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Our legal heritage, part 1: early times and the Anglo-Saxon period

Author: ObiterJ |

19 Apr 2011 | 11:25

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The Anglo-Saxon period dates from around the time of the end of the Roman Occupation (c 410 AD) to the defeat of Harold at the Battle of Hastings (1066). Of course, our history goes back long before the Anglo Saxons to the Iron Age (and before) and to the Roman Occupation. Julius Caesar came to Britain in both 55 and 54 BC. The Roman Occupation dated from around 43 AD to 410 AD.

Roman Britain

Many of our cities and towns date from the Roman period (or earlier) - for example, London (Londinium), York (Eboracum), Chester (Castra Deva), Bath (Aquae Sulis), Manchester (Mamucium) etc. The tribes of Iron Age Britain undoubtedly had their 'law' and the Romans were governed by their own laws and attempted to stamp their authority over the inhabitants. The brave stance of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, (pictured) against the might of the Roman occupiers is one our earliest statements of a desire to be a people free from any foreign yoke.

The Romans built highways linking their various garrisons and this is perhaps the origin of the phrase 'all roads lead to Rome'. They also created Hadrian's Wall. which features in the film The Eagle (based on Rosemary Sutcliff's novel The Eagle of the Ninth). However, it is more in terms of physical remains that the Roman legacy survives in Britain today.

There is little direct survival of Roman Law though, in the Middle Ages through the Church, principles of Roman Law have come to indirectly influence some aspects of our modern law (for example wills). Roman Law has also been taught in our Universities and courses are still available. Roman Law had a much more profound influence on the legal systems of other nations including Scotland.

The Anglo-Saxon Period

'Custom' was the basis of much of the law in this period and, for the most part, it was unwritten law handed down from one generation to the next. By the end of the Anglo Saxon period there was an extensive, if archaic law, with various tribunals for its enforcement (e.g. Shire Courts and Courts of the Hundred - the Court of the Salford Hundred survived up to the Courts Act 1971).

It was in this period that Christianity took a hold in much of Britain (e.g. Synod of Whitby) and the Church was to become a powerful force in the land. Early law reflected the tough conditions of the essentially agrarian society in which life existed: in the words of the legal historian Maitland, it was often "nasty, brutish and short". Early law was therefore harsh with fierce summary justice.

However, the customary rules came to be supplemented by the Dooms of the Anglo-Saxon Kings. These were often statements of what existed by custom but sometimes stated new law and modified practices. King Alfred claimed not to have made any new laws but chose the "wisest laws" of his predecessors.

Another important feature of this period was The Witan (or Witanagemot) which was a King's Council. The Norman successor to this - the Curia Regis - was to become the source of our modern High Court of Justice.

In his Historical Introduction to English Law, Professor Potter wrote: "Before William I landed on our shores England had for centuries some form of government, which had administered, after some fashion, a law which was rooted in the traditions of its people." Winston Churchill, in his monumental History of the English Speaking Peoples, wrote of the Saxon Dusk when, in the time of Edward the Confessor, "the lights of Saxon England were going out." Edward died on 5 January 1066 and it was to Harold that the mantle of Kingship fell, though he was destined to carry this for only a short time. In October 1066, on Senlac Hill near Hastings, he was defeated in battle by William of Normandy whose expedition to England had been blessed by the Pope.

Turning to Churchill once more: "...the English once again accepted conquest and bowed to a new destiny, yet ever must the name of Harold be honoured in the Island for which he and his famous house-carls fought indomitably to the end." The Normans did not set about instant replacement of the law which existed. Change was to be a gradual process taking many decades and perhaps centuries, but the Norman Conquest had a major impact on our governmental and legal history.

Constructive comments on this are more than welcome, especially from those with good knowledge of our legal history. I hope to follow up with further posts.

ObiterJ is the author of the Law and Lawyers blog. Click here to follow ObiterJ on Twitter.

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