Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at the various courts of fourteenth-century England. Today it’s the turn of the officials who ran the courts.
At the county, or shire, level the sheriff was responsible for the court, which was held once a month or so. He was the chief officer in a shire, or the shire reeve. The sheriff represented the crown and investigated crimes in his jurisdiction. He could also try minor offences. When someone was accused of a serious crime, he had to detain them until a judge visited the county. Sheriffs collected revenue, fines, and rents. They also executed writs, put together juries, guarded prisoners and presided over the county court. It was also the sheriff’s job to investigate things other than crimes and report back to the king. They had military as well as legal responsibilities. They gathered men to fight in the king’s wars and kept them fed.
It won’t surprise you to learn that sheriffs could be bribed. They had great power and any threat they made to extort money could probably be carried out with impunity. Despite it being illegal, it wasn’t unknown for them to torture prisoners, and they could make money by threatening well-off prisoners with torture. Should someone escape from one of his prisons or if he caught someone committing a crime, the sheriff could behead them then and there, provided the coroner was present. He was a man greatly to be feared.
The bailiff was the chief officer of a hundred. He was subsidiary to the sheriff and he also represented the crown. Of the 628 hundreds in England, 358 were in the hands of lords of the manor. Usually they allowed sheriffs access to their courts, but they didn’t have to, and some of them did not. Many of these lords had the right to appoint coroners and hang criminals without reference to the sheriff.
Judges travelled out to local courts. This was supposed to be a way of decreasing corruption. As we saw in the post about outlaws, local courts could be swayed by fear and bribery. Since the judges, their wealth and their families were not located in the areas where they were administering justice, they were supposed to be ‘untouchable’. As we saw in the case of Sir Richard Willoughby, this was not necessarily the case.
The coroner was another court official. One of his duties was to make sure that goods and chattels belonging to an executed man or any fines taken in the hundred and county courts went to the king, and not to anyone else. Coroners held inquests on dead bodies. Much as today, it was their job to find out whether the person had been murdered, committed suicide, died naturally or by accident. They heard appeals and the confessions of outlaws. They recorded and reported burglaries, arson and homicides to the royal justices.
A town was a division of a hundred. It was usually part of a manor. The town constable was responsible for making the bailiff aware of crimes and bringing cases to the hundred court. The constable watched suspicious people and organised the pursuit of wrong-doers when the hue and cry was raised. This was a loud noise telling the people of a town or village that a burglary or murder had been committed. Everyone who heard it was supposed to leave what they were doing to view the scene of the crime and to pursue the criminal.
The chief tithing-man had to report to the manorial court or the constable, depending on where the tithing was.
In 1361 the position of justice of the peace was created. This was a local lord of the manor who held quarter sessions. The trials were before juries and the justices had the ability to give the death penalty. They gradually replaced sheriffs and hundred courts. Justices of the peace could punish rioters and people who broke the peace. They could arrest and imprison them or hold their goods and money against their continued good behaviour in the future. They could try people for certain crimes. The powers of the justices of the peace increased over the rest of the century. One of their later powers included supervising laws preventing workers from overcharging for their labour, which was a common occurrence after the Black Death.
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases – Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer
England in the reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh