Experiencing the law in sixteenth-century England

By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)

‘To London once my stepps I bent,
Where trouth in no wyse should be faint,
To westmynster-ward I forthwith went,
To a man of law to make complaint.
I sayd, “for marys love, that holy saynt /
Pyty the poore that wold proceede.”
But, for lack of mony, I cold not spede. [1]

This vivid tale of a Kentish husbandman seeking legal redress in the Westminster courts comes to us through ‘London Lickpenny’, an anonymous, fifteenth-century popular poem.  It stands out for the insight it provides on the litigant’s experience of the late medieval and early modern legal system – something which, it might be assumed, we cannot gather so easily from the formulaic and arcane court records for this period.

Individuals’ experiences of the legal system are not often included in legal history. The ‘experience’ we are interested in usually comes down to a single moment: a written or spoken complaint, the responses of defendants and witnesses, or the verdict made at the end of a case. These are, however, records of recognised legal procedures, the culmination of often years of dispute and, indeed, strategy.  We may, therefore, be able to use legal records to uncover the ‘experience’ of litigants up to and including their suits in law courts.

What ‘experience’ would a litigant have to go through to bring an action at law?  Comparing the origin county of the case, usually mentioned in the petition, to the location given as the site for the court informs us about the physical journey made by litigants. From this we can tell, for instance, that many of the high courts of appeal required a trip to London. This information, along with what the documents can tell us about the employment of attorneys by parties and anything we can gather about the values of goods or lands being disputed, can shed some light on an estimated cost for a suit in a particular court as well as the average worth of litigants there.   

That a lawsuit might involve physical and financial effort is not to say that common people of this period were inexperienced with the law.  As ‘London Lickpenny’ implies, litigants at the ‘high courts’ of justice were more familiar with the trip to Westminster and the legal system there than we might presume.  We are fortunate now to have access to The National Archive’s Discovery catalogue, which can be searched by plaintiff name and limited by date and document class.  Sampling of the litigant base of the early-sixteenth-century Court of Requests, for example, finds that of 23 cases pursued from plea to decree in the period 1515 to 1529, 15 plaintiffs had experience of Chancery, Star Chamber, or further contact with Requests in the course of other suits, whilst 9 had submitted the same case in more than one equity court, including Requests.  This begins to offer us an insight into the familiarity that litigants may have had with the law, and thus not only the reality of their lived experience but also the ways in which they might strategically construct that experience in their complaints to the courts.

It must be noted that court records are idiosyncratic in their form and contents, and often defy generalisation when compared widely.  Yet litigant ‘experience’, if studied, enables us to find a route between constitutional, top-down court histories and the mining of legal records for insight into popular culture. Thinking about ‘experience’ in this context can require a great deal of archival legwork to get an overall picture, but doing so expands our knowledge on the social lives, institutions, and legal strategies of early modern English people.   

[1] “London Lickpenny,” in Rossell Hope Robbins ed. Historical Poems of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), 130-34.

Image: Reconstructed image of Westminster Palace in the time of Henry VIII by H.J. Brewer, 1884. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons).


1 thought on “Experiencing the law in sixteenth-century England

  1. A very informative article on legal history.

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