Custom and courts before and after the conquest

Signatures of William I and MatildaWhen William the Conquerer conquered England, he found a country which already had an established, if rudimentary central government, ruling through local sheriffs who were answerable to the King.

The country was divided into shires, very similar to the counties we have today.

Shires, hundreds and boroughs

Shires were governed by Ealdormen or Earls – after the conquest William restricted them to one shire each. Assemblies were held once or twice a year to discuss the important affairs of the region and maybe also to do justice.

The shires were divided into Hundreds (also called Wapentakes) and they were then subdivided into tithings of some ten or so families. These were the basic rural administrative regions and, for example, were used for raising taxation to support the king.

The town boroughs also had their assemblies (called hustings when held indoors) and these performed the same functions for the townspeople as the hundreds did for the country folk.

When the country was invaded by the Normans they may have changed the aristocracy by replacing the original Saxon lords with Norman ones, put vast swathes of the country under newfangled ‘forest law’, and imposed a more rigorous feudal system, but many of the pre conquest organisations and systems remained in place, (and some are still with us today).

Seigniorial and manor courts

As well as these local assemblies which often had a judicial function, the lords also had their own ‘seigniorial’ courts for their men. These developed alongside the local hundreds and county assemblies, although sometimes they would merge and the hundreds would come under the control of the local lord.

For many men, his lords court or the manor court was the one he would use. It would deal with disputes, punish crimes and deal with feudal matters.

The Kings Courts

On top of these local courts was the Kings Court. A claimant could come to the Kings Court if he had failed to find justice elsewhere. However the records of Henry I show that it was expensive, so could therefore only be used by the wealthy.

Although the King in these early days did sometimes send justices out into the country, on the whole the Kings Court was a central one and suitors would travel to it. This did not mean though that it remained in one location. The king was rarely stationary and and as he moved from place to place, his court moved with him.

The Exchequer

However as the administrative side of government developed, it became inconvenient for the administrators to be always on the move. The first great office of state to stay in one place was the Exchequer.

During the reign of Henry I it settled at Westminster, as the revenue system could no longer function properly if it was constantly moving around. It took its name from the room where it operated from, where the accounts were reckoned on a chequered table.

The Exchequer was also the first department to keep written records (that we know of) and the first great documentary record we have of these times (other than Domesday) was the great pipe roll of 1130.

Next I will look at bit more closely at how justice worked in Norman times.

Photo of parchment with signatures of William I and Matilda is Wikipedia commons

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