Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University



The Justice System


The Royal Courts

There were three arms of the justice network:  the royal, manorial, and ecclesiastical.  The royal justice system, which was at the apex, developed over several centuries.  During the fourteenth, statutory law became the judicial basis rather than customary law, though the latter continued to have force.  But the movement toward written law started as early as the twelfth century with Henry II, who built a system that allowed swifter and greater access to judicial remedy, based on customary English law, the reinstitution of previous enactments, and his own innovations.  He appointed royal judges to visit the local shires to settle cases in his name, which provided injured parties with improved avenues of redress.  Juries of local peers were formed when necessary to ascertain facts.  One of the greatest changes was the replacement of trial by ordeal and/or battle with the judicial inquest, based on human knowledge. 

Henry claimed that he was reinstituting the customs of Henry I, but one innovative impact of his practice was the recordation and formalization of instructions in writing, and the "attempt from [the constitutions of Clarendon in] 1164 onwards to reinforce the customary law of England by written instructions to judges and other royal officials" (Clanchy 153).  While laws may not have been greatly reformed by Henry II, the writ in standardized form allowed regularization and automation of procedure for instituting and classifying claims throughout the realm.  Written instructions to local sheriffs and other royal representatives avoided ambiguity, and documentation of decisions memorialized judgments to ensure appropriate enactment.  Henry II formed a system which "knit the governmental resources of England into a unitary force" (Keen, Medieval 108) and served as a strong basis for the future.

The proliferation of parliamentary statutes in the fourteenth century kept pace with the increasing complexities of the society, and the interpretation, administration and enforcement of those laws required an equally complex system.  At the head were the king, parliament, and council,1 to which petitions were presented.  As demands increased, judicial business was passed to the chancellor who, as head of the Chancery, was responsible for issuing judicial and administrative writs.  He became the presiding officer of the council, and late in the century the council and the chancellor’s court began to separate.  The Chancery Court evolved as a court of equity; the chancellor could determine cases in the king’s name on the basis of fairness rather than on strict statutory law.

The central courts were located at Westminster, each serving specific functions.  The exchequer heard cases regarding the crown’s revenue; the king’s bench handled cases of special concern to the king; and the court of common pleas, or common bench, dealt with cases between subjects.

Justices of the superior courts made regular tours of the counties.  Within the county courts, the sheriff presided over sessions to hear cases, usually of small pleas and petty offences, though occasionally of greater matters by special writ.  He also received indictments for pleas to the Crown, empanelled juries and arrested offenders.  Under the sheriff were bailiffs who made arrests and  summoned persons to court, and constables who made arrests and imprisoned suspects.  The coroner was the recorder of inquisitions into sudden deaths and indictments of felonies. 

Justices of the peace had a long and complicated development, staring with local knights and gentry as “keepers of the peace.” Their powers waxed and waned in response to political and judicial opinions and controversies. In the last half of the century justices of the peace were established through statutes that gave them the responsibility of maintaining peace through inquiries into various types of felonies.2 

The obvious danger in hierarchical structures in which a supreme authority depends on representative administration that extends to the local level is the opportunity for agents and authorities to act in their own economic, political and personal interests.  The king as supreme judge needed to devise representative justice, but it often became unwieldy and passed out of his control.  Officials appointed within their own districts naturally had a subjective interest in many matters within their jurisdiction.  Local sheriffs and bailiffs were vulnerable to bribery and the coercion of local powers; justices of the peace could be intimidated and were often subsidized by noble patrons.  Even in the most well-intended organization, the rule that "unprotected, the small man's instinctive reaction to the powerful official was to seek to buy his favor, not to resist or complain" (Keen, Medieval 200) was endemic to almost all feudal judicial systems.

Although corruption filtered down through the levels, it also occurred at the top with monarchs abusing their power, neglecting their duties, and tolerating maladministration of justice.  The histories are rather silent on Edward II's role as jussticiar.  His foreign and domestic conflicts absorbed most of his attention, and it might be concluded that the judicial branch of government received little tending during his reign.  In fact, it would appear that Edward's main interest in legal process was its manipulation in favor of his power over parliament.  Some mention is made by historians to the governmental improvements made by the Despensers during Edward II's rule, but they centered on household and financial matters such as the wardrobe, exchequer and other administrative branches; as Keen notes, the advances they made pale when compared to the uncontrolled lawlessness at the local level (England 73),3 which reflects neglect of the justiciary arm.  During several years of famine and other natural disasters which resulted in a failing economy, local judicial control deteriorated; bandits roamed and revolts occurred (Keen 61).  One of his successor's chores was to restore law and order, and the improvements made by Edward III suggest the need for rehabilitation of a flagging system.

Edward III inherited a justice system in need of attention, but his focus was on war.  To obtain funds he made concessions to parliament, including transfer of judicial power to the local level.  Much of the structural development of the judicial system took place during Edward III’s reign, particularly in parliament.  Overall, he was a popular ruler and was remembered with respect for centuries for the restoration of good government after the disastrous reign of Edward II.  Despite the fact that his rule was free from corruption, Edward III is described as the “comly king” in the fifteenth-century Gest of Robyn Hood, and Pollard envisions the poem as containing memories of the corruption and injustice Edward ended as he guaranteed his subjects’ rights, supervised his judicial agents scrupulously, and tempered law with mercy, though those memories may not have accorded strictly with history (Pollard 203-4). 

During Edward III's last years he was incapacitated by illness and the rule became the site of political conflict.  Edward's grandson, ten-year old Richard II, succeeded him; until the end of Richard's minority in 1380, the realm was governed by councils appointed by parliament, each for only one year.  Thus the time between effective monarchical rule—from Edward's dotage to Richard's claiming the throne—left England in the hands of competing factions and shifting authority, and the transition between reigns created an atmosphere of instability and distrust.

An objective evaluation of the judicial system and king as judge during Richard II's reign is elusive.  Most of the scholarship centers on the king's misuse of power and his political intrigues and battles, so that a portrait of the judicial system might be abstracted from its abuse.  One gets the impression that Richard was so engaged in power struggles that he paid little attention to governmental administration, except for its manipulation to his favor.  There is little hint in the histories that he was concerned with a just rule and the welfare of his populace, or that he initiated improvements to, or even maintained, the judicial system.

Parliament was at the head of the legislative process, which was closely linked with the judicial system in setting the code of legal behavior.  In addition, the statutes passed greatly determined the king's ability to access funds and power.  Richard II's reign was dominated by his intermittently successful efforts to gain control over parliament; his success depended on alliances with nobles who supported his reign.  Unlike Edward III, Richard made as few concessions to popular pressure as possible, which intensified his conflict with parliament.  His drive for tyrannical power over the highest court of the land does not speak for an ability to act as impartial or trustworthy judge.  As Keen observes, Richard's downfall as absolutist was his reliance on fear, backed by coercion and corruption, which inevitably failed and left a "profound distrust of royal autocracy" (301). 

One of Richard's more vocal critics was John Gower, who spoke directly and harshly about the world he saw during the reign of Richard II, a view supported by contemporary documents.  In his Latin poem, Vox Clamantis,  he acts as the "Voice of the People" and transmits their concerns to the monarchy.  He articulates a "cry nowadays among the people that because the law is failing, wrongdoing claims to be its own justification" (Vox Ch. 18).

The Manorial Courts

Most rural inhabitants experienced the justice system on their home ground.  While royal court representatives visited periodically, most legal business regarding local matters were handled in the manorial courts.  Though customs differed with time and place, generally the lord or his steward presided over the court, accompanied by a clerk who recorded the proceedings (in Latin) on what are now referred to as “court rolls,” from which we derive historical information.  All tenants were required to attend sessions, and participated in hearings as plaintiffs, defendants, jurors, witnesses and guarantors (pledges).  Since literature depicting the activities and settings of the manorial court is sparse, illustrative examples are given here from the court rolls, which also gives a glimpse into village life. 4

The business of the manorial court was with offenses pertaining to the conduct of the villagers in relationship to the land, to the community, and to each other.  Matters of immediate concern to the lord included his tenants’ infraction of manorial customs, their failure to meet obligations such payment of rents, fees and fines or to perform services, such as the 3d fine incurred by Grace Pakerel for being unwilling to serve the lord in autumn.  Alice Scull and Matilda atte Wode were also fined for the same refusal to work, 6d and 3d respectively.  The whole vill of Wistow and Little Raveley was fined 6s for refusing to collect an estimated six bushels of nuts in the woods as they should.

The lord also watched over the integrity of the community by regulating villeins’ geographical mobility, land transfers, and other contracts between tenants.  Those who wished to leave the village could obtain a license, usually for a payment of goods.  Geoffrey Nyth paid the lord one capon annually for living outside the lord’s fee, and the rolls show payments of other goods such as two pounds of cumin and four horse shoes.

Trades and crafts were regulated, as peasants supplied services such as production of tools, clothing, and household utensils, and building construction.  Ale was a staple of the peasant diet and subject to regulations, the breaking of which was common.  For example, Matilda Heryng brewed and sold ale at a penny and was fined 2s for breaking the assize of ale; she did not attend but sent a gallon, pottle5 and quart to court.

Protection of the use of manorial and open fields and other areas and resources was supplied by custom and by the village by-laws, which the tenants helped to create.  The court rolls provide a sampling of the many ordinances and penalties for their infraction.  For instance, breaking the restrictions on the cutting of turves could bring a fine as large as 20s, and cutting reeds without permission could also cost a fine.  No shepherd or other custodian of beasts could keep or bring dogs into the marsh under penalty, and Richard Pakerel was fined 3d for selling rushes outside the marsh before the established day.

Maintenance of common utilities like drains, ditches, roads and common pastures was required, like the ordinance that all customary tenants were to repair the road to the mill or be fined 20s.  Tenants’ rights were guarded by orders such as the prohibition against pasturing beasts among the corn of a neighbor or in the stubble with oxen, and setting a cart at a neighbor’s gates.  The lord’s property was also protected from trespass by folks like Robert le Carter who cut down and carried away thirteen oak saplings beyond the lord’s wood and was fined 2s, and Walter Galewey who was fined 3d for damage caused by his horses in the lord’s meadow.  William Hy was fined four female woodcocks for having a decoy in the lord’s wood, and six other men were fined four hens each for the same offense.

The maintenance of peace was essential (but elusive, as in any community),  so breaches were brought before the court, including personal matters such as slander.  One court roll reports that John le Ponder unjustly defamed Thomas Raven the beadle, calling him useless in the lord’s service and other outrageous things.  The jury ordered payment to Thomas of 6d for damages and fined John 6d for trespass.  Disputes between villagers were settled, such as the order that John le Ponder should pay Richard Wodecok the ring of peas that was owed, and he was fined 3d for unjust detention.  This included violence between individuals, such as when Beatrice, wife of William, struck and mistreated the daughter of Rachael Godwyne.  The jury determined that Beatrice was to pay the daughter 2d for damages and be fined 3d for trespass.  More serious cases such as murder fell under the jurisdiction of the royal courts, but lords were known to take action themselves.

The same infringement of legal action was applied to thieves, and there is record of a hanging for the theft of sixteen eggs, though royal officials attempted to curb such incidents.  More often, however, theft resulted in expulsion from the village like Matilda Crane, who was reported to have taken chickens and other small items from her neighbors and was therefore not considered suitable to live in the community. Anyone who harbored an outcast would receive serious penalty, like Alan Haugate, who was fined threepence for receiving Agnes Malitras, who was not allowed to stay in the village for having gleaned wrongly and taking sheaves and other small things.

Other matters such as adultery and sexual misconduct that would rightly be heard by the ecclesiastical courts were handled at the manor; thus Alice Scule was fined 12d for fornication.  Actions that could impair a woman’s eligibility for marriage would involve loss of monetary income to the lord, who in theory “owned” the villeins and collected fees for marriages.  Marriage required the lord’s permission, and Emma Gerold was arrested for marrying without the lord’s license.

The entire community was required to help keep the peace, and if a villager raised the “hue and cry” against a violator such a thief, trespasser, molester, outsider or other offender, all were expected to join forces in apprehending the miscreant or be subject to fine. The villagers’ chase after the fox who has stolen the widow’s brilliant cock Chauntelceer in the Nun Priest’s Tale is not a fiction, though Chaucer adds comedy to the scene with screaming hens, barking dogs, shouting men and women, and blowing horns that terrify the livestock into such a cacophonous noise that “it seemed that heaven would fall” (NPT 3401).  Had her neighbors not responded to the widow’s cry of “Out!  Harrow and weylaway!  Ha, ha! The fox!” (3380-1), they would have been fined, as was the entire vill for 13s 4d for not taking up Joan Grubbe’s hue and cry when she was badly beaten by Alice Pulche.

Election of manorial officials like the reeve, constable, beadle and hayward took place in the manorial court, where they were also held accountable for their service.  For example, the reeve and beadle at Warboys on one of the Ramsey Abbey manors were fined 3d for not arresting Alice, daughter of John le Ponder, for losing the lord’s possessions, and 3d for not arresting Agnes, daughter of Ralph le Cuhyrd, for the same offense.  The officials were ordered to arrest both women.

As seen from the examples above, manorial courts were a source of income for the lord.  This could be seen as exploitative, but it was a means of enforcing regulations in order to maintain the administration of the manor, and the peace and security of the village.

The Ecclesiastical Courts

The third justice system was that of the church, which had jurisdiction over members of the clergy and dealt with matters involving offenses within and against the church, actions of the clergy, and spiritual matters.  In addition, the ecclesiastical courts handled actions relating to the laity, including marriage, legitimacy, sexual conduct, wills and probate, and the commitment of mortal sin and immoral acts.  There was tension between the lay and ecclesiastical courts due to methods of punishment and overlap in jurisdiction.

The papal court was at the apex, where the most serious cases were heard, such as Richard FitzRalph’s presentation against the friars.  In the penitential romance Sir Gowther, the story of a man sired by the devil, the pope handles the knight because of his crimes against the church: murdering clergy and raping and burning nuns alive in their abbeys (along with many other heinous acts against all manner of folk).

Officials of the diocesan ecclesiastical courts were perceived as being as corrupt as those of the lay courts, particularly for their toleration of sexual misconduct and illegal marital situations in return for profit.  The bishop was responsible for administering justice in his own diocese through the consistory courts; he was assisted by the archdeacon, who conducted courts for all or parts of the bishop’s diocesan territory and was second in rank to the bishop.  Chaucer lists the offenses subject to the archdeacon’s punishment: fornication, witchcraft, pandering, slander, adultery, robbing of churches, violations of wills and marriage contracts, failure to observe sacraments, usury, simony, failure to pay tithes, making of small offerings and, especially, lechery (FrT 1304-10).  The archdeacon was in a position to pursue offenders “before the bishop caught them with his hook” (FrT 1317) and administer punishment himself, usually monetary, with the aid of his summoner.

The summoner, a lay officer of the court, delivered appearance citations, and is usually portrayed negatively.  Summoners appear in Piers Plowman, part of the throng come to witness Lady Meed’s wedding.  Because her marriage to Falseness is contested, the case is taken to the king at court in Westminster.  For transportation, various officials associated with bribery are saddled like horses and ridden by personified vices, Simony wishing to ride the summoner (PP B II 160-70).

Summoners are seen in Satire on the Consistory Courts, where six or seven attend the case of a poor peasant, who accuses them of misjudging all men alike, and claims they are hated by herdsmen and all men’s servants for the pain they cause in every parish (37-41).  The peasant is charged with immorality by the summoner and beadle for dalliance with a woman.  At court, the judges are willing to read his case, but he must, out of respect, give them a bribe and his thanks.  The woman screechingly demands marriage, and in the end the man is forced to marry her, the wedding officiated by a “priest as proud as a peacock” (87).  The peasant, who has wished “the hatred of hell” (50) upon corrupt clerks, says that “at the consistory court they teach us care, and wish us evil and worse” (85-86).

Summoners have the reputation for immoral behavior.  Chaucer’s Summoner is described as being “lecherous as a sparrow” (GP 626), an ironic attribute for a man who serves the court that deals with sexual misconduct.  For a bribe of “a quart of wine” he will suffer “a good fellow to have his concubine a twelvemonth and excuse him freely” (GP 649-51).  The same accusation is made in The Simonie against local officials who will give “a year’s leave to serve the devil” and excuse the sin for silver (C 213-16).  A man can rid himself of an unwanted wife by bringing her to the consistory court with false witnesses, and with enough bribery he can take in his neighbor’s wife for life (C 217-27).

In his tale, Chaucer’s Friar has harsher accusations about a summoner, the subject of his story.  The Friar describes this “slyest boy in England” (FrT 1322) as a “false thief” (FrT 1338) and reports his many ways of stealing, including from the archdeacon who, not always aware of the summoner’s collections, receives half of what is due him.  But the summoner’s greatest profit comes from information supplied by his many pimp and prostitute friends about their clients, who pay bribes to avoid being taken to court (even the threatening summons are false).

The Dominican preacher John Bromyard (d. c1352) attacks bishops and their ministers for accepting payment, especially from their religious and ecclesiastics.  Summoners and judges “ought to be punished along with them with an equal punishment,” for through their corruption “adulterers and fornicators are always able to persist”(Owst 252).  Corporal punishment is usually neglected as it brings no profit.  Even a conviction and sentence of bodily punishment can be avoided through bribery by the wealthy, while the poor perform their penance naked in church and the marketplace (Owst 254).

Thus, officials of the ecclesiastical courts were perceived as being as corrupt as those in the lay courts.  Nor did things change over time.  In The Bisson Leads the Blind6 (1456) the poet laments the corruption of the age, including the consistory court officials: “The consistory courts are encumbered with covetousness, for truth is sunken under the ground.  There is no favor with official or dean unless Sir Simony shows them round silver (33-36).


1  Parliament acted as a judicial and mainly legislative body.  The House of Lords was comprised of the lay and ecclesiastical upper nobility, and the House of Commons was composed of knights and substantial men of the shire, and influential citizens such as burgesses.  The Commons developed slowly and gained strength as the century progressed.  Parliament was not a standing body; members were selected and summoned when a meeting was to be held, and locales were not stationary.

The council was a small group of officials, clerks and advisors attached to the king which exercised justice and equity,  occasionally dealing with persons too powerful for the ordinary courts (McKisack 198).

2  It should be noted that there were many fluctuations throughout the century in the structure of the justice system and the role and power of its officials.  For a more detailed discussion of the justice system, see McKisack, chapter 7, which is the source of the above general overview.

3  All future quotes from Keen are from England in the Later Middle Ages. unless otherwise noted.

4  Examples from the court rolls are cited from Edwin Brezette DeWindt, ed. and trans.,  A Slice of Life: Selected Documents of Medieval English Peasant Experience  (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996) and J. Ambrose Raftis, Tenure and Mobility: Studies in the Social History of the Mediaeval English Village (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1981).  Both studied the records of the extensive Ramsey Abbey estates, which included a number of villages and towns.

5  A pottle measured two quarts.

6  Robbins glosses "Bisson" as "purblind," which is defined as partially blind and/or dimwitted (OEED). (Bison have poor vision, but keen senses of hearing and smell.)

Return to Justice Table of Contents

Return to Main Table of Contents