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The Origins of the Office of Coroner

  • R. F. Hunnisett

ONLY a hundred years ago the question whether or not there had been coroners in Roman Britain could still be seriously discussed, for two pieces of evidence had created a widespread belief that they had existed long before the Conquest. The Mirror of Justices, a thirteenth-century treatise, credits king Alfred with the appointment of coroners and sheriffs in every county, and a rhyming charter, purporting to have been granted by Athelstan to Beverley Minster, restricts the holding of inquests upon dead bodies within its liberty to its own bailiffs, specifically excluding any ‘other coroner’. Later legal writers, especially Coke, strengthened and prolonged the authority of The Mirror of Justices: they unquestioningly accepted the section on the coroner and embodied it in their works. Maitland, however, has brilliantly exposed the wilful mendacity of its author. The rhyming charter is an obvious forgery; the earliest extant version of it has been attributed on palaeographical and linguistic grounds to the reign of Edward II, when it was probably composed.

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page 85 note 1 E.g. SirJervis, John, On the Office and Duties of Coroners, 2nd edn. (1854), pp. 23.

page 85 note 2 i. 3, ed. W. J. Whittaker (Selden Soc, vii), p. 9; cf. v. 1. 108 (ibid., p. 169).

page 85 note 3 Memorials of Beverley Minster: The Chapter Act Book of the Collegiate Church of S. John of Beverley, 1286–1347, ed. Leach, A. F., ii (Surtees Soc, cviii), pp. 284–7.

page 85 note 4 E.g. SirCoke, E., The Second Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England, 5th edn. (1671), p. 31; Bacon, Nathaniel, An Historical and Political Discourse of the Laws and Government of England, 4th edn. (1739), i, 41.

page 85 note 5 Selden Soc, vii, Introduction.

page 85 note 6 Surtees Soc, cviii. 280 note.

page 86 note 1 E.g. Wellington, R. Henslowe, The King's Coroner (1905), p. 2.

page 86 note 2 Select Charters, ed. Stubbs, W., 9th edn. (Oxford, 1913), p. 254.

page 86 note 3 Gross, C., ‘The Early History and Influence of the Office of Coroner’, Political Science Quarterly, vii (1892), 656–60.

page 86 note 4 Review of Gross in Eng. Hist. Rev., viii (1893), 758–60.

page 86 note 5 Dugdale, W., Monasticon Anglicanum, ed. Caley, J., Ellis, H. and Bandinel, B. (1846), iv. 14; Hudson, W., ‘Traces of the Early Development of Municipal Organisation in the City of Norwich’, Archaeological Journal, xlvi (1889), 303, 305.

page 86 note 6 Blomefield, F., History of Norfolk (1806), iii. 4662; Victoria County History, Norfolk, ii. 319–20.

page 86 note 7 Ibid., p. 320.

page 87 note 1 Monasticon, iv. 14.

page 87 note 2 Henry of Pytchley's Liber Cartarum et Privilegiorum, f. x; Robert of Swaffham's Register, ff. cxvi(verso)–cxvii(verso). For the dating of the writ see Poole, A. L., From Domesday Book to Magna Carta (Oxford, 1951), p. 390note 2.

page 87 note 3 E.g. Close Rolls, 1254–1256, p. 7.

page 87 note 4 Rotuli Curiae Regis, ed. SirPalgrave, F. (Rec. Comm., 1835), i. 50–1. For details concerning the dating see Langbein, I. L., ‘The Jury of Presentment and the Coroner’, Columbia Law Rev., xxxiii (1933), 1340–1, notes 39–40; Select Cases from the Coroners' Rolls, 1265–1413, ed. Gross, C. (Selden Soc., ix), pp. xvii–xviii.

page 87 note 5 Ibid.

page 87 note 6 Eng. Hist. Rev., viii (1893), 758.

page 88 note 1 Coroners were regularly elected before eyre justices in the thirteenth century, as the eyre rolls prove: e.g. P.R.O., Assize Roll 921, m. 35.

page 88 note 2 For instances of coroners and others jointly bearing the record, see Curia Regis Rolls, vi. 10; x. 121.

page 88 note 3 Select Charters, pp. 170–81.

page 88 note 4 De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Regni Angliae, xiv, ed. Woodbine, G. E. (New Haven, 1932).

page 88 note 5 The entry is of a payment ut non sit coronarius: Pipe Roll 4 John (Pipe Roll Soc), p. 157.

page 88 note 6 For this suggestion I am indebted to Mr. C. A. F. Meekings.

page 89 note 1 Chronica Magistri Rogeri de Houedene, ed. Stubbs, W. (Rolls Series, 18681871), iv. 61–2.

page 89 note 2 Langbein, , loc. cit., pp. 1340–1.

page 89 note 3 For all these duties see Selden Soc, ix, passim.

page 89 note 4 Ibid., pp. xxvi, xxix.

page 89 note 5 There is no record of a coroner acting in these matters in any of the Public Record Office Coroners' Rolls. I intend to deal with this problem in detail elsewhere.

page 89 note 6 E.g. Spelman, H., Glossarium Archaiologicum (1687), p. 251.

page 89 note 7 Selden Soc, ix, passim.

page 90 note 1 Select Charters, pp. 129, 259.

page 90 note 2 Cal. Charter Rolls, ii. 88.

page 90 note 3 Britton, i. 2.17; i. 16. 1, ed. F. M. Nichols (Oxford, 1865), i. 17–18, 55–6.

page 90 note 4 Selden Soc, ix, pp. xv–xvi.

page 90 note 5 Rotuli Chartarum, ed. Hardy, T. D. (Rec. Comm., 1837), pp. 46 (bis), 56, 57, 65, 142.

page 90 note 6 Select Charters, p. 296.

page 90 note 7 Hurnard, N. D., ‘The Anglo-Norman Franchises’, Eng. Hist. Rev., lxiv (1949), 439–40.

page 91 note 1 Ut nullus vicecomes intromittat se de placitis ad coronam pertinentibus sine coronatoribus: xiv (Select Charters, p. 287).

page 91 note 2 Cal. Charter Rolls, i. 410–11; Selden Soc, ix, p. xxxvii.

page 91 note 3 Langbein, , loc. cit., p. 1346.

page 91 note 4 Select Cases in the Court of King's Bench under Edward I, ed. Sayles, G. O., i (Selden Soc, lv), pp. xix–xx; Morris, W. A., The Medieval English Sheriff to 1300 (Manchester, 1927), pp. 56, 102–3.

page 91 note 5 Round, J. H., Geoffrey de Mandeville (1892), pp. 110, 373.

page 91 note 6 xviii. 2, ed. Liebermann, F., Die Gesetze Der Angelsachsen (Halle, 19031916), i. 644.

page 91 note 7 Pipe Roll 31 Henry II, p. 108.

page 92 note 1 Op. cit., p. 110.

page 92 note 2 Langbein considered the twelfth-century hundred serjeant to be a distinct official and that only the king's or sheriff's serjeant kept crown pleas: loc. cit., pp. 1347–54. This is disproved by the early thirteenth-century cases cited below. During the thirteenth century the name ‘serjeant’ gradually gave way to ‘bailiff’. For the alternate use of these names to describe the same official see Curia Regis Rolls, viii. 395. For convenience ‘serjeant’ is used throughout this paper.

page 92 note 3 E.g. Pipe Roll 12 Henry II, p. 49; Pipe Roll 31 Henry II, p. 17.

page 92 note 4 E.g. ibid.; Pipe Roll 3 Richard I, pp. 134–5.

page 92 note 5 E.g. Pipe Roll 27 Henry II, p. 45.

page 92 note 6 E.g. Pipe Roll 14 Henry II, p. 67.

page 92 note 7 E.g. Pipe Roll 30 Henry II, p. 107; Pipe Roll 31 Henry II, p. 71; Pipe Roll 34 Henry II, p. 90; Pipe Roll 2 Richard I, p. 63; Pipe Roll 3 Richard I, pp. 12, 13; Pipe Roll 7 Richard I, p. 6.

page 92 note 8 E.g. Pipe Roll 1 Richard I, ed. Hunter, J. (Rec. Comm., 1844), p. 115.

page 93 note 1 Langbein, , loc. cit., pp. 1356–63.

page 93 note 2 E.g. Rolls of the Justices in Eyre for Gloucestershire, Warwickshire and Shropshire, 1221, 1222, ed. Stenton, D. M. (Selden Soc., lix), no. 762; Somersetshire Pleas, ed. Healey, C. E. H. Chadwyk (Somerset Rec. Soc., xi), nos. 119, 149; Pleas of the Crown for the County of Gloucester, 1221, ed. Maitland, F. W. (1884), no. 283. For amercements for burying without Serjeants only see ibid., nos. 381, 398. For burials with the Serjeant's view see Rolls of the Justices in Eyre for Yorkshire, 1218–19, ed. Stenton, D. M. (Selden S.oc, lvi), no. 460; The Earliest Lincolnshire Assize Rolls, 1202–1209, ed. Stenton, D. M. (Line. Rec. Soc., xxii), no. 1451. After about 1225, however, it was an offence to bury a body without the coroner's view even if the serjeant was present: e.g. Somerset Rec Soc, xi. 813; Calendar of the Roll of the Justices on Eyre, 1243, ed. Fowler, G. H. (Beds. Hist. Rec. Soc., xxi), no. 633.

page 93 note 3 Line Rec Soc, xxii. 756; Rolls of the Justices in Eyre for Lincolnshire, 1218–19, and Worcestershire, 1221, ed. Stenton, D. M. (Selden Soc., liii), no. 1133.

page 93 note 4 Select Cases of Procedure Without Writ under Henry III, ed. Richardson, H. G. and Sayles, G. O. (Selden Soc., lx), pp. cci–cciii.

page 94 note 1 E.g. Pipe Roll 29 Henry II, p. 3.

page 94 note 2 E.g. Pipe Roll 14 Henry II, p. 164.

page 94 note 3 E.g. Selden Soc, ix. 4.

page 94 note 4 For corroborative evidence see Hurnard, N. D., ‘The Jury of Presentment and the Assize of Clarendon’, Eng. Hist. Rev., lvi (1941), 402–3.

page 94 note 5 Langbein, , loc. cit., pp. 1355–6.

page 94 note 6 Three Rolls of the King's Court in the Reign of Richard I, ed. Maitland, F. W. (Pipe Roll Soc., xiv), pp. 100–1.

page 94 note 7 Bracton, , De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae, ed. Woodbine, G. E. (New Haven, 19151942), ii. 382.

page 94 note 8 Selden Soc, lix. 1331–2; lvi. 590, 1104.

page 94 note 9 E.g. Beds. Hist. Rec. Soc, xxi. 712.

page 95 note 1 E.g. Selden Soc, ix. 37.

page 95 note 2 Supra, p. 92.

page 95 note 3 xiv (Select Charters, p. 172).

page 95 note 4 (ibid., p. 179).

page 95 note 5 i. 13 (Selden Soc, vii. 35–6). Cf. Hamil, F. C., ‘The King's Approvers’, Speculum, xi (1936), 238–9.

page 95 note 6 iii (Select Charters, p. 179).

page 95 note 7 Pleas Before the King or his Justices, 1198–1202, ed. Stenton, D. M., ii (Selden Soc., lxviii), no. 732; Curia Regis Rolls, viii. 215. See ibid., vi. 10, for coroners receiving confessions at this time.

page 95 note 8 P. 32.

page 96 note 1 Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum, ed. Hardy, T. D. (Rec. Comm., 18331844), ii. 191.

page 96 note 2 Selden Soc, liii. 1270. Cf. Line. Rec. Soc, xxii, p. xlvi.

page 96 note 3 E.g. Selden Soc, beviii. 395; Line. Rec. Soc., xxii. 590.

page 96 note 4 Ibid., no. 916; Pipe Roll 26 Henry II, p. 56.

page 96 note 5 E.g. Selden Soc, ix. 18–23.

page 96 note 6 E.g. P.R.O., Coram Rege Roll 245, Rex, m. 14d.

page 97 note 1 Langbein, , loc. cit., pp. 1361–2.

page 97 note 2 The first was the amercement of a Lincolnshire serjeant quia non calumpniatus est plac' de Corona Regis in Curia fratrum de Templo: Pipe Roll 16 Henry II, pp. 149–50. Langbein rendered non calumpniatus est as ‘did not make complaint’, but it more probably means ‘did not claim’. Secondly, he maintained that the Yorkshire wapentake serjeant who was amerced quia non denuntiavit mortem ejusdem hominis (Pipe Roll 14 Henry II, p. 87) had failed ‘to make complaint of a death’. The entry more probably means either that he had failed to make the death generally known and to summon a jury to hold inquest on the body or that he had omitted to report it to the sheriff or justices.

page 97 note 3 They were often amerced for contradicting their rolls: e.g. Selden Soc., lix. 783.

page 97 note 4 Pipe Roll 15 Henry II, p. 148; Pipe Roll z5 Henry II, p. 77.

page 98 note 1 Ailward, a serjeant, Wiltshire, was amerced pro probatione Anglici sibi oblata non ostensa vicecomiti (Pipe Roll 14 Henry II, p. 164); so was de Stanford, Williamquia cum esset serviens hundredi, non presentavit placitum corone vicecomiti sibiprius presentatum (Pipe Roll 32 Henry II, p. 8). The use of the word sibi in both cases suggests that they were originally presented to the Serjeants personally rather than in the hundred court.

page 98 note 2 Bracton ii. 396; The Eyre of Kent 6 and 7 Edward II, i, ed. Maitland, F. W., Harcourt, L. W. V. and Bolland, W. C. (Selden Soc., xxiv), pp. 129–30.

page 98 note 3 Coroners were amerced for not enrolling as early as 1201: Selden Soc, lxviii. 244.

page 98 note 4 Supra, p. 97 note 2.

page 98 note 5 Serjeants were unable to attach the ‘first finders’ of bodies, for example, when they lived outside their hundreds; they had to inform the sheriff or coroners: e.g. Line. Rec. Soc, xxii. 701.

page 98 note 6 Selden Soc, ix, p. xx.

page 99 note 1 E.g. Line. Rec. Soc, xxii, p. xlvi.

page 99 note 2 Cam, H. M., The Hundred and the Hundred Rolls (1930), pp. 148–9.

page 99 note 3 Line. Rec. Soc, xxii, pp. xlv–xlvi; Flower, C. T., Introduction to the Curia Regis Rolls, 1199–1230 (Selden Soc., lxii), pp. 87–8, 422–3.

page 99 note 4 Bracton, ii. 342; Selden Soc, ix. 45–7.

page 99 note 5 Britton, i. 2. 2 (ed. Nichols, i. 8–9); Selden Soc, ix. 42–5.

page 99 note 6 Ibid., p. 38.

page 99 note 7 Britton, i. 2. 16 (ed. Nichols, i. 17).

page 99 note 8 Supra, pp. 94–5.

page 99 note 9 Kimball, E. G., Serjeanty Tenure in Medieval England (New Haven, 1936), pp. 84–6; Stewart-Brown, R., The Serjeants of the Peace in Medieval England and Wales (Manchester, 1936), p. 64.

page 99 note 10 Ibid., pp. 64–5.

page 100 note 1 Kimball, , op. cit., pp. 87–9.

page 100 note 2 E.g. some of those of the bishop of Ely's liberty: Miller, E., The Abbey and Bishopric of Ely (Cambridge, 1951), pp. 124–5, 238, 250.

page 100 note 3 Delisle, L., Recueil des Actes de Henri II (Paris, 19091927), introduction, p. 346; Powicke, F. M., ‘The Pleas of the Crown in the Avranchin’, Eng. Hist. Rev., xxv (1910), 710–11; C. H. Haskins, ‘The Inquest of 1171 in the Avranchin’, ibid., xxvi (1911), 326–7.

page 100 note 4 Ibid., p. 327; Haskins, C. H., Norman Institutions (Cambridge, Mass., 1918), pp. 188, 338.

page 100 note 5 Poole, , op. cit., p. 390note 2.

page 100 note 6 Strayer, J. R., The Administration of Normandy under Saint Louis (Cambridge, Mass., 1932), p. 25.

page 100 note 7 Selden Soc, xxiv, p. lv. He was misled by assuming that amercements for concealing crown pleas always indicated that the concealer had the duty of keeping them. Hence his theory that at first hundreds, wapentakes and towns kept them, being succeeded about 1180 by Serjeants and they in turn in 1194 by coroners. But in many cases concelamentum meant ‘failure to present’, not ‘failure to preserve’; hundreds, wapentakes and towns had the duty of presenting but not that of preserving crown pleas; and they were as often found guilty of failing to present them after 1180 (e.g. Pipe Roll 33 Henry II, p. 65) and, despite Pipe Roll taciturnity, after 1194 (e.g. Assize Roll 369, m. 36) as before.

page 100 note 8 Pipe Roll 12 Henry II, p. 49.

page 101 note 1 Pipe Roll 31 Henry I, p. 91.

page 101 note 2 Sir Christopher Hattoris Book of Seals, ed. Loyd, L. C. and Stenton, D. M. (Northants. Rec. Soc., xv), p. 276.

page 101 note 3 Eng. Hist. Rev., viii (1893), 759.

page 101 note 4 E.g. supra, p. 88 note 5.

page 101 note 5 Morris, , op. cit., pp. 53–6.

page 102 note 1 Morris, , op. cit., pp. 54–8.

page 102 note 2 Ibid., pp. 100–3.

page 103 note 1 Supra, pp. 91, 94.

page 103 note 2 Ibid., p. 98.

page 103 note 3 Poole, , op. cit., pp. 365–6, 373.

page 103 note 4 At this time most crown pleas presented were felonies which had resulted in appeals: Langbein, , loc. cit., p. 1337 note 24. The coroners could therefore see that the jurors presented most cases, including those which might result in amercement of the jurors' hundred or township.

page 103 note 5 Maitland, F. W., The Forms of Action at Common Law (Cambridge, 1936), ch. iii.

page 104 note 1 Poole, g, op. cit., pp. 387–90.

page 104 note 2 Select Charters, p. 254.

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