Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 2: SEIGNORIAL JURISDICTION - A Concise History of the Common Law
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CHAPTER 2: SEIGNORIAL JURISDICTION - Theodore Frank Thomas Plucknett, A Concise History of the Common Law 
A Concise History of the Common Law (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010).
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Besides all this there is the second aspect of the courts we have just described, namely, the effect upon them of the local territorial magnate. Here we come to an extremely obscure and difficult subject. The sources of the authority of a great lord or baron can usually be traced with some confidence, but the rise of numerous petty lordships all over the country and their effect upon the existing communal organisation are matters of greater complexity.1 It is even difficult to classify the different sorts of power which a local lord could exercise at various times. In some cases the lord’s jurisdiction was personal; in others it was territorial; and in many cases it is impossible to draw the line. On the one hand we have the development of the manor, and, closely connected with it, of the view of frankpledge; on the other it is clear that in many cases the whole organisation of the hundred court fell into private hands, and it is even fairly common to find that besides owning the hundred court the lord will even exclude the sheriff entirely, and instead of the sheriff’s turn the lord’s steward will hold a “court leet”.
The manor as it existed in its typical form in the England of the thirteenth century is the product of a large number of different lines of development, some of them of very ancient date, which gradually converged to form one institution. One of its most striking features is the fact that all the tenants hold dependently of the lord of the manor. The origins of this may perhaps be sought in the tendency of small landowners to commend themselves and their land to some local magnate who seemed more likely to give them protection during such troubled times as the Danish invasions and the fairly constant wars between petty kingdoms. The weakness of the central power, too, undoubtedly promoted the growth of small local jurisdictions which were ready to undertake the task of repressing crime and organising military defence. This process was very probably hastened by the heavy burden of taxation. In many parts of the world, even to-day, it has been found necessary to curb the activities of the capitalist who takes advantage of a small landowner who is unable to meet his taxes. In pre-Conquest days no such limits were ever thought of, and it is extremely probable that a great deal of free land was converted into land dependently held under the pressure of taxation. This did not mean that the poor owner was dispossessed; the change was principally to burden him with services in money, labour or products payable regularly, in return for which the lord took upon himself the public burdens of the property. In this connection it is essential to remember that taxation in the middle ages did not usually recur at regular intervals; the small man who had little economic reserve might therefore have to meet sudden liabilities quite beyond his means, although if those liabilities had been evenly spread over a length of years they would have been much less burdensome.
These dependent tenants were, it seems, originally freemen; there is no evidence of any extensive number of slaves or bondmen in early Anglo-Saxon England. In the course of time, however, the burdens upon these tenants steadily increased; more and more labour becomes due, and the increasing arbitrariness of its exaction will emphasise the baseness of the tenure. By the time we get to Domesday Book the development of serfdom has rapidly proceeded. On many manors it seems to be completed; on others a few faint traces of freedom still remain, and this is particularly so on the vast but scattered estates of the Crown. Throughout the middle ages these “sokemen of the ancient demesne” will be accounted as slightly higher than the villeins, and centuries later we shall find ambitious bondmen having lawyers search Domesday Book for them in the hope that it may turn out that their manor once formed part of the ancient demesne of the Crown.
In the majority of cases, however, these once free tenants became servile. Besides this lordship over land there was a good deal of personal jurisdiction. There are various origins for this also. Doubts have recently been cast upon Maitland’s view that the Anglo-Saxon “sac and soc” included the right to hold a petty court, to compel tenants to attend it, and to take profits from it.1 In those cases where a manor contained freemen as well, there may have operated the universal feudal principle that every lord can hold a court for his free tenants. Where the whole area of an ancient village community had fallen into the power of a lord it was natural that he should supervise the whole business of arranging the agricultural economy of the inhabitants, for, in spite of all the feudal superstructure which the common law has erected, the foundation of the later manor is often an ancient village community.
To all this must be added the system of frankpledge which later became typical of a good many manors. Its history can be clearly traced back to the Anglo-Saxon period where we find the institution of friborh. “Borh” is the root which we have in the modern word “borrow”, and seems to have the significance of security or surety. Its general feature is the provision for every person of some other persons who shall be borh or security that whatever moneys have to be paid will be forthcoming, and that if necessary the party can be produced in court. A master was always borh for his servants; members of a family might be borh for one another; or gilds might be formed whose members undertook to be borh for their brethren. To all this must be added the obscure institution of the tithing whose root significance is a group of ten men, naturally suggesting some intimate relationship with the hundred. Eventually the tithing became a territorial division with a tendency to coincide with the vill or township, and the tithing-man, its head, became the village constable. Cnut required his subjects to be in tithing and in borh as well,1 and regular means were established for ascertaining that every person (who was not of some substance) was duly enrolled in tithing and in borh. This machinery was operated by the sheriff through the hundred court. At the time of the Conquest it seems that lords were able to shift their responsibility of being borh for their tenants on to the tenants themselves;2 this change was not very difficult, especially where the lord either owned or controlled the hundred court which had the duty of working the tithing system. The result was known to the Norman lawyers as frankpledge, and lords who owned hundred courts might also have the additional right (which normally belonged to the sheriff), of verifying the proper enrolment of every tenant in a frankpledge. This was called “view of frankpledge”.3
Under seignorial influences, then, we have seen the vill gradually falling under the control of the lord of the manor, save only for a few important police duties which the Crown imposed upon the vill direct, and even here it may be that the lord found ways of taking a profit. The institution next above the vill, the hundred, likewise fell into private hands in numerous cases, and in many instances the lord of a hundred could exclude the sheriff from his tourn in that particular hundred and hold it himself as a “court leet”. In later times, legal theory attributed to many manors three different courts—court leet, court baron, court customary. Even when the theory was current law, there were practical difficulties in separating the three jurisdictions1 and during the middle ages there was little attempt to draw fine distinctions. The leet was the most distinctive, with its view of frankpledge: for the rest, a general and wide jurisdiction was exercised without regard for speculative difficulties.
A MANORIAL COURT AT WORK
An interesting example of a manorial court (with a court leet held, as usual, twice a year) is to be found at Littleport near Ely, and a few extracts from its rolls2 will give a good idea of the vigour and usefulness of such courts, and explain, incidentally, why some boroughs found it useful to acquire from the Crown a grant of leet jurisdiction. As an example of its most solemn form of procedure we may take what looks very much like an original writ3 addressed by the lord of the court (the bishop of Ely) to his steward in 1316: but more typical of its usual activities are the numerous cases of petty offences, principally larcenies, which are punished by banishment4 and offences against the by-laws relating to the agricultural arrangements of the village—and like most mediaeval communities there was a strong protectionist policy which even went so far as to fine persons who “exported” eggs “to the great destruction” of the people.5 Two men incurred a fine for having “falsely, maliciously and in contempt of the lord, defamed his court by saying that no one can obtain justice there”.6 Civil cases illustrate the wide variety of remedy obtainable in the court. A seller who warranted two ewes as sound has to pay fine and damages when they turned out to be diseased,7 and the owner of a dog has to pay for the damage it does:8 Rose called Ralph a thief, and Ralph called her a whore, and so both are fined, and since the trespass done to Ralph exceeds the trespass done to Rose she must pay him damages of twelve pence for the difference.9 Slandering a man’s goods so that he lost a sale is visited with fine and damages.10 Beatrice, who should have made a shirt for Agnes, has to pay one penny damages for failing to do so, and in at least two cases of contracts to do work, the court ordered the defaulter to be distrained until he did it—remarkable examples of specific performance.11 These and many other entries show how vigorous and flexible was this manorial law in the period around the year 1300, when it is certain that the common law administered by the king’s courts at Westminster gave no remedy for the breach of simple contracts, nor for such torts as slander.
In these cases it will be seen that prosecutions are on the presentment of a jury. In manors which had not received (or had not assumed) this royal right, it was the bailiff who prosecuted.1
The efficiency of the manorial form of government is attested to a remarkable degree in the history of Manchester. This rich and flourishing community was a manor belonging to the Mosley family, who purchased the manorial rights in 1596 and continued to enjoy them until 1845, when the municipality (created in 1838) bought them for £200,000.
“The lord of the manor had the right to tax and toll all articles brought for sale into the market of the town. But, though the inhabitants were thus to a large extent taxed for the benefit of one individual, they had a far greater amount of local self-government than might have been supposed, and the court leet, which was then the governing body of the town, had, though in a rudimentary form, nearly all the powers now possessed by municipal corporations.”2
COUNTIES, PALATINATES, HONOURS
When we come to the county, however, we find that seignorial influence was less easy to assert. In one or two cases the office of sheriff became hereditary in a great family, but this advantage was soon destroyed by the strictness with which hereditary sheriffs, like all other sheriffs, had to account to the Exchequer. Even the appointment of an earl did not have the effect of putting the county into private hands; the county was still administered by a royal sheriff accountable to the Crown, the earl only receiving the third penny. A few counties became palatine, that is to say, exempt, or almost so, from royal jurisdiction (Chester, Lancaster and Durham); for this there were definite military reasons, as these border counties had to be kept almost continuously on a war footing as a defence against the Welsh and Scotch. The processes which we have seen at work in the township and the hundred, the Crown refused to tolerate in the county; and so the county became the basis of royal power in local government.
Generally speaking, therefore, private persons did not enjoy any jurisdiction higher than that of a hundred court with court leet. The result was inevitably to simplify the task of the Crown in effecting and maintaining the unity of the country, and, in the end, to facilitate the rise of the common law into its present position of complete and unrivalled primacy. At one moment, however, it seemed that things might have been otherwise. Even before the Conquest there were some very extensive private jurisdictions, and after the Conquest they continued to exist in a more feudalised form, very frequently being styled “Honours”. The honour was governed by a court which consisted of the barons who held land of it, and the procedure and jurisdiction of the court resembled closely that of the King’s own court. A few good examples1 of cases in honorial courts in the middle of the twelfth century show how important questions of property could be litigated, and sometimes settled by means of final concords, in the court of an honour without the necessity of invoking royal justice or its machinery.2
The decline of such jurisdictions is an important factor in our legal history. Some survived late because they were held by churches, but many vanished through escheat or forfeiture, or were broken up through descent to heiresses. There seems to have been little direct attack upon them at any date, though they must all have felt in time the competition of the royal courts with which they had concurrent jurisdiction principally in matters of real property.
We have therefore traced, very briefly, the characteristics of the old communal jurisdictions, together with their partial subjection to the growing forces of seignorial jurisdiction. The only place where these forces were checked was in the county, and their antagonist there was the Norman monarchy. We now come, therefore, to the consideration of the power of the Crown over the more ancient local jurisdictions.
The difficulty is not confined to England: compare Chanteux, Moyennes et basses justices, in Travaux de la semaine d’histoire du droit normand (1938), 283.
See, especially, F. E. Harmer, Anglo-Saxon Writs (1952), and cf. Julius Goebel, Felony and Misdemeanour, i. 364 ff., 374; contra Maitland, Domesday Book, 80 ff. and Jolliffe, Constitutional History, 70. In 1414 the burgesses of Liverpool claimed that the words sac and soc are interpreted to mean a free court, “as it is declared of record in the exchequer”: Rot. Parl., iv. 55 no. 2.
ii Cnut, 20.
Cf. p. 88 n. 2 above.
For all this see W. A. Morris, The Frankpledge System. “There were endless variations in the division of labour and the division of profits between the private views of frankpledge and the tourn in any hundred”: H. M. Cam, The Hundred and the Hundred Rolls, 127.
See the warning given in Bacon, Abridgement (ed. 1832), ii. 534.
Portions of these rolls are printed by Maitland in The Court Baron (Selden Society, vol. 4); the following references are to the pages of that edition.
Op. cit., 121-122.
Ibid., 131. (No scienter is alleged as a rule.)
Plucknett, The Mediaeval Bailiff, 9-13.
Article “Manchester” in Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911), 548.
They are printed and discussed by Stenton, English Feudalism, 46-55.
Described below, pp. 613-614.