What the Normans did for law in England

The Arms of William the ConquererI am going to be moving forward in time now to Henry II and the Angevin kings. An exciting time and very significant for English legal history.

However before I say goodbye (for now) to the Normans, I just want to take a quick look back and look at what they did for English law and the legal system.

WIlliam I

William was the conquerer and nothing was the same again after 1066. However apart from importing the hated forest law, and the imposition of the feudal system (which had existed in a form earlier anyway), fundamentally he did not really alter much the legal system in England.

Apparently he greatly respected the laws which had been put in place by Edward the Confessor and much of the administrative organisation of the country stayed largely unchanged.

For example the country remained divided into shires or counties, and much of the court system stayed the same. It is understood though that he (or the Normans) introduced trial by combat, which joined the other more traditional ordeals by fire and water.

Probably his greatest gift to posterity was Domesday, the extraordinary snapshot record of England in 1087, unique in Western Europe, and which has been so useful initially for administrators and lawyers and in latter centuries, to historians.

It says a lot about the power and authority of William that he was able to achieve this, and for this if nothing else we have reason to be grateful to him.

William II

William Rufus had a relatively short reign, from the death of his father in 1187 to 1100 when he was shot mysteriously in the New Forest.

He was not a popular monarch, certainly not with the contemporary historians, clerics to a man, who deplored his way of life and general demeanour. As he apparently despised the English people and never learned the language, it is probably fair to say that they did not think much of him either.

Good points include arranging for the writing up of Domesday (or at least not hindering it unduly), and building Westminster Hall, which subsequently became the home of the Law Courts right up until the nineteenth century.

However one suspects that the country heaved a big sigh of relief at his early death. His successor was a far more satisfactory king.

Henry I

Henry  I was a strong and clever king who ruled 35 years, giving his country a much needed period of peace and recuperation.

His reign started with one of the great ‘chartas and gartas’ of the realm, the Charter of Liberties (or the Coronation Charter).  This gave assurances to the Barons at the time of his coronation, and is generally believed to be a precursor to the Magna Carta. However being a strong King, he did not allow this to affect his conduct unduly once his grip on the country was secure.

The administration of the country developed greatly during his rule, and the first great administrative record (apart from Domesday) – the pipe roll of 1131, dates from this time, after the Exchequer had settled in Westminster. The legal system also developed, mainly through having a period of peace in which to do so.

In particular the Kings Court started to develop as a superior court with authority over the lesser courts. No doubt Henry was also happy with the income which writ and other legal fees brought to his Exchequer.


The death of Henry I ushered in the civil war between his legitimate daughter Matilda and his nephew Stephen. Nineteen years of civil war halted for a while the development of the law and administrative systems that had been proceeding nicely under Henry.

However they were not destroyed, and the country continued to function, in a fashion (as the Cadfael novels show), during this time.

However there is no doubt that the country was in a bit of a mess when Henry II took over in 1154. Fortunately he was a strong King who, like his grandfather Henry I, ruled for over 30 years. Plenty of time for him to sort things out.

The Arms of William the Conquerer picture is Wikipedia Commons

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