The fourteenth century was a time of great change in legal proceedings in England and many things which had been important at the beginning of the century had ceased to apply by the end.
England was divided into various administrative units, of which the county was the most important. There were 39 counties (or shires) and 4 county boroughs (towns administered like counties). Below the county was the hundred, which originated as an Anglo-Saxon administrative district. There were 628 hundreds across the country and the number per county varied. Each county and hundred had their own court.
We looked at the manorial court last week. In summary, it dealt with local customs and disputes between tenants on the same manor, but there were obviously occasions when there would be a dispute with someone from another manor, or a different part of the country altogether. These disputes had to be taken to a different court.
Every manor and town had their own bylaws, but the king’s law was the common law which applied to everyone, in theory. Parliament often updated old laws and created new ones. Some of the laws created in the fourteenth century are still in force today.
A county was divided into hundreds, each of which had its own court. The hundred court was held every three weeks. 12 freemen from across the hundred were called to make up a jury. The cases they were asked to attend included fights, fraud, disputes over small debts, and theft of household goods and animals. Most cases were dealt with by means of a fine. If you started a fight you could be fined between 6d and a shilling (12d).To put this in context, the daily wage for a skilled labourer was about 4d. If blood had been drawn in the fight the fine was over 2 shillings (24d).
The hundred court was the place to take complaints about freemen, as they were not covered by the manorial courts. Private hundred courts (i.e. those run by a lord of the manor) were court leets. These could cover a hundred or just a manor. The leet court could only issue fines. It dealt with breaches of the peace and administering the tithings within its area of jurisdiction.
Cases of murder, grievous assault, and rape were heard at the sheriff’s tourn, which was a special hundred court. The sheriff’s tourn usually took place around Easter and Michaelmas (29th September). This was the time when the sheriff appeared in the hundred court, hearing about cases that needed to go to the royal courts. He had to makes sure that all the accused were in custody. During the tourn the sheriff checked on the tithings and adjudicated minor issues. This was the place where the tithings could be fined for not reporting a crime by one of their number. The fines were huge. A tithing could be fined £10 and more. £10 was 2,400d. Even if there were 15 men in the tithing, £10 was almost an impossible sum to find between them. The villeins in a tithing were not skilled labourers and usually only made money by selling surplus crops that they had grown. Avoiding such a large fine was a great inducement to the tithing to hand over the man they thought was responsible for the crime, whether or not they wanted to protect him.
The next court was the county court. It was for small claims where the amount in dispute was less than £2. Preliminary hearings of cases going to the royal courts were held in the county court. This was the court which could declare men outlaws, if they were called and failed to appear four times. Once a man had been made an outlaw, he could be beheaded on sight. The county court also heard appeals and read out statutes, ordinances and proclamations from the king and parliament.
There were three royal courts: the Court of the Exchequer, the Court of the King’s Bench, and the Court of the Common Pleas. The first heard cases about financial arrangements with the Crown. The King’s Bench heard cases from lower courts and appeals. The Common Pleas was a court of appeal where people could sue one another for debt, theft and fraud.
Parliament was the highest court and it usually tried cases of high treason. The penalty for this was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This meant that a man was stripped and hanged until he was near death. Then he was taken down, disembowelled and emasculated. Finally he was beheaded and hacked into four pieces. It was not a punishment which was used very often in the fourteenth century. Punishment of crimes was either hanging, if it was a capital crime, or a fine.
In addition to these courts, there were also ecclesiastical courts for clerics, which we’ll look at later. The king’s forests were also outside the common law. They were under forest law, which had its own set of officials and courts. The forests were not forests full of trees, but were the king’s hunting preserves, such as the New Forest in Hampshire. William the Conqueror had towns and villages removed across the country so that there were large areas across which he could hunt. These were maintained by later kings.