the lock, a gimlet, and some tools, and a whetstone which hung from the roof. As he sauntered home, however, his furious neighbour overtook him, having heard from the children what had been done. He snatched the whetstone from Ailward’s hand and dealt him a blow on the head with it, stabbed him in the arm with a knife, and then triumphantly carried him to the house which he had robbed, and there bound him as “an open thief” with the stolen goods upon him. A crowd gathered round, and an evil fellow, one Fulk, the apparitor, an underling of the sheriff employed to summon criminals to the court, remarked that as a thief could not legally be mutilated unless he had taken to the value of a shilling, it would be well to add a few articles to the list of stolen goods. Perhaps Ailward had won ill-fame as a creditor, or even, it may be, a money-lender in the village, for his neighbours clearly bore him little good-will. The crowd readily consented. A few odds and ends were gathered—a bundle of skins, gowns, linen, and an iron tool,—and were laid by Ailward’s side; and the next day, with the bundle hung about his neck, he was taken before the sheriff and the knights, who were then holding a Shire Court. The matter was thought doubtful; judgment was delayed, and Ailward was made fast in Bedford jail for a month, till the next county court. There the luckless man sent for a priest of the neighbourhood, and confessing his sins from his youth up, he was bidden to hope in the prayers of the blessed Virgin and of all the saints against the awful terrors of the law, and received a rod to scourge himself five times daily; while through the gloom shone the glimmer of hope that having been baptized on the vigil of Pentecost, water could not drown him nor fire burn him if he were sent to the ordeal. At last the month went by and he was again carried to the Shire Court, now at Leighton Buzzard. In vain he demanded single combat with Fulk, or the ordeal by fire; Fulk, who had been bribed with an ox, insisted on the ordeal of water, so that he should by no means escape. Another month passed in the jail of Bedford before he was given up to be examined by the ordeal. Whether he underwent it or whether he pleaded guilty when the judges met is uncertain, but however this might be, “he received the melancholy sentence of condemnation; and being taken to the place of punishment, his eyes were pulled out and he was mutilated, and his members were buried in the earth in the presence of a multitude of persons.”. . .
Such were in brief outline some of the difficulties which made order and justice hard to win. Society was helpless to protect itself: news spread slowly, the communication of thought was difficult, common action was impossible. Amid all the shifting and half understood problems of mediæval times there was only one power to which men could look to protect them against lawlessness, and that was the power of the king. No external restraints were set upon his action; his will was without contradiction. The mediæval world with fervent faith believed that he was the very spring and source of justice. In an age when all about him was changing, and when there was no organized machinery for the administration of law, the king had himself to be judge, lawgiver, soldier, financier, and administrator; the great highways and rivers of the kingdom were in “his peace;” the greater towns were in his demesne; he was guardian of the poor and defender of the trader; he was finance minister in a society where economic conditions were rapidly changing; he represented a developed system of law as opposed to the primitive customs of feud and private war; he was the only arbiter of questions that grew out of the new conflict of classes and interests; he alone could decree laws at his absolute will and pleasure, and could command the power to carry out his decrees; there was not even a professional lawyer who was not in his court and bound to his service.
Henry saw and used his opportunity. Even as a youth of twenty-one he assumed absolute control in his courts with a knowledge and capacity which made him fully able to meet trained lawyers, such as his chancellor, Thomas, or his justiciar, De Lucy. Cool, businesslike, and prompt, he set himself to meet the vast mass of arrears, the questions of jurisdiction and of disputed property, which had arisen even as far back as the time of Henry I., and had gone unsettled through the whole reign of Stephen, to the ruin and havoc of the land in question. He examined every charter that came before him; if any was imperfect he was ready to draw one up with his own hand; he watched every difficult point of law, noted every technical detail, laid down his own position with brief decision. In the uncertain and transitional state of the law the king’s personal interference knew scarcely any limits, and Henry used his power freely. But his unswerving justice never faltered. Gilbert de Bailleul, in some claim to property, ventured to make light of the charter of Henry I., by which it was held. The king’s wrath blazed up. “By the eyes of God,” he cried, “if you can prove this charter false, it would be worth a thousand pounds to me! If,” he went on, “the monks here could present such a charter to prove their possession of Clarendon, which I love above all places, there is no pretence by which I could refuse to give it up to them!” . . .
Henry began his work of reorganization by taking up the work which his grandfather had begun—that of replacing the mere arbitrary power of the sovereign by a uniform system of administration, and bringing into order the various conflicting authorities which had been handed down from ancient times, royal courts and manor courts, church courts, shire courts, hundred courts, forest courts, and local courts in special franchises, with all their inextricable confusion of law and custom and procedure. Under Henry I. two courts, the Exchequer and the Curia Regis, had control of all the financial and judicial business of the kingdom. The Exchequer filled a far more important place in the national life than the Curia Regis, for the power of the king was simply measured by the state of the treasury, when wars began to be fought by mercenaries, and justice to be administered by paid officials. The court had to keep a careful watch over the provincial accounts, over the moneys received from the king’s domains, and the fines from the local courts. It had to regulate changes in the mode of payment as the use of money gradually replaced the custom of payments in kind. It had to watch alterations in the ownership and cultivation of land, to modify the settlement of Doomsday Book so as to meet new conditions, and to make new distribution of taxes. There was no class of questions concerning property in the most remote way which might not be brought before its judges for decision. Twice a year the officers of the royal household, the Chancellor, Treasurer, two Chamberlains, Constable, and Marshal, with a few barons chosen from their knowledge of the law, sat with the Justiciar at their head, as “Barons of the Exchequer” in the palace at Westminster, round the table covered with its “chequered” cloth from which they took their name. In one chamber, the Exchequer of Account, the “Barons” received the reports of the sheriffs from every county, and fixed the sums to be levied. In a second chamber, the Exchequer of Receipt, the sheriff or tax-farmer paid in his dues and took his receipts. The accounts were carefully entered on the treasurer’s roll, which was called from its shape the Great Roll of the Pipe, and which may still be seen in our Record Office; the chancellor kept a duplicate of this, known as the Roll of the Chancery; and an officer of the king registered in a third Roll matters of any special importance. Before the death of Henry I. the vast amount and the complexity of business in the Exchequer Court made it impossible that it should any longer be carried on wholly in London. The “Barons” began to travel as itinerant judges through the country; as the king’s special officers they held courts in the provinces, where difficult local questions were tried and decided on the spot. So important did the work of finance become that the study of the Exchequer is in effect the key to English history at this time. It was not from any philosophic love of good government, but because the license of outrage would have interrupted the returns of the revenue that Henry I. claimed the title of the “Lion of justice.” It was in great measure from a wish to sweep the fees of the Church courts into the royal Hoard that the second Henry began the strife with Becket in the Constitutions of Clarendon, and the increase of revenue was the efficient cause of the great reforms of justice which form the glory of his reign. It was the fount of English law and English freedom.
The Curia Regis was composed of the same great officers of the household as those who sat in the Exchequer, and of a few men chosen by the king for their legal learning; but in this court they were not known as “Barons” but as “Justices,” and their head was the Chief Justice. The Curia Regis dealt with legal business, with all causes in which the king’s interest was concerned, with appeals from the local courts, and from vassals who were too strong to submit to their arbitration, with pleas from wealthy barons who had bought the privilege of laying their suit before the king, besides all the perplexed questions which lay far beyond the powers of the customary courts, and in which the equitable judgment of the king himself was required. In theory its powers were great, but in practice little business was actually brought to it in the time of Henry I.; the distance of the court from country places, and the expense of carrying a suit to it, would alone have proved an effectual hindrance to its usefulness, even if the rules by which it was guided had been much more complete and satisfactory than they actually were.
The routine of this system of administration, as well as the mass of business to be done, effectually interfered with arbitrary action on the king’s part, and the regular and methodical work of the organized courts gave to the people a fair measure of protection against the tyranny or caprice of the sovereign. But the royal power which was given over to justices and barons did not pass out of the hands of the king. He was still in theory the fount of all authority and law, and could, whenever he chose, resume the powers that he had granted. His control was never relaxed; and in later days we find that while judges on circuit who gave unjust judgment were summoned before the Curia Regis at Westminster, the judges of the Curia Regis itself were called for trial before the king himself in his council.
The reorganization of these courts was fast completed under Henry’s great justiciar, De Lucy, and the chancellor Thomas. The next few years show an amount of work done in every department of government which is simply astonishing. The clerks of the Exchequer took up the accounts and began once more regular entries in the Pipe Roll; plans of taxation were devised to fill the empty hoard, and to check the misery and tyranny under which the tax-payers groaned. The king ordered a new coinage which should establish a uniform system of money over the whole land. As late as the reign of Henry I. the dues were paid in kind, and the sheriffs took their receipts for honey, fowls, eggs, corn, wax, wool, beer, oxen, dogs, or hawks. When, by Henry’s orders, all payments were first made in coin to the Exchequer, the immediate convenience was great, but the state of the coinage made the change tell heavily against the crown. It was impossible to adulterate dues in kind; it was easy to debase the coin when they were paid in money, and that money received by weight, whether it were coin from the royal mints, or the local coinages that had continued from the time of the early English kingdoms, or debased money from the private mints of the barons. Roger of Salisbury, in fact, when placed at the head of the Exchequer, found a great difference between the weight and the actual value of the coin received. He fell back on a simple expedient; in many places there had been a provision as old at least as Doomsday, which enacted that the money weighed out for town-geld should if needful be tested by re-melting. The treasurer extended this to the whole system of the Exchequer. He ordered that all money brought to the Exchequer should itself be tested, and the difference between its weight and real value paid by the sheriff who brought it. The burden thus fell on the country, for the sheriff would of course protect himself as far as he could by exacting the same tests on all sums paid to him. If the pound was worth but ten shillings in the market no doubt the sheriff only took it for ten shillings in his court. Practically each tax, each due, must have been at least doubled, and the sheriff himself was at the mercy of the Exchequer moneyers. There was but one way to remedy the evil, by securing the purity of the coin, and twice during his reign Henry made this his special care.
In the absence of records we can only dimly trace the work of legal reform which was carried out by Henry’s legal officers; but it is plain that before 1164 certain great changes had already been fully established. A new and elaborate system of rules seems gradually to have been drawn up for the guidance of the justices who sat in the Curia Regis; and a new set of legal remedies in course of time made the chances of justice in this court greater than in any other court of the realm. The Great Assize, an edict whose date is uncertain, but which was probably issued during the first years of his reign, developed and set in full working order the imperfect system of “recognition” established by the Norman kings. Henceforth the man, whose right to his freehold was disputed, need but apply to the Curia Regis to issue an order that all proceedings in the local courts should be stopped until the “recognition” of twelve chosen men had decided who was the rightful owner according to the common knowledge of the district, and the barbarous foreign custom of settling the matter by combat was done away with. Under the new system the Curia Regis eventually became the recognized court of appeal for the whole kingdom. So great a mass of business was drawn under its control that the king and his regular ministers could no longer suffice for the work, and new judges had to be added to the former staff; and at last the positions of the two chief courts of the kingdom were reversed, and the King’s Court took the foremost place in the amount and importance of its business.
The same system of trial by sworn witnesses was also gradually extended to the local courts. By the new-fashioned royal system the legal men of hundreds and townships, the knights and freeholders, were ordered to search out the criminals of their district, and “present” them for trial at the Shire Court,—something after the fashion of the “grand jury” of to-day, save that in early times the jurors had themselves to bear witness, to declare what they knew of the prisoner’s character, to say if stolen goods had been divided in a certain barn, to testify to a coat by a patch on the shoulder. By a slow series of changes which wholly reversed their duties, the “legal men” of the juries of “presentment” and of “recognition” were gradually transformed into the “jury” of to-day; and even now curious traces survive in our courts of the work done by the ancestors of the modern jury. In criminal cases in Scotland the oath still administered by the clerk to jurymen carries us back to an ancient time: “You fifteen swear by Almighty God, and as you shall answer to God at the great day of judgment, you will truth say and no truth conceal, in so far as you are to pass on this assize.” The provincial administration was set in working order. New sheriffs took up again the administration of the shires, and judges from the King’s Court travelled, as they had done in the time of Henry I., through the land. . . .
Henry, however, was at once met by a difficulty unknown to earlier days. The system which the Conqueror had established of separate courts for secular and ecclesiastical business had utterly broken down for purposes of justice. Until the reign of Stephen much of the business of the bishops was done in the courts of the hundred and the shire. The Church courts also had at first been guided by the customary law and traditions of the early English Church, which had grown up along with the secular laws and had a distinctly national character. So long, indeed, as the canon law remained somewhat vague, and the Church courts incomplete, they could work peaceably side by side with the lay courts; but with the development of ecclesiastical law in the middle of the twelfth century, it was inevitable that difficulties should spring up. The boundaries of civil and ecclesiastical law were wholly uncertain, the scientific study of law had hardly begun, and there was much debatable ground which might be won by the most arrogant or the most skilful of the combatants. Every brawl of a few noisy lads in the Oxford streets or at the gates of some cathedral or monastic school was enough to kindle the strife as to the jurisdiction of Church or State which shook mediæval society to its foundation.
The Church courts not only had jurisdiction over the whole clerical order, but exercised wide powers even over the laity. To them alone belonged the right to enforce spiritual penalties, to deal with cases of oaths, promises, anything in which a man’s faith was pledged; to decide as to the property of intestates, to pronounce in every case of inheritance whether the heir was legitimate, to declare the law as to wills and marriage. Administering as they did an enlightened system of law, they profited by the new prosperity of the country, and the judicial and pecuniary disputes which came to them had never been so abundant as now. Henry was keenly alive to the fact that the archdeacons’ courts now levied every year by their fines more money than the whole revenue of the crown. Young archdeacons were sent abroad to be taught the Roman law, and returned to preside over the newly-established archdeacons’ courts; clergy who sought high office were bound to study before all things, even before theology, the civil and canon law. The new rules, however, were as yet incomplete and imperfectly understood in England; the Church courts were without the power to put them in force; the procedure was hurried and irregular; the judges were often ill-trained, and unfit to deal with the mass of legal business which was suddenly thrown on them; the ecclesiastical authorities themselves shrank from defiling the priesthood by contact with all this legal and secular business, and kept the archdeacons in deacons’ orders; the more religious clergy questioned whether for an archdeacon salvation were possible. In the eight years of Henry’s rule one hundred murders had been committed by clerks who had escaped all punishment save the light sentences of fine and imprisonment inflicted by their own courts, and Henry bitterly complained that a reader or an acolyte might slay a man, however illustrious, and suffer nothing save the loss of his orders.
Since the beginning of Henry’s reign, too, there had been an enormous increase of appeals to Rome. Questions quite apart from faith or morals, and that mostly concerned property, were referred for decision to a foreign court. The great monasteries were exempted from episcopal control and placed directly under the Pope; they adopted the customs and laws which found favour at Rome; they upheld the system of appeals, in which their wealth and influence gave them formidable advantages. The English Church was no longer as in earlier times distinct from the rest of Christendom, but was brought directly under Roman influence. The clergy were more and more separated from their lay fellow citizens; their rights and duties were determined on different principles; they were governed by their own officers and judged by their own laws, and tried in their own courts; they looked for their supreme tribunal of appeal not to the King’s Court, but to Rome; they became, in fact, practically freed from the common law.
No king, and Henry least of all, could watch unmoved the first great body which threatened to stand wholly outside the law of the land; and the ecclesiastical pretensions of the time were perhaps well matched by the pretensions of the State.1 . . .
In February 1166 he drew up his long-delayed scheme. His plans were rapidly completed; by the 16th of March the new system was at work.
Such were the conditions under which appeared the famous Assize of Clarendon. For the first time in English history a code of laws was issued by the sole authority of the king, without any appeal to the sanction of binding and immutable “custom.” Indeed, in all Europe there was no instance of national legislation which could be compared with it, for it was not till a hundred years later that the first code of laws since the time of the Carolingian Capitularies was drawn up in France. Its very name bears witness to the impression it made in its own day. The word “law” was still reserved for certain solemn uses, for the unalterable code of Scripture or for the Roman law. Men questioned what to call this new decree, given at the king’s will, and to be enforced just so long as he should choose, and their jealous conservatism took refuge in the word “assize,” as later generations in the same difficulty fell back on such words as “provision,” “statute,” “ordinance.”
The Constitutions of Clarendon two years before had lain down the principles which were to regulate the relations in England of Church and State. The Assize of Clarendon laid down the principles on which the administration of justice was to be carried out. Just as Henry had undertaken to bring Church courts and Church law under the king’s control, so now he aimed at bringing all local and rival jurisdictions whatever into the same obedience. In form the new law was simple enough. It consisted of twenty-two articles which were drawn up for the use of the judges who were about to make their circuits of the provinces. The first articles described the manner in which criminals were to be “presented” before the justices or sheriff. The accusation was to be made by “juries,” composed of twelve men of the hundred and four men of the township; the “presentment” of a criminal by a jury such as this practically implied that the man was held guilty by the public report of his own neighbourhood, and he was therefore forbidden such chance of escape as compurgation or the less dangerous forms of ordeal might have afforded, and was sent to the almost certain condemnation of the ordeal by water; if by some rare fortune he should escape from this alive he was banished from the kingdom as a man of evil reputation. All freemen were ordered to attend the courts held by the justices. The judges were given power to enter on all estates of the nobles, to see that the men of the manor were duly enrolled under the system of “frank-pledge,” in groups of ten men bound to answer for one another as “pledges” for all purposes of police. Strict rules were made to prevent the possible escape of criminals. The sheriffs were ordered to aid one another in carrying the hue and cry after them from one country to another; no “liberty” or “honour” might harbour a malefactor against the king’s officers; sheriffs were to give to the justices in writing the names of all fugitives, so that they might be sought through all England; everywhere jails, in which doubtful strangers or suspected rogues might be shut up for safe keeping in case the “hue and cry” should be raised after them, were to be made or repaired with wood from the king’s or the nearest landowner’s domains; no man might entertain a stranger for whom he would not be answerable before the justices; the old English law was again repeated in the very words of ancient times, that none might take into his house a waif or wanderer for more than one night unless he or his horse were sick; and if he tarried longer he must be kept until he were redeemed by his lord or could give safe pledges; no religious house might receive any of the mean people into their body without good testimony as to character unless he were sick unto death; and heretics were to be treated as outlaws. These last indeed were not very plentiful in England, and the over-anxious legislators seem only to have had in view a little band of German preachers, who had converted one woman, and who had themselves at a late council at Oxford been branded, flogged, and driven out half-naked, so that there was by this time probably not one who had not perished in the cold.
Such was the series of regulations that opened the long course of reforms by which English law has been built up. Two judges were sent during the next spring and summer through the whole of England. The following year there was a survey of the forests, and in 1168 another circuit of the shires was made by the barons of the Exchequer. Year by year with unbroken regularity the terrible visitation of the country by the justices went on. The wealth of the luckless people poured into the king’s treasury; the busy secretaries recorded in the Rolls a mass of profits unknown to the accounts of earlier days. The great barons who presided over the Shire courts found themselves practically robbed of power and influence. The ordinary courts fell into insignificance beside those summoned by the king’s judges, thronged as they were with the crowd of rich and poor, trembling at the penalty of a ruinous fine for non-attendance or full of a newly-kindled hope of justice. Important cases were more and more withdrawn from the sheriffs and given to the justices. They entered the estates of the nobles, even the franchises, liberties, and manors which had been freed from the old courts of the shire or hundred; they reviewed their decisions and interfered with their judgments. It is true that the system established in principle was but gradually carried into effect, and the people long suffered the tyranny of lords who maintained their own prisons. Half a century later we find sturdy barons setting up their tumbrils and gallows. In the reign of Edward I. there were still thirty-five private gallows in Berkshire alone, and when one of them was by chance or age broken down, and the people refused to set it up again, the baron could still make shift with the nearest oak. But as a system of government, feudalism was doomed from the day of Henry’s Assize, and only dragged out a lingering existence till the legislation of Edward I. dealt it a final blow.
The duties of police were at that time performed by the whole population, and the judges’ circuits brought home sharply to every man the part he was expected to play in the suppression of crime. Juries were fined if they had not “presented” a due amount of criminals; townships were fined if they had not properly pursued malefactors; villages were fined if a hut was burned down and the hue and cry was not raised, or if a criminal who had fled for refuge to their church escaped from it. A robber or murderer must be paid for by his “pledge,” or if he had no pledge, a fine fell on his village or township; if a dead body were found and the slayer not produced, the hundred must pay for him, unless a legal form, called “proving his Englishry,” could be gone through—a condition which was constantly impossible; the township was fined if the body had been buried before the coming of the coroner; abbot or knight or householder was heavily taxed for every crime of serf or hired servant under him, or even for the offences of any starving and worn-out pilgrim or traveller to whom he had given a three days’ shelter. In the remotest regions of the country barons and knights and freeholders were called to aid in carrying out the law. The “jurors” must be ready at the judges’ summons wherever and whenever they were wanted. They must be prepared to answer fully for their district; they must expect to be called on all sorts of excuses to Westminster itself, and no hardships of the journey from the farthest corner of the land might keep them back. The “knights of the shire” were summoned as “recognitors” to give their testimony in all questions of property, public privilege, rights of trade, local liberties, exemption from taxes; if the king demanded an “aid” for the marriage of his daughter or the coming of age of his son, they assessed the amount to be paid; if he wanted to count an estate among the Royal Forests, it was they who decided whether the land was his by ancient right. They were employed too in all kinds of business for the Court; they might be sent to examine a criminal who had fled to the refuge of a church, or to see whether a sick man had appointed an attorney, or whether a litigant who pleaded illness was really in bed without his breeches. If in any case the verdict of the Shire Court was disputed, they were summoned to Westminster to repeat the record of the county. No people probably ever went through so severe a discipline or received so efficient a training in the practical work of carrying out the law, as was given to the English people in the hundred years that lay between the Assize of Clarendon in 1166 and the Parliament summoned by De Montfort in 1265, where knights from every shire elected in the county court were called to sit with the bishops and great barons in the common Parliament of the realm.
In the pitiless routine of their work, however, the barons of the Exchequer were at this early time scarcely regarded as judges administering justice so much as tax-gatherers for a needy treasury. Baron and churchman and burgher alike saw every question turn to a demand of money to swell the royal Hoard; jurors were fined for any trifling flaw in legal procedure; widows were fined for leave to marry, guardians for leave to receive their wards; if a peasant were kicked by his horse, if in fishing he fell from the side of his boat, or if in carrying home his eels or herrings he stumbled and was crushed by the cart-wheel, his wretched children saw horse or boat or cart with its load of fish which in older days had been forfeited as “deodand” to the service of God, now carried off to the king’s Hoard; if a miller was caught in the wheel of his mill the sheriff must see the price of it paid to the royal treasury. In the country districts where coin was perhaps scarcely ever seen, where wages were unknown, and such little traffic as went on was wholly a matter of barter, the peasants must often have been put to the greatest straits to find money for the fines. Year after year baron as well as peasant and farmer saw his waggons and horses, or his store of honey, eggs, loaves, beer, the fish from his pond or the fowls from his yard, claimed by the purveyors who provided for the judges and their followers, and paid for by such measures and such prices as seemed good to the greedy contractors. The people at large groaned under the heavy burden of fines and penalties and charges for the maintenance of an unaccustomed justice. When in the visitations of 1168 the judges had to collect, besides the ordinary dues, an “aid” for the marriage of the king’s eldest daughter, the unhappy tax-payers, recognizing in their misery no distinctions, attributed all their sufferings to the new reform, and saw in their king not a ruler who desired righteous judgment, but one who only thirsted after gain. The one privilege which seemed worth fighting for or worth buying was the privilege of assessing their own fines and managing their own courts. Half a century later we see the prevailing terror at a visit of the judges to Cornwall, when all the people fled for refuge to the woods, and could hardly be compelled or persuaded to come back again. Yet later the people won a concession that in time of war no circuits should be held, so that the poor should not be utterly ruined.
Oppression and extortion had doubtless been well known before, when the sheriff carried on the administration of the law side by side with the lucrative business of “farming the shires;” but it was at least an irregular and uncertain oppression. The sheriff might himself at any moment share the fate of one of his own victims and a more merciful man stand in his place; in any case bribes were not unavailing, and there was still an appeal to the king’s justice. But against the new system there was no appeal; it was orderly, methodical, unrelenting; it was backed by the whole force of the kingdom; it overlooked nothing; it forgot nothing; it was comparatively incorruptible. The lesser courts, with their old clumsy procedure, were at a hopeless disadvantage before the professional judges, who could use all the new legal methods. If a man suffered under these there was none to plead his cause, for in all the country there was not a single trained lawyer save those in the king’s service. However we who look back from the safe distance of seven hundred years may see with clearer vision the great work which was done by Henry’s Assize, in its own day it was far from being a welcome institution to our unhappy forefathers. There was scarcely a class in the country which did not find itself aggrieved as the king waged war with the claims of “privilege” to stand above right and justice and truth. But all resistance of turbulent and discontented factions was vain. The great justiciars at the head of the legal administration, De Lucy and Glanville, steadily carried out the new code, and a body of lawyers was trained under them which formed a class wholly unknown elsewhere in Europe. Instead of arbitrary and conflicting decisions, varying in every hundred and every franchise according to the fashion of the district, the judges of the Exchequer or Curia Regis declared judgments which were governed by certain general principles. The traditions of the great administrators of Henry’s Court were handed down through the troubled reigns of his sons; and the whole of the later Common law is practically based on the decisions of two judges whose work was finished within fifty years of Henry’s death, and whose labours formed the materials from which in 1260 Bracton drew up the greatest work ever written on English law.
There was, in fact, in all Christendom no such system of government or of justice as that which Henry’s reforms built up. The king became the fountain of law in a way till then unknown. The later jealousy of the royal power which grew up with the advance of industrial activity, with the growth of public opinion and of its means of expressing itself, with the development of national experience and national self-dependence, had no place in Henry’s days, and had indeed no reason for existence. The strife for the abolition of privileges which in the nineteenth century was waged by the people was in the twelfth century waged by the Crown. In that time, if in no other, the assertion of the supreme authority of the king meant the assertion of the supreme authority of a common law; and there was, in fact, no country in Europe where the whole body of the baronage and of the clergy was so early and so completely brought into bondage to the law of the land. Since all courts were royal courts, since all law was royal law, since no justice was known but his, and its conduct lay wholly in the hands of his trained servants, there was no reason for the king to look with jealousy on the authority exercised by the law over any of his officers or servants. It may possibly be due to this fact that in England alone, of all countries in the world, the police, the civil servants, the soldiers, are tried in the same courts and by the same code as any private citizen; and that in England and lands settled by English peoples alone the Common law still remains the ultimate and only appeal for every subject of the realm.
But the power which was taken from certain privileged classes and put in the hands of the king was in effect by Henry’s Assize given back to the people at large. Foreigner as he was, Henry preserved to Englishmen an inheritance which had been handed down from an immemorial past, and which had elsewhere vanished away or was slipping fast into forgetfulness. According to the Roman system, which in the next century spread over Europe, all law and government proceeded directly from the king, and the subject had no right save that of implicit obedience; the system of representation and the idea of the jury had no place in it. Teutonic tradition, on the other hand, looked upon the nation as a commonwealth, and placed the ultimate authority in the will of the whole people; the law was the people’s law—it was to be declared and carried out in the people’s courts. At a very critical moment, when everything was shifting, uncertain, transitional, Henry’s legislation established this tradition for England. By his Assize Englishmen were still to be tried in their ancient courts. Justice was to be administered by the ancient machinery of shire-moot and hundred-moot, by the legal men of hundred and township, by the lord and his steward. The shire-moot became the king’s court in so far as its president was a king’s judge and its procedure regulated by the king’s decree; but it still remained the court of the people, to which the freemen gathered as their fathers had done to the folk-moot, and where judgment could only be pronounced by the verdict of the freeholders who sat in the court. The king’s action indeed was determined by a curious medley of chance circumstances and rooted prejudices. The canon law was fast spreading over his foreign states, and wherever the canon law came in the civil law followed in its train. But in England local liberties were strong, the feudal system had never been completely established, insular prejudice against the foreigner and foreign ways was alert, the Church generally still held to national tradition, the king was at deadly feud with the Primate, and was quite resolved to have no customs favoured by him brought into the land; his own absolute power made it no humiliation to accept the maxim of English lawyers that “the king is under God and the law.” So it happened that while all the other civilized nations quietly passed under the rule of the Roman code England alone stood outside it. From the twelfth century to the present day the groundwork of our law has been English, in spite of the ceaseless filtering-in of the conceptions and rules of the civil law of Rome. “Throughout the world at this moment there is no body of ten thousand Englishmen governed by a system of law which was not fashioned by themselves.” . . .
In the Assize of Northampton, held in January 1176, the king confirmed and perfected the judicial legislation which he had begun ten years before in the Assize of Clarendon. The kingdom was divided into six circuits. The judges appointed to the circuits were given a more full independence than they had before, and were no longer joined with the sheriffs of the counties in their sessions; their powers were extended beyond criminal jurisdiction to questions of property, of inheritance, of wardship, of forfeiture of crown lands, of advowsons to churches, and of the tenure of land. For the first time the name of Justitiarii Itinerantes was given in the Pipe Roll to these travelling justices; and the anxiety of the king to make the procedure of his courts perfectly regular, instead of depending on oral tradition, was shown by the law-books which his ministers began at this time to draw up. As a security against rebellion, a new oath of fealty was required from every man, whether earl or villein; fugitives and outlaws were to be more sharply sought after, and felons punished with harsher cruelty. “Thinking more of the king than of his sheep,” the legate admitted Henry’s right to bring the clergy before secular courts for crimes against forest law, and in various questions of lay fiefs; and agreed that murderers of clerks, who till then had been dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts, should bear the same punishment as murderers of laymen, and should be disinherited. Religious churchmen looked on with helpless irritation at Henry’s first formal victory over the principles of Thomas; in the view of his own day he had “renewed the Assize of Clarendon, and ordered to be observed the execrable decrees for which the blessed martyr Thomas had borne exile for seven years, and been crowned with the crown of martyrdom.”
During the next two years Henry was in perpetual movement through the land from Devon to Lincoln, and between March 1176 and August 1177 he summoned eighteen great councils, besides many others of less consequence. From 1178 to 1180 he paid his last long visit to England, and again with the old laborious zeal he began his round of journeys through the country. “The king inquired about the justices whom he had appointed, how they treated the men of the kingdom; and when he learned that the land and the subjects were too much burthened with the great number of justices, because there were eighteen, he elected five—two clerks and three laymen—all of his own household; and he ordered that they should bear all appeals of the kingdom and should do justice, and that they should not depart from the King’s Court, but should remain there to hear appeals, so that if any question should come to them they should present it to the audience of the king, and that it should be decided by him and by the wise men of the kingdom.” The Justices of the Bench, as they were called, took precedence of all other judges. The influence of their work was soon felt. From this time written records began to be kept of the legal compromises made before the King’s Court to render possible the transference of land. It seems that in 1181 the practice was for the first time adopted of entering on rolls all the business which came to the Kings’ Court, the pleas of the Crown and common pleas between subjects. Unlike in form to the great Roll of the Pipe, in which the records of the Exchequer Court had long been kept, the Plea Rolls consisted of strips of parchment filed together by their tops, on which, in an uncertain and at first a blundering fashion, the clerks noted down their records of judicial proceedings. But practice soon brought about an orderly and mechanical method of work, and the system of procedure in the Bench rapidly attained a scientific perfection. Before long the name of the Curia Regis was exclusively applied to the new court of appeal.
The work of legal reform had now practically come to an end. Henry indeed still kept a jealous watch over his judges. Once more, on the retirement of De Lucy in 1179, he divided the kingdom into new circuits, and chose three bishops—Winchester, Ely, and Norwich—“as chief justiciars, hoping that if he had failed before, these at least he might find steadfast in righteousness, turning neither to the right nor to the left, not oppressing the poor, and not deciding the cause of the rich for bribes.” In the next year he set Glanville finally at the head of the legal administration. After that he himself was called to other cares. But he had really finished his task in England. The mere system of routine which the wisdom of Henry I. had set to control the arbitrary power of the king had given place to a large and noble conception of government; and by the genius of Henry II. the law of the land was finally established as the supreme guardian of the old English liberties and the new administrative order.
[1 ]These passages are extracted from “Henry II” (Twelve English Statesmen), 1888, cc. III, IV, V, and IX (London: Macmillan & Co.). The authoress writes to the Committee: “I remember that Sir James Stephen spoke to me warmly of the book and said that I had not made a single legal error.”
[2 ]Other Publications: Town Life in the Fifteenth Century, 1894; Oxford Studies, 1901; The Conquest of England, 1883 (ed.); Short History of the English People, 1888 (ed.); Historical Studies, 1903 (ed.).
[1 ]Here follows the account of the conflict with Becket and of the latter’s death.—Eds.