Feudal Courts

Feudal Courts in United Kingdom

History of Feudal Courts

Feudal Courts

Centuries before the Norman Conquest, the system of popular or district justice found itself confronted with a rival scheme of jurisdictions—the innumerable private courts belonging to the feudal lords. These private tribunals, known as feudal, manorial, or seigniorial courts, slowly gained ground on the older public courts of shire, hundred, and wapentake.

Practically every holder of land in England came to be also the holder of a court for the inhabitants of that land. The double meaning of the word “dominus” illustrates the double position of the man who was thus both owner and lord (i.e. landlord) In the struggle between two schemes of justice, the tribunals of the feudal magnates triumphed over, but never abolished their rivals. The earlier popular courts lived on; but the system of district justice, which had once embraced the whole of England, was honeycombed by the growth of feudal courts. As each village passed under the domination of a lord, the village–moot became a manorial court endowed with wider powers and more effective sanctions for enforcing them.

Further, as complete hundreds fell under control of powerful magnates, the courts of these hundreds were also transformed into feudal courts: franchises thus took the place of many of the old popular moots. Still, the older system retained part of the disputed ground, thanks to the protection of the Crown. Many hundreds never bowed to the exclusive domination of any one lord, and the courts of the shires were guarded by the Norman Kings against the encroachment of even the most powerful barons.

Although it was the policy of the Norman Kings to prevent their barons from gaining excessive powers of jurisdiction, it was by no means their policy to suppress these jurisdictions altogether. The Conqueror and his sons were glad that justice should be administered, even in a rough–and–ready manner, in those districts whither the Crown’s arm was not long enough to reach, and where the popular courts were likely to prove inefficient. The old system and the new existed side by side; it was to the interest of the central government to play off the one against the other.

In later days (but not till long after Magna Carta), each manorial court had three distinct aspects, according to the class of pleas it was called upon to try. Later writers distinguish absolutely from each other, the Court Baron, settling civil disputes between freeholders of the manor; the Court Customary, deciding non–criminal cases among the villains; and the Court Leet, a petty criminal court enforcing order and punishing small offences.

The powers of these courts might vary, and in many districts the jurisdiction over misdemeanors belonged not to the steward of the manor, but to the sheriff in his half–yearly Circuits or “Tourns” through the county. In imperfectly feudalized districts the Tourn of the sheriff performed the same functions as the Court Leet did within a franchise.

Other Courts in the Mediaval Age

Local or District Courts

Justice was originally a local product, administered in rude tribunals which partook more or less of a popular character. See about District Courts.

Royal Courts

See about Royal Courts.

Source: Part II. Magna Carta: A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John, with an Historical Introduction, by William Sharp McKechnie (Glasgow: Maclehose, 1914).

See Also

Magna Carta
History of Magna Carta in the English Encyclopedia
English Court System in the Legal Encyclopedia
Rival Courts
Royal Justice in the Feudal Period
Feudal Aids


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