The vast archives produced by the English legal system are some of our most valuable materials for legal, political, social, and family histories. Issuing from national and local courts, from common, ecclesiastical, and equitable jurisdictions, and covering civil and criminal law, they offer a window into the lives of ordinary people and the principles that governed their societies. Yet to the first-time researcher – and even to more experienced scholars – they can seem idiosyncratic, impenetrable, and daunting. As someone who is still on the steep learning curve that comes with reading these records, I have put together some basic advice for those new to working with them.
Posts tagged ‘legal history’
In 1305, William Wallace was hanged, drawn, and beheaded. Notes from the court state that ‘his heart, liver, lungs and all his entrails be cast into the fire and burned’ and ‘his body be cut into four parts.’ His head was to be placed on London Bridge, with each ‘quarter’ of Wallace hung at Newcastle upon Tyne, Berwick, Stirling, and the town of St. John ‘for the terror and punishment of all who pass by’.
Crimes against the monarch or realm have often been treated harshly under English common law. Owing to Wallace’s role in the Scottish wars perhaps this severe punishment was to be expected. Legal historian, Sir John Baker, suggested that absence of legislation on treason was a risk to liberty and justice. A tyrannical ruler could choose to inflict the greatest punishment for the slightest offence. This is the likely reason why in 1351 the Commons and the Lords petitioned King Edward III to outline treason, resulting in it being the first major offence to be defined by statute.
‘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. 
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. Read more
Patrick is an MPhil student in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. He is currently researching atheism and unbelief in post-Reformation England.
In 1519, Elizabeth Sculthorp was brought before the church courts in the diocese of Lincoln to explain her faltering religious belief. The court book reports that:
“First she says that since Whitsunday last she has not had perfect nor steadfast belief in God, nor since that time she had no manner good mind to come to the Church nor to serve God, and for the most part she has not come to the Church, and she has not believed in the holy sacrament of the altar, nor in any other sacrament of Holy Church. And since Candlemass last she has betaken herself and all her children to the devil and clearly forsaken God and the Church. She says she had never counsel of no manner hereunto, nor she never saw nor heard no evil spirit unto her. And she says she has not done any great offense to bring her into despair, nor her husband has not evil entreated her, but only this false belief was put into her mind, she knows now how, but only by the devil.” Read more