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Royal Courts in United Kingdom

History of Royal Courts

Origins and Henry II

Originally, the King’s Court had been merely one among many feudal courts—differing in degree rather than in kind from those of the great earls or barons. The King, as feudal lord, dispensed justice among his tenants, just as any baron or freeman dispensed justice among his tenants, bond or free. No one dreamed, in the time of the Norman Kings, that the Curia Regis could undertake the labour of dispensing justice for the whole nation. The monarchy had no machinery at command for a task which no Anglo–Saxon King, nor even William I, could have undertaken. No attempt in this direction was made until the reign of Henry II, who was placed in a position of unprecedented power, partly by circumstances, but chiefly by his great abilities. Even he, born reformer as he was, would never have increased so greatly the labours of government, if he had not seen that the change would enhance the security of his throne and the revenue of his exchequer.

From an early date, however, the business of the Monarch was wider than the business of any other lord. In a dim way, too, it must have been apparent from the first, that offences against the established order were offences also against the King, and that to redress these was the King’s business competent in the King’s Courts. The Crown, further, asserted a right to investigate pleas of special importance, whether civil or criminal. Still, under William and his sons, royal justice had made no deliberate attempt to become national justice, or to supersede feudal justice: the struggle came with the reforms of Henry II.

Thus the three great systems of jurisdiction, popular justice, feudal justice, and royal justice succeeded each other, on the whole, in the order in which they are here named. Yet the sequence is in some ways logical rather than chronological. No absolute line can be drawn, showing where one system ended and the next began. The germs of manorial jurisdiction may have been present from an early date.

Shire–courts and hundred courts alike were continually in danger of falling under the domination of powerful local magnates. Yet, the shire–courts were successful in maintaining till the last (thanks to royal favour) their independence of the manorial jurisdictions; while only a proportion of the hundred courts fell into bondage.

The royal courts, again, from an early date, withdrew causes from the Shire Courts and interfered with manorial franchises. The Courts Baron were silently undermined, until they sank into decrepitude without ceasing to exist. With these caveats, the three systems may be regarded, in some measure, as following one another in the order named:—popular justice, feudal justice, royal justice.

Henry II was the first king to reduce the old district courts so thoroughly under the control of royal officials as to turn them practically into royal courts. He was the first king also to throw open the doors of his own courts of law to all–comers, to all freemen, that is to say, for the villein had for centuries still to seek redress in the Court of that very lord of the manor who was too often his oppressor.

Other Feudal Courts

Putting aside for the moment the Courts Christian, the Borough Courts, the Forest Courts, and all exceptional or peculiar tribunals, there existed three great rival systems of jurisdiction which may be named in the order in which they became in turn prominent in England.

Local or District Courts

See about District Courts.

Feudal Courts

See about Feudal Courts.

(Source: the University of South Caroline Gould School of Law) “The focal point of royal government was the curia regis (king’s court), the body of advisors and courtiers who attended the king and supervised the administarion of the realm. It was not a specific court of law… but rather the descendant of the Anglo-Saxon witenagemot (meeting of the witan or royal advisors) and the ancestor of the king’s council which later divided into parliament and the privy council.” (9). The curia regis traveled with the king, and not until the second half of the twelfth century was the location for the “central” judicial business of the curia regis established at Westminster.

Royal Courts and Medieval Law

Royal Courts and Legal History

Bibliographies of English Law History

  • Maxwell, William H. A Legal Bibliography of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Volume 1: English Law to 1800. London: Sweet and Maxwell, 1955-
  • Beale, Joseph H. A Bibliography of Early English Law Books. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926.
  • Winfield, Percy H. The Chief Sources of English Legal History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925.

Resources

See Also

  • Medieval Law Enforcement (in this legal Encyclopedia)
  • Conversion (in this legal Encyclopedia)
  • Comparative Legal History (in this legal Encyclopedia)
  • Peasant (in this legal Encyclopedia)


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Schema Summary

  • Article Name: Royal Courts
  • Author: Valentine L. Korah
  • Description: History of Royal Courts Origins and Henry II Originally, the King’s Court had been merely one among many feudal [...]

This entry was last updated: May 2, 2017

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