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The Reputation of Royal Judges Under the Angevin Kings

  • Ralph V. Turner

In twelfth and thirteenth-century England complaints that justice was being sold were common, culminating with King John's tacit admission in Magna Carta. Coupled with these complaints were charges of corruption against royal judges, or against royal aulici, curiales, or familiares, since until the middle of Richard I's reign no professional judiciary existed. Even in King John's time, familiares regis still served as judges. Yet a core of royal servants specializing in justice, “professionals” in a certain sense, had been created. Historians since Maitland have generally held a high opinion of these judges. According to Maitland, under Henry II and Richard I, “English law was administered by the ablest, the best educated men in the realm.…” F.M. Powicke wrote that the judiciary of Henry III was “probably the most stable and helpful, as it was the most intelligent, element in the State at this time.” How are we to reconcile historians' high opinion of the royal justices with their contemporaries' low opinion? Were the chroniclers simply drawing stock figures in their depictions of corrupt judges, or was their picture drawn from life?

Royal officials, including judges, proved popular targets for the pens of twelfth century moralists and satirists, some of whom wrote out of personal bitterness, having failed in the contest for royal patronage and high office.2 Capable of condemning curiales in classical Latin style was John of Salisbury. He knew many of Henry II's courtiers, and he came to despise them, especially those in clerical orders.

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1 Pollock, Frederick and Maitland, F.W., The History of English Law, 2 vols. (2nd ed.; Cambridge, 1898), 1:132; cf. pp. 160-61, 169-70; Powicke, F.M., King Henry III and the Lord Edward (Oxford, 1947), p. 143. Cf. Flower, C.T., Introduction to the Curia Regis Rolls, Selden Society, 62 (London, 1944), p. 498; Stenton, Doris M., English Justice between the Norman Conquest and the Great Charter 1066-1215, Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, 60 (Philadelphia, 1964), pp. 8286.

2 Examples that immediately come to mind are Peter of Blois and Gerald of Wales. See Türk, Egbert, Nugae Curialium: Le règne d'Henri II Plantagenet (1145 [sic]-1189) et l'éthique politique, Centre de Recherches d’histoire et de philologie, Hautes Études médiévales et modernes, 28 (Geneva, 1977), p. 188.

3 Liebeschutz, Hans, Medieval Humanism in the Life and Writings of John of Salisbury, Studies of the Warburg Institute, 17 (London, 1950), p. 17. Cf. Turner, Ralph V., “Clerical Judges in English Secular Courts: the Ideal versus the Reality,” Medievalia et Humanistica, n. s. 3 (1972): 8384.

4 Policraticus, v, 10, 11, 15; vi, 1; The Statesman's Book of John of Salisbury, Dickinson, John, trans. (New York, 1927), pp. 114-45, 174–79. John accused royal judges of being ignorant of law and lacking in goodwill, “as is proved by their love of gifts and rewards, exercising the power which they have in the service of avarice or advancing the fortunes of their own flesh and blood,” v, 11, p. 125.

5 Policraticus, v, 15, p. 145. The Latin allows a play on the word errantes.

6 Ibid., v, 10, p. 114.

7 Ibid., p. 116.

8 Ibid., p. 117.

9 Anstruther, Robert, ed., The Chronicles of Ralph Niger, Caxton Society, 13 (London, 1851), Chronicle II, pp. 167-69.

10 Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, ed. Brewer, al., Rolls Series (London, 18611891), 5:304; 8:160; also 8:183-86, where he recorded the dream of a Lincolnshire knight, directed by St. Peter to warn Henry II of his misdeeds. One of the knight's admonitions was “concerning the rendering of justice freely and without cost.”

11 De Nugis Curialium, ed. James, M.R., Anecdota Oxoniensia, Medieval and Modern Series (1914). For a description of the work, see Gransden, Antonia, Historical Writing in England c.550 to c. 1307 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1974), pp. 243–44.

12 De Nugis Cur., v, 6, p. 241; v, 7, pp. 252-53.

13 Map also tells of an abbot who became an itinerant justice, and “spurred on the spoiling of the poor, hoping perchance to win a bishopric through the favour gained from his spoils,” in Master Walter Map's Book, Tupper, Frederick and Ogle, Marbury Bladen, trans. (London, 1924), p. 8.

14 Migne, Jacques Paul, ed., Patrologia Latina, cursus completus (Paris, 18441864), 207, no. 14, col. 43. Peter complained of courtier's vain hopes for worldly gain, writing that the courtier's life is “death to the soul,” and quoting Ecclesiasticus (7:17), “Seek not of the Lord preeminence, neither of the king the seat of honor. … Seek not to be judge. …” For Peter's denunciation of lawyers, see no. 26, cols. 91-92.

15 Pat. Lat., 207, no. 95, cols. 298-302. It can be dated by the fact that Peter identified himself as “archdeacon of Bath.”

16 Luard, H.R., ed., Letters of Robert Grosseteste, Rolls Series (London, 18611863), 1:105–8, epistola xxvii. Later he sought removal of the abbot of Croyland from the itinerant judicature (p. 262, no. lxxxii).

17 Lawrence, Clifford H., St. Edmund of Abingdon (London, 1960), p. 131, citing BL. Harleian MS. 325, f. 163v.

18 Powicke, F.M., The Thirteenth Century 1216-1307 (Oxford, 1953), pp. 361–66.

19 Tout, T.F. and Johnstone, Hilda, eds., State Trials of the Reign of Edward I, Royal Historical Society, Camden 3rd Series, 8 (London, 1906), pp. 9399. Rothwell, Harry, ed., English Historical Documents, vol. 3: 1189-1327 (London, 1975), pp. 922–24, gives a translation of the Passio. For another poem, slightly later, on the venality of judges, see Wright, Thomas, ed., Political Songs of England, Camden Society, 6 (1839):224–30.

20 Chronica Magistri Rogeri de Houdene, ed. Stubbs, William, Rolls Series (London, 18681871), 4:62. Howden also described the visit of the itinerant justices to Boston fair in 1202, where merchants paid heavy fines for the privilege of ignoring the assize of cloth. His comment is, “The said justices gained much money for the King's use, to the injury of many” (4:172).

21 Annates Monastici, ed. Luard, H.R., Rolls Series (London, 18641869), 3:135. This story has become “a stock example of the eyre's unpopularity,” but the situation was unusual because no eyre had been held in Cornwall for over thirty years. C.A.F. Meekings, “The Eyreadomnia placita” (paper read at the Anglo-American Conference of Historians, July 1954, kindly lent to the author by Mrs. Meekings).

22 Mattaei Parisiensis, Monachi Sancti Albani, Chronica Majora, ed. Luard, H.R., Rolls Series (London, 18721883), 4:51 (Hereafter cited as Chron. Maj.). Similarly, Paris referred to money raised by Henry in 1254 as “Whatever he could extract from the rapines of the itinerant justices” (5:458).

23 Gerald of Wales labelled William of Ste.-Mère-Èglise, one of Henry II's aides and Richard I's judges, curia sequela est et domini regis familiaris (Opera, 1:260).

24 Ward, H.L.D., ed., Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 31 (1875): 420–59. Ralph did not mention the justice's name, but the identification seems clear. The date of death mentioned in the “Vision”—1206—corresponds with the death of Osbert. Also Ralph, monk at an Essex house, would have known of Osbert, of East Anglian origin and with landholdings there.

25 Ibid., p. 452.

26 Ibid., pp. 452-53.

27 Chron. Maj., 3:617–18.

28 Ibid., 5:213.

29 Adam fitz William is described as “a man of the shrewdest sort in worldly affairs and the riches which come from them,” in Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani, ed. Riley, H.T., Rolls Series (London, 18671869). Roger of Whitchester is described as a judge who “strove wholly to please the royal will” (Chron. Maj., 5:716).

30 Ibid., 4:49.

31 Ibid., 5:213, 384.

32 Annales Monastici, ed. Luard, H.R., Rolls Series (London, 18641869), 1:345, annals of Burton.

33 Flores Historiarum per Matthaeum Westmonasteriensem collecti, ed. Luard, H.R., Rolls Series (London, 1890), 2:247.

34 Curia Regis Rolls, ed. Flower, al. (London, 1922—), 3:87, 97.

35 Ibid., 8:80-81.

36 As an ecclesiastic, Jocelin had a legitimate excuse for absenting himself from a “judgment of blood.”

37 Ibid., 15:248, no. 1089, John de Braitoft.

38 Ibid., 15: 368, no. 1429. A fourteenth century itinerant justice also confessed his ignorance of the law. Answering a complaint against him, he stated that he was a man of arms and did not know the laws and that his colleague, a man of law, had made all judgments, Sayles, G.O., ed., Select Cases in the Court of King's Bench under Edward I, 2, Selden Society, 58 (London, 1938), p. cxxvi.

39 Maitland, F.W., ed., Bracton's Note Book (London, 1887), 3:179–80, no. 1166.

40 Gransden, Antonia, “Propaganda in English Medieval Historiography,” Journal of Medieval History, 1 (1975): 363–81.

41 Hall, G.D.G., ed. and trans., Tractatus de Legibus et Consuetudinibus Regni Anglie qui Glanvilla vocatur, Medieval Texts (London, 1965), Prologue, p. 2.

42 Johnson, Charles, ed. and trans., Dialogus de Scaccario, Medieval Texts (London, 1950), p. 3; cf. pp. 7, 13. This translation is from English Historical Documents, vol. 2, 10421189, ed. David Douglas and George W. Greenway (London, 1968), p. 492.

43 He concluded, I heard a judgment there given in favour of a poor man against a rich one,” De Nugis Cur., v, 7, p. 253 of James ed.

44 Dialogus, Johnson, ed., p. 77.

45 Pat. Lat., 207, no. 150, col. 440, partial trans, in Southern, R.W., The Making of the Middle Ages (London, 1953), pp. 212–13.

46 Pat. Lat., 200, no. 96, cols. 1459-61.

47 Master Thomas of Hurstbourne, Pat. Lat., 207, no. 135, cols. 403-4.

48 The Historical Works of Master Ralph of Diceto, Dean of London, ed. Stubbs, William, Rolls Series (London, 1876), 1:434.

49 Ralph de Diceto, 1: 435; trans. in English Historical Documents, 2:481–82.

50 BL. MS. Royal, 3.B.X, f.88r-v, quoted by Smalley, Beryl, The Becket Conflict and the Schools (Oxford, 1972), p. 227.

51 Of fifteen professionals under King John, five were the first of their family to leave their names on the public records: William Briwerre, Walter of Creeping, Simon of Pattishall, James of Potterne, and Master Ralph of Stokes. Seven were from middling knightly families who had some property recorded in final concords, etc.: John of Guestling, Richard of Herriard, Osbert fitz Hervey, Roger Huscarl, Godfrey de Insula, Master Henry (Blund) of London, and Henry of Whiston. Only three had any relatives in the royal service. See the author's The Judges of King John: Their Background and Training,” Speculum, 51 (1976): 450–51. Of ten professionals under Richard I, five were of undistinguished origin: Richard Barre, archdeacon of Ely; Geoffrey fitz Peter, the future justiciar; Osbert fitz Hervey; Master Thomas of Hurstbourne; and William de Ste.-Mère-Eglise.

52 Emden, Alfred B., A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A.D. 1500, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1957–1959), 1:159–60.

53 See Turner, Ralph V., “Simon of Pattishall, Pioneer Professional Judge,” Albion, 9 (1977): 126.

54 Justices serving Richard and John who became bishops include Richard fitz Neal, William de Ste.-Mère-Èglise, Master Eustace of Fauconberg, and Master Henry of London, all of whom had other important posts. William Ralegh and William of York are two of Henry III's justices who became bishops, and who served him mainly on the bench.

55 Plucknett, T.F.T., “The Relations between Roman Law and English Common Law down to the Sixteenth Century,” University of Toronto Law Journal, 3 (19391940):32.

56 Dialogus, ed. Johnson, , pp. 13.

57 Ibid., p. 120, translation from English Historical Documents, 2:564. Fitz Neal also admitted the arbitrary nature of the forest law (Dialogus, pp. 59-60).

58 Ibid. p. 109. Cf. p. 13, “Yet the purpose of all the offices [at the Exchequer] is the same, namely to watch over the King's interests, due regard being paid, however, to equity, according to the established rules of the Exchequer.”

59 Ibid., p. 28.

60 Thorne, Samuel E., trans., Bracton on the Laws and Customs of England, 4 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1969–1977), 2:309, f.109.

61 Meekings, C.A.F., “Six Letters concerning the Eyres of 1226-28,” English Historical Review, 65 (1950): 494–95.

62 Ibid., p. 499, no. iv.

63 Curia Regis Rolls, 8:198, 237; 10:52, 148; 13:96, no. 414; 14:191, no. 936; 375, no. 1751; 15:425, no. 1662.

64 Holt, J.C., Magna Carta (Cambridge, 1965), p. 90; Ullmann, Walter, Principles of Government and Politics in the Middle Ages (London, 1961), p. 156, and Law and Politics in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y., 1975), p. 58.

65 See Turner, Ralph V., The King and his Courts: The Role of John and Henry III in the Administration of Justice 1199-1240 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1968), pp. 127-35, 157, 242.

66 Henry, III's justices stated, “The testimony of the lord king by charter or by word of mouth exceeds all other proof,” Bracton's Note Book, 2:182–83, no. 239. They also declared that the king was not bound by the regular forms of action in his pleadings, Richardson, H.G. and Sayles, G.O., eds., Select Cases of Procedure without Writ under Henry III, Selden Society, 90 (London, 1941), p. 36, no. 34.

67 Turner, Ralph V., “The Royal Courts Treat Disseizin by the King: John and Henry III, 1199-1240,” American Journal of Legal History, 12(1968): 118.

68 Sharon T. Ady (M.A. Thesis, Florida State University, 1974).

69 A suit between the count of Aumale and de Gant, Gilbert, Rolls of the Justices in Eyre for Lincolnshire (1218-19) and Worcestershire (1221), ed. Stenton, Doris M., Selden Society, 53 (London, 1934), p. 61, no. 151.

70 Royal and other Historical Letters Illustrative of the Reign of Henry III, ed. Shirley, W.W., Rolls Series, (London, 18621868), 1:21; Stenton, Lady, trans., Rolls for Lincolnshire and Worcestershire, p. lii.

71 Flower, , Intro, to Curia Regis Rolls, pp. 480495.

72 Flower, p. 496. Cf. Turner, , King and Ms Courts, pp. 274–75.

73 Pollock and Maitland, 2:519.

74 Templeman, Geoffrey, The Sheriffs of Warwickshire in the Thirteenth Century, Dugdale Society, Occasional Papers, no. 7 (Oxford, 1948), p. 22.

75 Turner, , King and his Courts, pp. 155–56.

76 Bracton, 2: 302-3, f. 106b. See Richard de Anesty's account of his payment of 17½ marks to Henry, II's justices (English Historical Documents, 2:457).

77 Maddicott, J.R., “Law and Lordship: Royal Justices as Retainers in Thirteenth-and Fourteenth-Century England,” Past and Present, Supplement 4 (Oxford, 1978). See also Sayles, G.O., ed., Select cases in the Court of King's Bench, 1, Selden Society, 55 (London, 1936), pp. lxxviviii; and ibid., 7 (74 for 1971), p. xxv. In the early thirteenth century, Simon of Pattishall held land of four monastic houses possibly granted to him in return for legal advice, Turner, , “Simon of Pattishall,” pp. 124–25.

78 Meekings, C.A.F., ed., Crown Pleas of the Wiltshire Eyre, 1249, Wilts. Archaeol. and Nat. Hist. Soc. Records Branch, 16 (1961), pp. 1314, for the hospitality of the bishop Winchester. The Dunstable chronicle in Annales Monastici, 3:174, notes two itinerant justices at Dunstable for two days ad custum prioris.

79 Sayles, , Select Cases in King's Bench, 1: lxxi; Meekings, , Crown Pleas of Wiltshire, pp. 1213.

80 As the impeachment of Sir Francis Bacon shows. What Trevor-Roper wrote about payment of public officials in the Renaissance must have been true centuries earlier. Trevor-Roper, H.R., “The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century,” in Crisis in Europe 1560-1660, ed. Aston, Trevor (New York, 1967), p. 79. For judges' conduct in Renaissance England, see Baker, J.H., ed., The Reports of John Spelman, Selden Society, 94 (London, 1978), 2: 141–42.

81 Pipe Roll 8 John, Pipe Roll Society, new series (London, 1942), pp. 33, 35; Pipe Roll 9 John (1946), p. 113.

82 Painter, Sidney, Studies in the History of the English Feudal Barony, Johns Hopkins Univ. Studies in Hist, and Pol. Sci., series 61, no. 3 (Baltimore, 1943), p. 170.

83 Meekings, C.A.F., “Robert of Nottingham, Justice of the Bench, 1244-6,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 41 (1968): 236. Another justice of Henry III who piled up possessions was Robert of Lexington, Holdsworth, C.S., ed., Rufford Charters, Thoroton Soc. Rec. Ser., 29 (Nottingham, 1972), 1: xcii–v.

84 Clancy, M.T., ed., Civil Pleas of the Wiltshire Eyre, 1249, Wiltshire Records Society, 25 (Devizes, 1971), p. 9.

85 For writings critical of the Church courts, see Yunck, J. A., The Lineage of Lady Meed (Notre Dame, 1963).

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