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Law, order and plunder at sea: a comparison of England and France in the fourteenth century


This article addresses the management of maritime plunder and conflict in the waters of England and France in the fourteenth century. It argues that during this century a fundamental change occurred. Around 1300, maritime conflict was handled by recourse to the strictly civil law merchant and law maritime, or by Marcher law. However by the 1350s and 1360s the kings of England and France, moved by contemporary political events and theories of sovereignty at sea, created courts of Admiralty that challenged the previous systems’ jurisdiction. These initiatives eventually paved the way for the criminalisation of private maritime conflict.

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1 Cheyette, Frederic L., ‘The sovereign and the pirates, 1332’, Speculum 45 (1970), 4068, here 54, 59–67; Heller-Roazen, Daniel, The enemy of all: piracy and the law of nations (Cambridge, 2009), 62–8.

2 Heebøll-Holm, Thomas K., Ports, piracy and maritime war: piracy in the English Channel and the Atlantic, c. 1280–1330 (Leiden, 2013), 163–73.

3 Runyan, Timothy J., ‘The Rolls of Oleron and the Admiralty Court in fourteenth-century England’, American Journal of Legal History 19 (1975), 95111 .

4 de Souza, Philip, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman world (Cambridge, 1999), 1.

5 See for instance, de Souza, Piracy, 17–18.

6 Heebøll-Holm, Ports, 9.

7 ‘… nam pirata non est ex perduellium numero definitus, sed communis hostis omnium: cum hoc nec fides nec ius iurandum esse commune [… a pirate is not included in the number of lawful enemies, but is the common foe of all the world; and with him there ought not to be any pledged word nor any oath mutually binding]’): Cicero, in William Miller ed., De Officiis (London, 1968), Book III, 29. For the medieval discourse on pirates, see Bryan Dick, ‘“Framing piracy”: restitution at sea in the later Middle Ages’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2010), 12–18; Heebøll-Holm, Ports, 13–22, Heebøll-Holm, Thomas K., ‘Between pagan pirates and glorious sea-warriors: the portrayal of the Viking pirate in Danish twelfth-century Latin historiography’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 8 (2012), 141–70, here 144–8.

8 For a more detailed discussion of the problems with the terms ‘pirate’ and ‘piracy’, see Gregor Rohmann, ‘Jenseits von Piraterie und Kaperfahrt: für einen überfälligen Paradigmenwechsel in der Geschichte der Gewalt im maritimen Spätmittelalter’, Historische Zeitschrift (forthcoming).

9 Gabrielsen, Vincent, ‘Warfare, statehood and piracy in the Greek world’, in Jaspert, Nikolas and Kolditz, Sebastian eds., Seeraub im Mittelmeerraum: piraterie, Korsarentum und maritime Gewalt von der Antike bis zur Neuzeit (Paderborn, 2013), 133–54, here 138–9.

10 For a discussion of the seigneurial system (seigneurie banale), see Bloch, Marc, La société féodale (Paris, 1994 [orig. pub 1939]), 603–10; Fossier, RobertSeigneurie’, in Gauvard, Claude, deLibera, Alain and Zink, Michel eds., Dictionnaire du Moyen Âge (Paris, 2002), 1314–17; Barthélemy, Dominique, ‘Seigneurie’, in Goff, Jacques Le and Schmitt, Jean-Claude eds., Dictionnaire raisonné de l'Occident médiéval (Paris, 1999), 1056–66.

11 See also Russell, Frederick H., The just war in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1975), 302.

12 Tai, Emily Sohmer, ‘The legal status of piracy in medieval Europe’, History Compass 10 (2012), 838–51, here 839.

13 Ward, Robin, The world of the medieval shipmaster (Woodbridge, 2009), 1112 .

14 See, for instance, Sachs, Stephen E., ‘Conflict resolution at a medieval English fair’, in Cordes, Albrecht and Dauchy, Serge eds., Eine Grenze in Bewegung: private und öffentliche Konfliktlösung im Handels- und Seerecht/ Une frontière mouvante: justice privée et justice publique en matières commerciales et maritimes (Munich, 2013), 1938 ; Jean Hilaire, ‘La résolution des conflits en matière de commerce à travers les archives du Parlement au XIIIe siècle’, in Cordes and Dauchy eds., Eine Grenze in Bewegung, 1–17; Gardiner, D. A., ‘The history of belligerent rights on the high seas in the fourteenth century’, Law Quarterly Review 48 (1932), 521–46, here 531.

15 Pollock, Frederick and Maitland, Frederic William, The history of English law, 2 vols., 2nd edn (Cambridge, 1968), I, 467.

16 For a discussion of the origins of this law, see for instance, Runyan, ‘Rolls of Oleron’, 98–9; Ward, Medieval shipmaster, 20–1; Heebøll-Holm, Ports, 127–34.

17 Runyan, ‘Rolls of Oleron’, 99–103; Ward, Medieval shipmaster, 15–18, 23; Frankot, Edda, ‘Of laws of ships and shipmen’: medieval maritime law and its practice in urban northern Europe (Edinburgh, 2012), 1314 ; Marsden, R. G., ‘The Vice-Admirals of the coast’, English Historical Review 22 (1907), 468–77, here 468–9.

18 Heebøll-Holm, Ports, 50, 143–4, 180; ed., Hubert Hall, Select cases concerning the Law Merchant A.D. 1239–1633 (London, 1903), 81–3; Sachs, ‘Conflict resolution’, 30–1.

19 Heebøll-Holm, Ports, 134–48. For a somewhat divergent view, see Bryan Dick, ‘“Framing piracy”’, 56–69.

20 Heebøll-Holm, Ports, 162, 169–74.

21 Keen, Maurice, The laws of war in the late Middle Ages (London and Toronto, 1965), 218; Gardiner, ‘Belligerent rights’, 538–9.

22 Neff, Stephen C., War and the laws of nations: a general history (Cambridge, 2008), 123.

23 Heebøll-Holm, Ports, 83–126.

24 For a discussion of marque, see René de Mas Latrie, ‘Du droit de marque ou droit de représailles au Moyen Âge’, Bibliothèque de l’École des chartes, 6e série, tome II (1866), 529–77; Chavarot, Marie-Claire, ‘La pratique des lettres de marque d'après les arrêts du parlement (XIIIe – début XVe siècle)’, Bibliothèque de l'École des chartes 149 (1991), 5189 ; Heebøll-Holm, Ports, 134–40, 149–55.

25 ed., Pierre Chaplais, English medieval diplomatic practice Part I: documents and interpretations (hereafter EMDP), 2 vols. (London, 1982), I, 389–92; Calendar of the Close Rolls in the Public Record Office (hereafter CCR), 1272–1279, 420; Thomas Rymer ed., Foedera, Conventiones, Litterae et Acta Publica, rev. edn by A. F. Clarke, F. Holbroke and J. Coley, 4 vols. (London, 1816–69) (hereafter Foedera), Years 1272–1307, 789–90, 799; Balasques, Jules, Études historiques de la ville de Bayonne, 3 vols. (Bayonne, 1862–75), III, 538–47. These are treated in more detail in Heebøll-Holm, Ports, 195, 203–5, 214.

26 Numerous documents relating to the proceedings exist in the National Archives, London (hereafter TNA), under the headings TNA C 47/27/5; C 47/27/6; C 47/29/5; C 47/29/6; C 47/31/19. A list of all the documents with the old Public Record Office headings can be found in Cuttino, G. P. ed., The Gascon Calendar of 1322 (London, 1949), 5761 ; Cuttino, G. P., English diplomatic administration (Oxford, 1940), 51. For the older claims of maritime aggression leading to the Process, see for instance, ed., Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac, Lettres de rois, reines et autres personnages des Cours de France et d'Angleterre, depuis Louis VII jusqu’à Henri IV: tirées des archives de Londres par Bréquigny et publiées par M. Champollion-Figeac, 2 vols. (Paris, 1839–1847), I, 404, 424–9; Foedera 1273–1307, 900, 936 and 940.

27 Cuttino, English diplomatic administration, 22, 51.

28 Ibid., 52.

29 Chaplais, Pierre, ‘Règlement des conflits internationaux franco-anglais au XIVe siècle’, Le Moyen Âge 57 (1951), 269302 , here 277–9.

30 Cheyette, ‘The sovereign’, 40–3.

31 Ibid., 42. For the Sicilian admirals, see Takayama, Hiroshi, ‘ Amiratus in the Norman Kingdom of Sicily – a leading office of Arabic origin in the royal administration’, in Borchardt, Karl and Bünz, Enno eds., Forschung zur Reichs-, Papst- und Landesgeschichte, Volume I (Stuttgart, 1998), 133–44.

32 Russell, Just war, 302; Cheyette, ‘The sovereign’, 45, 49–50.

33 Maiolo, Francesco, Medieval sovereignty: Marsilius of Padua and Bartolus of Saxoferrato (Delft, 2007), 79: ‘The term sovereignty generally denotes the position of supremacy of somebody, or something, in respect of somebody, or something else’; Thomson, Janice E., Mercenaries, pirates, and sovereigns: state-building and extraterritorial violence in early modern Europe (Princeton, 1994), 13: ‘Sovereignty organizes global political space into territorially bound, “juridically mutually exclusive and morally self-entailed domains”. It is based on “an ethics of absolute exclusion”.’

34 Ullmann, Walter, ‘The development of the medieval idea of sovereignty’, English Historical Review 64 (1949), 133 , here 3.

35 Ullmann, ‘Idea of sovereignty’, 9–10, 15.

36 Maiolo, Medieval sovereignty, 70–1.

37 Ibid., 143.

38 EMDP I, 367; Heebøll-Holm, Ports, 175–85.

39 Marsden, Reginald Godfrey ed., Select pleas in the Court of Admiralty, 2 vols. (London, 1894), I, xviii–xix; Heebøll-Holm, Ports, 151, 186–90.

40 Marsden ed., Select pleas, xxx–xxxv.

41 Pardessus, J. M., Collection de lois maritimes antérieures au 18. Siècle, 5 vols. (Paris, 1828–1844), I, 289.

42 For an elaboration of this argument, see Thomas K Heebøll-Holm, ‘The origins and jurisdiction of the English Court of Admiralty in the fourteenth century’, in Anthony Musson and Nigel Ramsay eds., The English Courts of Chivalry and Admiralty (forthcoming); Krieger, Karl-Friedrich, Ursprung und Wurzeln der Rôles d'Oléron (Cologne, 1970), 43–6.

43 Barré, Eric, ‘Notes sur l'amirauté de France en Normandie au Moyen Âge’, Revue d'histoire maritime 19 (2014), 2131, here 21. For the history of the medieval French admirals, see Russon, Marc, Les côtes guerrières: mer, guerre et pouvoirs au Moyen Âge (Rennes, 2004), 432–50.

44 Russon, Côtes, 452–4, Tai, ‘Legal status’, 839–40.

45 For a more longue durée investigation of the admirals in regard to pirates, see Sicking, Louis, De piraat en de admiral (Leiden and Boston, 2014).

46 Russon, Côtes, 448, 468; Heebøll-Holm, Ports, 175, 178, 179; Dumas, Auguste, Étude sur le jugement des prises maritimes en France jusqu’à la suppression de l'office d'amiral (Paris, 1908), 48; Foedera 1307–1307, 272, 279, 280, 292, 350, 455, 502–03; CCR 1318–1323, 496 and 692; Vale, Malcolm, The origins of the Hundred Years’ War: the Angevin legacy (Oxford, 1996), 59; Calendar of the Patent Rolls in the Public Record Office 1313–1317, 545–6; Sylvester, David G., ‘Communal piracy in medieval England's Cinque Ports’, in Christie, N. and Yazigi, M. eds., Noble ideals and bloody realities: warfare in the Middle Ages (Leiden, 2006), 163–77, here 168; Dressler, Rachel A., Of armor and men in medieval England: the chivalric rhetoric of three English knights’ effigies (Aldershot, 2004), 4550 ; Salzman, L. F., ‘Some notes on the Family of Alard’, Sussex Archaeological Collections 61 (1920), 126–41.

47 Dumas, Jugement, 33–5, 38–9, 44–7.

48 Eusèbe J. Laurière, François Secousse and L. G. de Vilevault eds., Ordonnances des rois des France de la troisième race (hereafter ORF), 21 vols. (Paris 1723–1849), II, 408.

49 Dumas, Jugement, 53–5; Timbal, Pierre-Clément et al. , La guerre de Cent Ans vue à travers les registres du Parlement (Paris, 1961), 259–68.

50 Barré, ‘Notes’, 21–5; ORF II, 408–9; Dumas, Jugement, 51, 63–9.

51 Twiss, Travers ed., The Black Book of the Admiralty, 4 vols. (Cambridge, 2012/1871), I, 430–2; Bessey, Valérie et al. , Construire l'armée française: textes fondateurs des institutions militaires, Volume I: De la France des premiers Valois à la fin du règne de François Ier (Turnhout, 2006), 6874 ; ORF VIII, 640–4. While this document was dated to 7 December 1400, Pardessus has shown that it ought to be dated to 7 December 1373. J. M. Pardessus, Collection des lois maritimes, IV, 224; Dumas, Jugement, 72, n. 1; de la Roncière, Charles, Histoire de la marine française, 6 vols. (Paris, 1909–1932), I, 42, n. 2.

52 On Jean de Vienne, see de Loray, Terrier, Jean de Vienne: Amiral de France, 1341–1396 (Paris, 1878).

53 Aubert, Félix, Le Parlement de Paris: de Philippe le Bel à Charles VII (1314–1422), 2 vols. (Geneva, 1977), II, 106–8; Dumas, Jugement, 58–61, 273–82; Roncière, Histoire de la marine II, 42–50.

54 On the maritime jurisdiction exercised by other courts of law, see for instance Gardiner, ‘Belligerent rights’, 531–5.

55 Foedera 1344–1361, 515; Sumption, Jonathan, The Hundred Years’ War, Volume II: Trial by fire (London, 1999), 458–9.

56 The English fleet had traditionally been divided into the northern, western and, sometimes, southern fleets. Each fleet had an admiral assigned to command it. Rodger, N. A. M., The safeguard of the sea: a naval history of Britain, Volume I: 660–1649 (London, 2004), 134–6.

57 Runyan claims that the court was instituted in 1357, but I disagree, as the admirals did not enjoy any official and exclusive right to adjudication at this date  Moreover, no Court of Admiralty is mentioned in any documents from 1357, suggesting that the jurisdiction of the admiral was no different from that of other royal officers charged with judging maritime cases in the 1350s. See Runyan, ‘Rolls of Oleron’, 107–9.

58 Marsden, ‘Vice-Admirals’, 472.

59 Marsden ed., Select pleas, xlii; Foedera 1344–1361, 479, 505; Foedera 1361–77, 597, Cushway, Graham, Edward III and the war at sea (Woodbridge, 2011), 177; Murray, K. M. E., The constitutional history of the Cinque Ports (Manchester, 1935), 123–4; Marsden, ‘Vice-Admirals’, 469.

60 Marsden, Reginald Godfrey ed., Documents relating to law and custom of the sea, Volume I: A.D. 1205–1648 (London, 1915), 88–9: ‘videtur esse consonum dictis legi et consuetudini quod felonie, transgressiones, seu injurie, supra mare facte, non coram Justiciariis nostris ad communem legem, sed coram Admirallis nostris juxta legem, sed coram Admirallis nostris, juxta legem maritimam deducantur et terminentur [it appears that, according to the law and custom of our realm, felonies, trespasses, or injuries done upon the sea ought not to be dealt with or determined before our Justices at the common law, but before our Admirals according to the maritime law]’).

61 CCR 1360–1364, 120; Marsden ed., Law and custom, 84–9; Cushway, Edward III, 177–8.

62 Charles Johnson ed., ‘An early Admiralty case (A.D. 1361)’, in Camden Miscellany, Volume XV (Camden Third Series Vol. XLI, London, 1929), 4: ‘ceste court qest office damiralle ne serra pas rullez si estroit come serront les autres courtz du roialme qe sont rullez par commune ley de la terre, mes est reullable par equite et ley marine ou chescun homme serra resceu a dire sa verite, et le dit Johan Houeel est alien et nad pas conisaunce des leys de la terre [this court [of law] which is the office of the admiral will not be ruled as narrowly as the courts of the realm that follow common law. Rather it is governed by equity and law maritime where all men shall be received to tell his truth, and the said Johan Houeel is a foreigner and is ignorant of the laws of the land]’; my translation); Ward, Medieval shipmaster, 36.

63 Johnson, ‘Early Admiralty’, 1–5; EMDP I, 370, n. 36; Cushway, Edward III, 178.

64 This closely resembled the procedure employed in traditional law merchant suits. Sachs, ‘Conflict resolution’, 27–8.

65 Heebøll-Holm, Ports, 211–15, 223–7. For treaties concluded during 1337–1360, see for instance, Foedera 1344–1361, 228–9, 266–8.

66 Luders, Alexander et al. eds., The statutes of the realm: printed by command of his majesty King George the Third, in pursuance of an address of the House of Commons of Great Britain. From original records and authentic manuscripts, 11 vols. (London, 1810–1828), I, 332–43; Dick, ‘“Framing piracy”’, 200.

67 Runyan, ‘Rolls of Oleron’, 104–7, 110, Ward, Medieval Shipmaster, 12; Marsden, ‘Vice-Admirals’, 469–70.

68 Ward, Medieval shipmaster, 23; Twiss, Black book I, 133–78, esp. 148; Rohmann, ‘Jenseits’; Simpkin, David, ‘Keeping the seas: England's Admirals, 1369–1389’, in Gorski, Richard ed., Roles of the sea in medieval England (Woodbridge, 2012), 79101 , here 88–92.

69 Prétou, Pierre, ‘Du “larron écumeur de mer” aux “pirathes”: les genèses de l'accusation en piraterie à la fin du Moyen âge français’, in Battesti, Michèle ed., La piraterie au fil de l'histoire (Paris, 2014), 3747, here 46–7; Tai, ‘Legal status’, 838–9.

70 Ormrod, W. M., The reign of Edward III (New Haven and London, 1990), 26–7.

71 For the connection between piracy and banditry/ brigandage on land, see Heller-Roazen, Enemy of all, 36; Russell, Just war, 27, 277–8; Toureille, Valérie, Vol et brigandage au Moyen Âge (Paris, 2006), 37–8; Cazaux, Loïc, ‘Réglementation militaire royale et usage de la force dans le royaume de France (XIVe–XVIe siècles)’, Inflexions: Civils et militaires: pouvoir dire 13 (2010), 93104 . For an interesting comparison with the problems posed by mercenary armies in Italy, see Caferro, William P., ‘Warfare and economy in Renaissance Italy, 1350–1450’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 39 (2008), 167209 .

72 Russell, Just war, 302; Contamine, Philippe, ‘Les compagnies d'aventure en France pendant la guerre de Cent Ans’, Mélanges de l’École française de Rome 87 (1975), 365–96. For an example of the royal initiatives designed to control the military, see Curry, Anne, ‘Disciplinary ordinances for English and Franco-Scottish armies in 1385: an international code?’, Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011), 269–94.

73 Kempe, Michael, ‘“Even in the remotest corners of the world”: globalized piracy and international law, 1500–1900’, Journal of Global History 5 (2010), 353–72; Earle, Peter, The pirate wars (London, 2003), 21–2; Andrews, Kenneth R., Elizabethan privateering (Cambridge, 1966), 2231 .

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