The common law

There are many misunderstandings possible about the character and the origins of the English common law. Its history is really complicated. Recent research tends to confirm time and again that it is better to look at the common law in its context with European legal history than to regard it as an unique phenomenon. However, certain concepts are indeed difficult to compare with other legal systems. There certainly is a large scale continuity in English law, but there are also evident ruptures within the past. Many subjects call for attention: the courts, the role of the state, the significance of legislation, the role of judges and legal experts. The influence of English law will be dealt with elsewhere in due time. The editions of sources mentioned here concern mainly the royal law. Cities are scarcely mentioned at all. The extended selection of links to websites concludes with a section on Scottish legal history.

From the Anglo-Saxon period we know in particular the great law books which resemble the continental “national laws”. With the coming of the Normans in 1066 a period started during which institutions from Normandy are planted on English soil, but also changed with this transplantation. The fierce grip of the Norman dukes on their conquests is remarkable. The twelfth century witnessed the coming of the common law. King Henry I began with decisive legislation after some earlier important statutes (e.g. the Assizes of Clarendon) and changed the courts, possibly following the example of the Flemish counts. All courts and jurisdiction were to be royal. Every investigation, any case, started with a royal order in writing, the writ. The private law developed itself seemingly of its own accord, but in fact there are strong resemblances to the casuistry of Roman law. Legal doctrine from both Roman and canon law was known for sure. Lawyers such as Bracton and Vacarius were the first to write about this English law.

The English Church lived like on the continent under canon law. The jurisdiction of the English episcopal officials (judges) is even relatively well documented. At Oxford and Cambridge both Roman and canon law were teached. Most lawyers studied at the Inns of Court. Some of their moots, mock debates, and readings, the lectures of their teachers, have survived. The Year Books inform us about cases at the royal courts. They are famous for the witty remarks of all involved. The Year Books were meant for the class room, not as stenographic records. The language of law was until the 17th century Lawfrench, a mixture of French, Latin and English. The number of royal courts was quite large. The kings legislated through the centuries mostly in the form of statutes, laws on particular subjects. The sessions of the royal court at these occasions stand at the beginning of the English Parliament. From the fifteenth century on, treatises and commentaries on English law began to appear more often. In the field of criminal law the English got very early an officer charged with the investigation of unnatural causes of death, the coroner.

Sources

Statutes and laws:

  • Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, F. Liebermann (ed.) (3 vol., Halle 1903-1916; reprint Leipzig 1935).
  • Laws of the earliest English kings, F.L. Attenborough (ed. and transl.) (Cambridge 1922).
  • The laws of the kings of England from Edmund to Henry I, A.J. Robertson (ed. and transl.) (Cambridge 1925).
  • Leges Henrici primi, L. Downer (ed. and transl.) (Oxford 1972).

A substantial number of laws, statutes and other forms of legislation for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can be found online at the website for legislation of the National Archives.

Commentaries and treatises:

  • Henry de Bracton, De legibus et consuetudinis Angliae, G.E. Woodbine (ed.) (4 vol., New York 1915-1942) – reprinted with an introduction and translation by S.E. Thorne (4 vol., Cambridge, Mass., 1968-1977; reprint 1997); also available online.
  • Select passages from Bracton and Azo, F.W. Maitland (ed.) (London 1894; Selden Society, 8).
  • Britton, F.M. Nichols (ed.) (Oxford 1885; reprint 1983) – a shortened redaction of Bracton.
  • William Blackstone, Commentaries on the laws of England (1765-1768) – often reprinted and commented upon, online at Yale’s Avalon project and at the Liberty Library of Constitutional Classics.
  • Fleta, H.G. Richardson and G.O. Sayles (ed.) (3 vol., London 1953-1983; Selden Society, 72, 89, 99).
  • John Fortescue, De laudibus legum Anglie, S.B. Chrimes (ed.) (Cambridge 1942) – from 1470.
  • John Fortescue, The governance of England, C. Plummer (ed.) (Oxford 1885) – from 1471.
  • “Glanvill”, The treatise on the laws and customs of the realm of England commonly called Glanvill, G.D.G. Hall (ed. and transl.) (London-Edinburgh 1965; reprint 1983) – Ranulf de Glanvill, died around 1190.
  • Matthew Hale, The history of the common law of England, Charles M. Gray (ed.) (Chicago 1971) – from 1713; an online version.
  • Hale and Fleetwood on Admiralty jurisdiction, M.J. Pritchard and D.E.C. Yale (ed.) (London 1992; Selden Society, 108).
  • Matthew Hale, The prerogatives of the king, D.E.C. Yale (ed.) (London 1975; Selden Society, 92).
  • Lex mercatoria and legal pluralism. A late thirteenth-century treatise and its afterlife, M.E. Basile et alii (ed.) (Cambridge, Mass., 1998).
  • The Mirror of Justices, W.J. Whittaker and F.W. Maitland (ed.) (London 1893; Selden Society, 7).
  • Richard Fitz Nigel, Dialogus de scaccario, C. Johnson, F.E.L. Carter and D.E. Greenaway (ed.) (Oxford 1983) – instructive for the context of law; the translation by E.F. Henderson is available online:  The Dialogue of the Exchequer (The Avalon Project).
  • Thomas Smith, De republica Anglorum, L. Alston (ed.) (Cambridge 1906).
  • Early treatises on the practice of the Justices of the Peace in the 15th and 16th centuries, B.H. Putnam (ed.) (Oxford 1924).
  • Table talk of John Selden, F. Pollock (ed.) (London 1927).
  • Christopher St. German on Chancery and statute, J.A. Guy (London 1985; Selden Society, Supplementary Series, 6).
  • Christopher St. German, Doctor and Student, T.F.T. Plucknett and J.H. Barton (ed.) (London 1974; Selden Society, 91).
  • Placita Corone or La Corone Pledee devant Justices, J.M. Kaye (ed.) (London 1966; Selden Society, Supplementary Series, 4).
  • William Jones, An essay on the law of bailments, D. Ibbetson (ed.) (Bangor 2007).

Readings and moots are important sources for our knowledge of legal education. When reading these editions and other texts one should benefit immensely from J.H. Baker, Manual of law French (2nd ed., Aldershot 1990).

  • Robert Constable, Prerogative Regis, S.E. Thorne ed. (New Haven, Conn., 1949) – edition of a juridical lecture.
  • John Spelman’s reading on Quo warranto. Gray’s Inn, Lent 1519, J.H. Baker (ed.) (London 1997; Selden Society, 113).
  • Readings and moots at the Inns of Court in the fifteenth century, S.E. Thorne and J.H. Baker (ed.) (2 vol., London 1952-1989; Selden Society, 71, 105).
  • Readers and readings in the Inns of the Court of Chancery, J.H. Baker (ed.) (London 2000; Selden Society, Supplementary Series, 13).
  • Readings and moots on Magna Carta 1400-1604, J.H. Baker (ed.) (London 2015; Selden Society, 132).

Legal manuscripts concerning the common law are being found, described and catalogued in a number of catalogues thanks to the efforts of Sir John H. Baker who also edited the English legal manuscripts microfiche project (Zug, 1975-1988):

  • Catalogue of manuscripts in the Library of The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, J. Conway Davies (ed.) (London 1972)
  • English legal manuscripts, vol. 1: Catalogue of the manuscript year books, readings, and law reports in the library of the Harvard Law School, John H. Baker (ed.) (Zug, 1975); vol. 2: Catalogue of the manuscript year books, readings, and law reports in Lincoln’s Inn, the Bodleian Library and Gray’s Inn ; with notes on the dispersed libraries of John Selden, Charles Fairfax, and Henry Powle, John H. Baker (ed.) (Zug 1978)
  • English legal manuscripts in the United States of America : a descriptive list, John H. Baker (ed.) (2 vol., London 1985-1990; Selden Society; reprint 2 vol., Buffalo, NY, 2010)
  • A catalogue of English legal manuscripts in Cambridge University Library, with codicological descriptions of the early manuscripts by J.S. Ringrose, John H. Baker (ed.) (Woodbridge 1996)
  • A catalogue of the legal manuscripts of Anthony Taussig, John H. Baker and Anthony Taussig (eds.) (London 2007; Selden Society, Supplementary Series, 15) – a large number of these manuscripts is now at the Beinecke Library, Yale University
  • English legal manuscripts formerly in the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps, John H. Baker (ed.) London 2008; Selden Society, Supplementary Series, 16)

Harvard Law school has started digitizing its medieval legal manuscripts with statutes and writs, and also its collection of manor rolls.

The courts: writs, collections of verdicts, private notes on trials and cases, etc.

See for the Year Books the Selden Society, which has published some 27 volumes for the period 1309-1330. The Ames Foundation has also published a few Year Books. An invaluable guide to Year Book reports between 1368 and 1535 available in print is the database created by David Seipp. The Corpus of Historical English Law Reports 1535-1999 (CHELAR), University of Helsinki is a tool for linguistic research. The English Reports 1220-1873 created by the Commonwealth Legal Information Institute is useful, but there are large gaps.

  • Case notes of sir Soulden Lawrence 1787 – 1800, J. OLdham (ed.) (London 2011; Selden Society, 128)
  • Three civilian notebooks 1580-1640, R.H. Helmholz (ed.) (London 2010; Selden Society, 127)
  • Irish Exchequer reports: Cases argued and determined in the Courts of Exchequer and Chancery in Ireland, 1716–34, A. Lyall (ed.) (London 2008; Selden Society, 125).
  • The reports of William Dalison, 1552-1558, J.H. Baker (ed.) (London 2007; Selden Society, 124)
  • Reports of cases in the time of Henry VIII, J.H. Baker (ed.) (2 vol., London 2002-2003; Selden Society, 120-121)
  • Cases concerning equity and the courts of equity, 1550-1660, W.H. Bryson (ed.) (2 vol., London 2001-2002; Selden Society, 117-118)
  • Select cases in manorial courts : property law and family Law, 1250-1500, L. Bonfield and L.R. Poos (ed.) (London 1997; Selden Society, 114).
  • Earliest English law reports, P.A. Brand (ed.) (4 vol., London 1995-2005; Selden Society, 111-112, 122-123) – Common Bench, 1268-1289, 1285-1292.
  • English law suits from William I to Richard I, R.C. van Caenegem (ed.) (2 vol., London 1990-1991; Selden Society, 106-107).
  • Reports of cases by John Caryll, J.H. Baker (ed.) (2 vol., London 1998-1999; Selden Society, 115-116) – 1485-1499, 1501-1522.
  • Select cases of trespasss in the King’s Court, 1307-1399, M.S. Arnold (ed.) (2 vol., London 1984-1987; Selden Society, 100, 103).
  • The notebook of Sir John Port, J.H. Baker (ed.) (London 1986; Selden Society, 102).
  • The reports of Sir John Spelman, J.H. Baker (ed.) (2 vol., London 1978-1977; Selden Society, 93-94).
  • Select cases in the court of King’s Bench, G.O. Sayles (ed.) (7 vol., London 1936-1971; Selden Society, 55, 57, 58, 71, 74, 76, 82).
  • Early registers of writs, E. de Haas and G.D.G. Hall (ed.) (London 1970; Selden Society, 87).
  • Pleas for the king or his justices, 1198-1212, D.M. Stenton (ed.) (4 vol., London 1948-1967; Selden Society, 67-68, 83-84).
  • Lord Nottingham’s Chancery cases, D.E.C. Yale (ed.) (2 vol., London 1954-1962; Selden Society, 73, 79).
  • Royal writs in England from the Conquest to Glanvill, R.C. van Caenegem (ed.) (London 1959; Selden Society, 77).
  • Select cases in the council of Henry VII, C.G. Bayne and W.H. Dunham (ed.) (London 1956; Selden Society, 75).
  • The Casus Placitorum and reports of cases in the King’s Court, 1271-1278, W.H. Dunham (ed.) (London 1950; Selden Society, 69).
  • Select cases in the Exchequer Chamber before all the justices of England, M. Hemmant (ed.) (2 vol., London 1933-1945; Selden Society, 51, 64) – deel II 1461-1509.
  • Select cases of procedure without writ under Henry III, H.G. Richardson and G.O. Sayles (ed.) (London 1941; Selden Society, 60).
  • Select cases concerning the Law Merchant, Ch. Gross and H. Hall (ed.) (3 vol., London 1908-1932; Selden Society, 23, 46, 49).
  • Select cases for the Exchequer of Pleas, H. Jenkinson and B.E.R. Formoy (ed.) (London 1931; Selden Society, 48).
  • Select cases for the King’s Council, I.S. Leadam and J.F. Baldwin (ed.) (London 1919; Selden Society, 35).
  • Select pleas of the court of Star Chamber, I.S. Leadam (ed.) (2 vol., London 1902-1910; Selden Society, 16, 25) – 1477-1509, 1509-1544.
  • Public works in mediaeval law, C.T. Flower (ed.) (2 vol., London 1915-1923; Selden Society, 32, 40).
  • Borough customs, M. Bateson (ed.) (2 vol., London 1904-1906; Selden Society, 18, 21).
  • Select pleas, starrs, etc., of the Jewish Exchequer, 1220-1284, J.M. Rigg (ed.) (London 1901; Selden Society, 15).
  • Select pleas of the forest, G.J. Turner (ed.) (London 1899; Selden Society, 13).
  • Select cases in the court of requests, 1497-1569, I.S. Leadam (ed.) (London 1898; Selden Society, 12).
  • Select cases in Chancery, 1367-1471, W. Paley Baildon (ed.) (London 1896; Selden Society, 10).
  • Select cases in the Court of Admiralty, R.G. Marsden (ed.) (2 vol., London 1892-1897: Selden Society, 6, 11) – I: 1390-1480, 1527-1545; II: 1547-1602.
  • The Court Baron : select precedents of pleadings in manorial and other local courts, F.W. Maitland and W. Paley Baildon (ed.) (London 1890; Selden Society, 4).
  • Select civil pleas, vol I: 1200-1203, W. Paley Baildon (ed.) (London 1889; Selden Society, 3).
  • Select pleas in manorial and other seignorial courts, F.W. Maitland (ed.) (London 1888; Selden Society, 2).
  • Select pleas of the Crown, vol. I: 1200-1225, F.W. Maitland (ed.) (London 1887; Selden Society, 1).
  • Proceedings before the Justices of the Peace in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, B.H. Putnam (ed.) (Cambridge, Mass., 1938).

For the history of the coroner one can consult the following studies and editions:

  • Middlesex county records. Vol.1 Indictments, coroners’ inquests-post-mortem and recognizances from 3 Edward VI to the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, John Cordy Jeafferson (ed.) (Clerkenwell 1886).
  • Select cases from the coroners’ rolls, 1265-1413, Charles Gross (ed.) (London 1896; Selden Society, 9).
  • Records of mediaeval Oxford: Coroner’s inquests, the walls of Oxford, etc., Herbert Edward Salter (ed.) (Oxford 1912) – Latin documents in translation; also available online
  • Calendar of coroner’s rolls of the city of London, 1300-1378, Reginald R. Sharpe (ed.) (London 1913).
  • Roy Frank Hunnisett, The medieval coroner (Cambridge 1961).
  • Bedfordshire coroner’s rolls, Roy Frank Hunnisett (ed.) (Streatley, Bedf., 1961).
  • Calendar of Nottinghamshire coroners’ inquests, 1458-1558, Roy Frank Hunnisett (ed.) (London, 1968).
  • Wiltshire coroners’ bills, 1752-1796, Roy Frank Hunnisett (ed.) (Devizes, 1981).
  • Sussex coroners’ inquests 1485-1558, Roy Frank Hunnisett (ed.) (Lewes 1985).
  • Barbara Hanawalt, The ties that bound : peasant families in medieval England (New York 1986) – based on the records of medieval coroners
  • Sussex coroners’ inquests 1558-1603, Roy Frank Hunnisett (ed.) (Kew 1996).
  • Wiltshire county coroners’ bills 1815 to 1858, Jean Audrey Cole (ed.) (Devizes 1997).
  • Sussex coroners’ inquests 1688-1838, Roy Frank Hunnisett (ed.) (Kew 1998).
  • East Sussex coroners’ records 1688-1838, Roy Frank Hunnisett (ed.) (Lewes, 2005).
  • Rab Houston, The coroners of Northern Britain, c. 1300-1700 (London-New York 2014).
  • Sara M. Butler, Forensic medicine and death investigation in medieval England (London-New York 2014).

Literature

  • Abel-Smith, B., and R. Stevens, Lawyers and the courts. A sociological study of the English legal system (London 1967).
  • Allen, C.K, Law in the making (Oxford 1958).
  • Baker, John H., and S.F.C. Milsom, Sources of English legal history. Private law to 1750 (London 1986; 2nd ed., Oxford etc., 2010) – deals with doctrinal sources.
  • Baker, John H., An introduction to English legal history (3rd ed., London 1990).
  • Baker, John H., R.H. Helmholz, a.o., The Oxford History of the laws of England (Oxford 2003-) .
  • Beale, J.H., Bibliography of early English law books (Cambridge, Mass., 1926; reprint 1966) – supplement by R.B. Anderson (Cambridge, Mass., 1943; reprint 1966).
  • Bolland, W.C., A manual of Year Book studies (Cambridge 1925).
  • Caenegem, R.C. van, The birth of the English Common Law (2nd ed., Cambridge, etc., 1988) – the standard work on this subject.
  • Clanchy, M.T., From memory to written record. England 1066-1307 (London 1979, 1987; 2nd ed., Oxford 1993).
  • Elton, G.R., England 1200-1640 (London 1969; The sources of history) – with a succinct introduction to legal sources.
  • Hand, G.J., English law in Ireland 1290-1324 (Cambridge 1967).
  • Harding, A., Social history of English law (Harmondsworth 1966).
  • Holdsworth, W.S., Sources and literature of English law (Oxford 1925).
  • Holdsworth, W.S., History of English law (17 vol., London 1903-1972) – the last four volumes appeared after his death; his work is valuable for its overview, but rather often the foundation is only secondary literature.
  • Kiralfy, A.K.R., The English legal system (4th ed., London 1967).
  • Thomas Lund, The creation of the common Law: The medieval year books deciphered (Clark, NJ, 2015).
  • Lyon, B., A constitutional and legal history of medieval England (New York 1960).
  • MacNair, Michael, The forms of proof in early modern equity (Berlin 1999).
  • Maitland, F.W., The form of actions at Common Law. A course of lectures, A.H. Chaytor and W.J. Whittaker (ed.) (Cambridge 1909, 1936) – reprinted 1965.
  • Milsom, S.F.C., Historical foundations of the common law (2nd ed., London 1981).
  • Plucknett, T.F.T., A concise history of the common law (5th ed., London 1956).
  • Pollock, F., and F.W. Maitland, The history of English law before the time of Edward I (2nd ed., 2 vol., Cambridge 1898; reprint 1952) – also reprinted with an introduction by S.F.C. Milsom (Cambridge 1968); Maitland wrote all its chapters but one; there is a scanned online version of the edition 1898.
  • Pollock, F., A First Book of jurisprudence for students of the common law (6th ed.., London 1929).
  • Radcliffe and Cross, The English legal system, G.J. Hand and D.J. Bentley (ed.) (6th ed., London 1977).
  • Turner, R.V., The English judiciary in the age of Glanville and Bracton c. 1176-1239 (Cambridge, etc., 1985).
  • Wormald, Patrick, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century, I: Legislation and its Limits (Oxford, 1999).

Common law in context

The common law was not completely separated from continental law. The influence of the continental, both Roman and canon law, gets particular attention in the following studies:

  • Buckland, W.W., and A.D. Mcnair, Roman law and common law. A comparison in outline, F.H. Lawson (rev.) (Cambridge 1965).
  • Caenegem, R.C. van, Judges, legislators and professors. Chapters in European legal history (Cambridge, etc., 1987) – compares continental developments with the common law.
  • Coquillette, D.R., The civilian writers of Doctors’ Commons (Berlin 1988).
  • Helmholz, R.H., The ius commune in England : four studies (Oxford, etc., 2001).
  • Ibbetson, D.J., A historical introduction to the law of obligations (Oxford 1999) – connects English developments with Roman and canon law.
  • Ibbetson, D.J., Common law and ius commune (London 2001) – Selden Society lecture, 2001.
  • Maitland, F.W., Bracton and Azo (1895) – a classical study, even after more than a century.
  • Peter, H., Actio und Writ. Eine vergleichende Darstellung römischer und englischer Rechtsbehelfe (Tübingen 1959).
  • Reid, Kenneth, and Reinhard Zimmermann (ed.), A history of private law in Scotland (2 vol., Oxford 2000).
  • Helmholz, R.H.,, The Oxford History of the Laws of England, I: The canon law and ecclesiastical jurisdiction from 597 to the 1640s (Oxford, etc., 2004).
  • Vranken, Martin, Western Legal Traditions. A Comparison of Civil Law and Common Law (Sydney 2015).

Two well-known works on comparative law offer rich insights for common law, too:

  • Zweigert, K., and H. Kötz, Einführung in die Rechtsvergleichung (3rd ed., Tübingen 1996) – English translation by Tony Weir.
  • Zimmermann, R., The law of obligations. Roman foundations of the civilian tradition (Cape Town 1990; reprint Oxford 1996).

On ecclesiastical law in England the following books are essential reading:

  • Helmholz, R.H., Marriage litigation in medieval England (Cambridge 1974, 1978).
  • Helmholz, R.H., Roman canon law in Reformation England (Cambridge, etc., 1990) – shows a surprising continuity.
  • Helmholz, R.H., Canon law and English common law (London 1983).
  • Donahue jr., Ch., Why the history of canon law is not written (London 1984).
  • Helmholz, R.H., Canon law and the law of England. Historical essays (London 1987).
  • Canon law in Protestant lands, R.H. Helmholz (ed.) (Berlin 1992) – a number of comparative studies.
  • Martínez-Torrón, J., Derecho angloamericano y derecho canónico : Las raices canónicas de la “common law” (Madrid 1991) – in English: Anglo-American law and canon law. Canonical roots of the Common Law tradition (Berlin 1998), without the preface by Stephan Kuttner.
  • Lynch, John E., ‘The canonical contribution to English law’, Studia canonica 33 (1999) 505-525.

One should notice the following editions for the English practice of canon law:

  • Select cases from the ecclesiastical courts of the province of Canterbury, c. 1200-1301, N. Adams and Ch. Donahue jr. (ed.) (2 vol., London 1978-1979; Selden Society, 95-96).
  • Select cases on defamation to 1600, R.H. Helmholz (ed.) (London 1985; Selden Society, 101).
  • Lower Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction in Late-Medieval England: The Courts of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln, 1336-1349, and the Deanery of Wisbech, 1458-1484, L.R. Poos (ed.) (Oxford 2001).
  • Select ecclesiastical cases from the King’s courts 1272-1307, David Millon (ed.) (London 2009; Selden Society, 126).
  • Three civilian notebooks 1580-1640, R.H. Helmholz (ed.) (London 2010; Selden Society, 127) – these notes deal with cases in ecclesiastical courts
  • The rights and liberties of the English Church. Readings from the Pre-Reformation Inns of Court, Margart McGlynn (ed.) (London 2012; Selden Society, 129).

One can search online in the records of some courts:

York Archbishops’ Registers Revealed gives access to thirty registers for the period 1225-1646. The edition from 1802 by the Record Commission of the Taxatio Ecclesiastica Angliae et Walliae Auctoritate P. Nicholai IV, an unique assessment of ecclesiastical wealth in Engeland and Wales from the years 1291-1292, is successively made accessible online and edited anew.

Links

First some very rich link collections:

Here a number of websites with online versions of books, documents and legal records:

Very typical in English history are the various kind of parchment rolls, but the editions in the Rolls Series are mainly narrative sources. Here some projects for online editions of rolls:

Some resources focus on criminal law:

For Irish history one can benefit from the following online tools and resources:

Some general digital libraries:

Those visitors who have come as far as here will be happy to see also at least some interest concerning Magna Carta:

Let us not forget Scotland and Scots law,  and mention at least these links: