A confusion of courts

Medieval robbersI looked briefly at courts in my post here. However, now we have reached Henry II it is time to look at bit more closely at the situation he faced early in his reign.

The problem was largely due to the existence side by side of the old pre conquest courts and the new courts and ideas brought over with the Normans.

Courts galore

Here is a list of the main types:

  • The vill courts enforced the village by-laws. These were small humble courts and often got subsumed into the more important courts later
  • The manor courts were the landlord’s private estate courts which dealt largely with matters relating to unfree tenures of his peasantry
  • The hundred (or wapentake) courts dealt with petty crime in the local area
  • The Shire courts dealt with more serious crime, tort and pleas of debt
  • The Borough courts had the same functions within townships, according to their charter or incorporation
  • The Ecclesiastical courts dealt with ‘causes which concern the cure of souls’ such as matrimonial and testamentary matters as well as cases against the clergy (the subject of the Becket problem later in the reign)
  • The Kings Court, which met wherever the King was, was the greatest court in the land and was where his tenants in chief brought their pleas. But it was also a court for enforcing the King’s rights, as well as acting as a supreme court of appeal

Courting confusion

It sounds nice and neat written like that, but in fact it was highly confusing. The jurisdiction of the different courts was unclear. This caused problems, for example defendants could delay matters endlessly by prevaricating and raising jurisdictional queries.

Attempts at clarification failed miserably, the best (according to Warren) being Glanville writing about litigation relating to land:

Such pleas are tried in the courts of lords, in accordance with the reasonable customs of those courts, which are so diverse and numerous that they cannot readily be reduced to writing

This coupled with the fact that the medievals were not big on paperwork (few other then the clergy could read or write) and frequently looked to unsatisfactory ordeals for proof, made ‘justice’ often illusory.

Ameliorating aspects

Although none of this was good, not all was gloom and doom. Warren suggests that the reports may make things appear worse than they actually were in practice as they were largely taken from monastic records.

Monasteries were in a separate class of litigant. They often had no alternative but to litigate, and as they held property for posterity, they were reluctant to accept compromise.

Having a strong minded King was also an advantage as they could often cut through the confusion and sort things out. As Warren says, rather tongue in cheek:

They were highly conscious of the prerogative of Kingship, and discharged its duties more vigorously than many Anglo-Saxon kings, who did not have to try so hard to prove that they were truly kings.

As we will see, this all changed during the course of Henry II’s reign. However before we move into considering the changes, it is time to look at an actual case.  Which is the subject of the next post

The medieval robbers picture is wikipedia commons

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