Brief history of English legal institutions

Roman law reached its classical period about the time of Christ. In the C5th some of it was codified by the Emperor Theodosius. A more comprehensive codification was undertaken under the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian in the C6th AD. When this was re-discovered in the West, in the C12th AD it began to be studied and taught at the University of Bologna in Italy. Before the Romans came, England, Wales and Southern Scotland was inhabited by Britons (Celts). Northern Scotland was inhabited by Picts and later by Scots who invaded from Ireland. Britons' law was administered by Druids.

It is thought that the Druids became Christian priests when the old religion became largely superseded by Christianity under the Romans The Roman invasions of 55BC and 54 BC were abandoned after promises of tributes to the Romans from the Britons. However in AD 43 the Roman invaded again and remained to colonise England, Wales and Southern Scotland. About 400AD to 418, the Romans evacuated Britain. Roman Law was almost certainly used extensively in the Roman settlements but probably not outside the settlements. This is slightly surprising, bearing in mind that the Romans were in England for about 400 years.

The reason may well be that Roman law was too sophisticated for the state of Britain as it was then and that in dealings between Britons themselves, the Romans were content to allow them to continue to use their own customs. The Romans introduced Christianity which apparently spread throughout Britain. 410 AD onwards. Invasion by tribes from (probably) Northern Germany, Holland, Southern Denmark. These invaders were principally Jutes, Angles and Saxons. The Jutes colonised Kent, Isle of Wight and the part of Hampshire opposite the Isle of Wight.

The Saxons colonised Essex (a shortened version of 'East Saxons'), Sussex , Middlesex and Wessex, which was largely the modern counties of Dorset, Somerset and Hampshire). The Angles colonised East Anglia, moving across into the Midlands. The Celts were pushed outwards to the fringes of the island by the invaders. Wales, Cornwall, the west coast and Strathclyde became their new home. Christianity survived in these regions. The invaders established a number of separate Kingdoms: e. g. Kent, Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria etc. For around 200 years the German invaders ruled England according to Germanic tribal custom.

They worshipped pagan gods (e. g. Woden from which we get Woden's Day = Wednesday and Thor (Thor's Day = Thursday). Laws of Ethelbert AD 597 the Pope sent a mission from Rome under Augustine. He landed in Kent where Ethelbert was King. He converted Ethelbert to Christianity : Ethelbert's wife was already a Christian. Circa AD 600 Ethelbert issued a code of laws which were based on Germanic custom but had, apparently been hastily adapted to incorporated the new found religion. They were written in Anglo-Saxon and are the oldest (of which we know), to have been written in a Germanic language.

Other nations who had written down their law 'in the manner of the Romans' (e. g. the Salian Franks from France/Germany) had done so in Latin. Ethelbert's laws were in the form of a tariff of compensation. For example a person who stole church property had to recompense the church 12 fold, a bishop 11 fold. The laws aimed at discouraging the 'blood feud' whereby if a member of one's family were killed or injured it was one's duty to avenge the harm done. A detailed tariff of compensation was applied to injury from death down to the nail of the big toe!

During the years following Ethelbert's conversion, the kings of the other kingdoms in England became converted to Christianity. During the next 500 years or so, successive Kings of the various kingdoms issued their own laws following the pattern set by Ethelbert. Danish invasion and danelaw In 787 there occurs the first recorded invasion by pagan Danes. Over the years that followed there were continued invasions. The Danes would probably have overrun the whole of England but for the fortitude of one man: King Alfred of Wessex. After being defeated by the Danes, he recouped and himself defeated the Danes (876 to 878).

Nevertheless, the Danes, although compelled by treaty to convert to Christianity, retained about half of England (mostly in the East Midlands, East Anglia and the North of England) under what became known as the Danelaw. (Evidence of Danish settlements round Northampton are evidenced by Danish name endings e. g. 'thorpe' as in 'Kingsthorpe' and 'by' as in 'Holdenby'. ) From around the late C7th, although England was divided into various separate kingdoms one king tended to become predominant and to regard himself as the overlord of the others and thus call himself King of England.

For a short-time England was united under a Danish King – Canute (ruled, 1016 to 1035) but by this time the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons were so well integrated that this probably had no material affect upon the English people. The Norman conquest The era of Anglo-Saxons came to an end, when the last Anglo-Saxon King – Harold – was defeated by William, Duke of Normandy, at Hastings in 1066. There then followed a further period during which invaders had to be assimilated into England. Anglo-Saxon government The Norman Conquest is often regarded as the starting point of English Law.

However it is important not to overlook the system of local government which they inherited which enabled them to impose a strong central administration upon the country. The Anglo-Saxons divided the country into shires (or counties). This system remained largely unchanged until 1972, when, in an act of unparalleled social barbarism, the Tory Government of the day, under Edward Heath conducted a wholly unnecessary re-organisation. The Anglo-Saxons divided the shires into smaller units of government called 'Hundreds'. The derivation of the name isn't known – maybe the amount of land needed to maintain one hundred families.

However, they varied greatly in size: there were, for example, 63 in Kent but only 5 in Leicestershire. Below the Hundreds were the boroughs and towns or vills. The vills were an important instrument of local government and had a number of important duties e. g. to supply four representatives to the Hundred court. Each shire was governed by a nobleman called an Earl. The Earls had households which reflected that of the King. The king's interests, principally the collection of revenue owed to the king, were represented by an official called the Shire Reeve (reeve means 'steward' so this translates to 'county steward') shortened to Sheriff.