history of common

Blackstone, in his Commentaries, defended the “…high antiquity of English Common Law, twice as old as canon law…”

Roman law held that most customary practices had at their source deep-rooted local knowledge, combined with “natural reason”, or a kind of basic common sense  Unspoken yet general agreement, confirmed through long-standing practice within a large social group, gave these customs legal force and a status equivalent to written law.

The phrase “English common law” is somewhat misleading.  There is “English law” and there is “common law”.  Common law had precedent, and was the practice of the Saxon communities native to the island.  English law was the result of the gradual usurpation and abrogation of common law by Norman nobles and their lawyers following the Conquest of 1066.  Blackstone, in his Commentaries, defended the ‘high antiquity of [English] common law, twice as old as canon law’.  (One must bear in mind that Blackstone’s commentaries were written in the second half of the 18th century, a period of the most egregious abuses of Parliamentary power.)

  • 40-430—Roman occupation
  • 60AD–Boudica, queen of the Iceni, rebels against Roman rule.  She raised an army that killed 70,000-80,000 Roman soldiers, and burned London to the ground.
  • 617—Dooms of Aethelbert—in this society, law was traditional, the inheritance of every member of the tribe.
  • 695—Doom of Wihtred—(21) a commoner, with three witnesses, may acquit himself at the altar…
  • 871-899—Doom of Alfred—right of sanctuary
  • 900-925—Doom of Edward the Elder—shire, sheriff, witan, gemot, ealdorman
  • 925-939—Dooms of Aethelstan—trial by ordeal
  • 1023—Dooms of Cnut—prohibits ‘hamsocn’(attack on the homestead), free men afforded right of ‘wergeld’ must belong to hundred or tithing
  • 1066—Laws of William the Conqueror—(7)…that all shall have and hold the laws of king Edward (the Confessor) in respect of their lands and all their possessions…
  • 1067-70—English rebellions
  • 1086—Domesday survey
  • 1139-53—Civil war in England
  • 1152—Henry II marries Eleanor of Aquitaine
  • 1164—Constitution of Clarendon—(6) right to trial by jury of twelve lawful men, sworn before the bishop.
  • 1166—Assize of Clarendon—jury of presentment, later grand jury
  • 1169-72—English conquest of Ireland begins
  • 1170—Murder of Becket
  • 1176—Assize of Northampton—seisin, dowry, chattels, mort d’ancestor
  • 1189—Death of Henry II, accession of Richard I
  • 1208-14—Papal Interdict in England
  • 1215—Magna Carta—imposed on King John at Runnymede—(4,5) prohibits destruction of men, property, or tillage, by guardian.  (18) novel disseisin, mort d’ancestor, darrien presentment.  (20)  let the punishment fit the crime.  (38) habeas corpus
  • 1216—Death of John, accession of Henry III
  • 1221-4—Arrival of Dominican and Franciscan Friars in England
  • 1235-36—Statute of Merton—“nomulus leges Angliae mutari”, the barons, “would not change the law of the realm”.  Recognizes the inheritance of those born out of wedlock, protects common rights in land.
  • 1272—Death of Henry III, accession of Edward I
  • 1275—Statute of Westminster I—(4) concerning shipwrecks, (5) free elections, franchise, (24) novel disseisin, (25,26) punishment of magistrates and sheriffs for abuses of office.
  • 1276-7—First Welsh War
  • 1282-4—Edward’s conquest of Wales
  • 1290—Statute of Westminster III—Quia emptores, lawful for freemen to sell lands and tenements.
  • 1290—Statute of Quo Warranto; Edward I sent out agents to inquire “by what right” a man claimed a privilege.  He was forced to agree by statute that customs continuous since Richard I (1189-99) should be confirmed.  “…they that cannot prove seisin of ancestors shall have law and custom of the realm.”1296—Edward (Longshanks) invades Scotland; conflict with Church
  • 1307—Death of Edward I, accession of Edward II
  • 1314—Scottish victory at Bannockburn
  • 1321-2—Civil war in England
  • 1327—Deposition and death of Edward II (nasty bit of work with the hot poker), accession of Edward III
  • 1337—Hundred Years War begins
  • 1348—First occurrence of bubonic plague in England
  • 1349—Ordinance of Laborers—after the Black Death, an attempt to regulate wages, not easily enforced.
  • 1351—Statute of Laborers—parliament’s assertion that statute law had supreme authority, incapable of revocation by mere ordinance.
  • 1353—Ordinance of the Staple—regulation of wool trade.
  • 1361—Second occurrence of plague
  • 1361—Justices of the Peace—judicial powers to be exercised in quarter sessions.
  • 1377—Death of Edward III, accession of Richard II
  • 1381—Repressive Legislation—Peasant’s Revolt led by John Ball and Wat Tyler.
  • 1382—Condemnation of John Wycliffe’s works
  • 1399—Death of Richard II, accession of Henry IV
  • 1400-10—Rebellion of Owen Glyndwr
  • 1401—Statute Against Lollards—heretics condemned to the stake.
  • 1413—Death of Henry IV, accession of Henry V
  • 1415—English victory at Agincourt
  • 1422—Death of Henry V, accession of Henry VI
  • 1429—Franchise Act—severely restricted the right to vote.  England was not to attain manhood suffrage  until end of the 19th century.
  • 1450—Murder of the Duke of Suffolk, John Cade’s Rebellion
  • 1461—Deposition of Henry VI, accession of Edward IV
  • 1477—William Caxton’s first printed book in England
  • 1483—Death of Edward IV, accession of Richard III
  • 1485—Death of Richard III at Bosworth, accession of Henry VII
  • 1494—Poynings Law—reduced Ireland to the status of a colony
  •  1509—Accession of Henry VIII
  • 1515—Act Against Enclosures—the change from agriculture to pasture involved the displacement of farmers.  (Abel the aristocrat’s flocks taking over Cain the commoner’s fields.)  Cardinal Wolsey advocated for the farmers.
  • 1534—Act for the Submission of the Clergy—Act  Concerning Peter’s Pence—the schism with Rome.
  •  1536—Statute of Uses—by the common laws of this realm, having confiscated the monasteries, Henry proceeded against lands given in trust to the monasteries…guardians of property are notorious for enriching themselves, cf. Angie Debo, And the Waters Still Run
  • 1536—Poor Law—the failure of acts against enclosure and the continuing development of the enclosure movement meant an increase in unemployment
  • 1536—Statute of Wales—imperialism, English laws, English language
  • 1536—Confiscation of the Lesser Monasteries—by the end of 1540, there was not a single monastery in England.
  • 1547—Accession of Edward VI; Somerset, protector of the Realm
  • 1547—Poor Law—lawful that able-bodied, landless men and women without employment were to be branded and enslaved, their children apprenticed out or enslaved.  Cain’s children did not fare well under enclosure.
  • 1549—Act of Uniformity—imposed Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer on the whole country.
  • 1550—Unlawful Assemblies Act—twelve or more persons who refused to disperse within an hour were to be charged with treason.  (Patriot Act?)
  • 1552—Act of Uniformity—mandatory church attendance
  • 1553—Bloody, Bloody Mary
  • 1553—Repeal of the Edwardian Church Settlement—restoration of Catholicism
  • 1554—Revival of the Statute Against Heretics—Cranmer recants, then retracts his recantation, is burned at the stake; Wyatt’s Rebellion
  • 1558—Accession of Elizabeth I
  • 1559—The Elizabethan Church Settlement—beginning of restoration of Protestantism
  • 1563—Statute of Artificers—comprehensive regulation of apprenticeship, secured large supply of farm laborers
  • 1580—Jesuit missionaries arrive in England
  • 1587—execution of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots
  • 1593—Act for the Relief of Soldiers—pension rates for disabled soldiers and mariners
  • 1594—Bad harvests begin
  • 1598—Act for the Relief of the Poor—levy of a tax on the local parish, workhouses for the deserving poor
  • 1598—Rogues Act—the undeserving poor: rogues, vagabonds, or sturdy beggars might be imprisoned or transported at the discretion of the Justices of the Peace
  • 1601—Essex’s Rebellion
  •  1603—Death of Elizabeth, accession of James I
  • 1604-05—Penal Statutes—persecution of Catholics, reaction to the Gunpowder Plot, another excuse for transportation
  • 1607—Settlement of Virginia—In the early days of Virginia, there was not much practice of law except by the county magistrates… The legal profession was at first held in low repute.
  • 1609—Rebellion of the Northern Earls in Ireland
  • 1610—Failure of Great Contract (fiscal reform)
  • 1611—Publication of Authorized version of Bible
  • 1621—Protestation of the Commons—James tore it out of the Journals with his own hands, but the principle remained
  • 1625—Death of James I, accession of Charles I
  • 1630—Large-scale emigration to Massachusetts
  • 1634-40—Ship Money Case
  • 1641—Taking Away the Star Chamber—victory for common law, reduction of royal powers.  Rebellion of Ulster Catholics
  • 1642—Militia Ordinance—parliament raised an army against the Irish; Civil War
  • 1645—establishment of Virginia colony—Justices of the Peace composed the Virginia county courts, final authority in cases of £20 or less.  Cf. Justices of the Peace, Michael Dalton
  • 1649—Execution of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell becomes Lord Protector (“Lord Protect Us”, the Irish said)
  • 1649-50—Cromwell conquers Ireland (Drogheda Massacre)
  • 1650-52—Cromwell conquers Scotland
  • 1651—Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan published

“Nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of body, and mind: as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind then another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable…For as to the strength of the body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest…And as to the faculties of the mind, I find yet a greater equality amongst men than that of strength.  ibid, Ch. 13

  • 1652-4—First Dutch War
  •  1660—Restoration of Charles II
  • 1660—The Ending of Feudal Tenures—the king surrendered feudal obligations in return for an excise, end of the Court of Wards
  • 1662—Act of Uniformity—archbishop Laud, a narrowly Episcopalian, persecuting church.  Perhaps one thousand out of more than nine thousand ministers went into the wilderness, followed by their flocks
  • 1662—Poor Law—restricted movement of the poor, resort to parish charity, workhouses, or transportation
  • 1665—Five Mile Act—Dissenters could not attend Oxford or Cambridge, their schools must be five miles from corporate towns
  • 1665-7—Second Dutch War
  • 1666—Great Fire of London
  • 1667—Milton’s Paradise Lost published
  • 1672-4—Third Dutch War
  • 1674—Grain bounties introduced
  • 1676-7—Bacon’s Rebellion

“In the early days of Virginia, there was not much practice of law except by the county magistrates…The legal profession was at first held in low repute.

The unprincipled government of Charles II was matched by the oppressive administration of Sir William Berkeley in Virginia.  Bacon’s Rebellion:  In May 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led a volunteer army of colonists against the Indians.  Bacon was subsequently arrested by the high sheriff at Jamestown, and paroled.  The next year, Bacon and his followers burned Jamestown, and Governor Berkeley was recalled to England.”                                                                           Old Virginia and Her Neighbors , John Fiske, 1897, H M & Co.

  • 1679—Habeas Corpus Act
  • 1685—Charles II dies, accession of James II
  • 1688—James II abdicates, accession of William and Mary

This is one of the major turning points in history.  In negotiating the kingship of William of Orange, Parliament insisted on the ratification of the Bill of Rights, which placed the real power of government squarely in the hands of the English aristocracy.  What followed was an age of colonization, slavery, and wildly speculative investments in which fortunes were made and lost.  It is no coincidence that parliamentary enclosures began with the bursting of the South Sea Bubble.  Enclosure of commons could quite handily restore a profligate aristocrat to solvency.    

  • 1689—Bill of Rights—English government becomes a constitutional monarchy
  • 1689—Mutiny Act—England had an army of 7,000 men under Charles II, about 20,000 under James II; under William of Orange, it grew to 65,000
  • 1690—Battle of the Boyne, William defeats Irish and French armies and James II, who escapes to France
  • 1691—Penal Laws—not the most opportune time to be Irish and Catholic
  • 1694—Bank of England founded
  • 1698—Bishops Banishment Act
  • 1702—Death of William, accession of Anne
  • 1707—Union of England and Scotland, Union Amendment Act—once the divine right of kings was out of the way (Bill of Rights), there was nothing superior to an act of Parliament, in theory any statute can be repealed or amended by any subsequent statute
  • 1708—Diplomatic Immunity Act—Peter the Great was arrested from his coach, and detained for several hours…
  • 1714—Death of Anne, accession of George I
  • 1715—Jacobite Rebellion fails
  • 1715—Riot Act—any persons to the number of twelve or more, to disperse themselves within one hour, GOD SAVE THE KING…(Martial Law)
  • 1715—Pacification of Scotland
  • 1718—Transportation Act—provided for removal out of the kingdom offenders who—because  of youth, nature of offence, or first-time offence—were not deserving of the death penalty, but more than a whipping and release
  • 1720—South Sea Bubble, many investors ruined after speculation in the South Sea Company.  (Coincidentally, the Banque Royale failure, or Mississippi Bubble, collapsed in that same month of July 1720.)

Parliamentary Enclosures per Decade:

  • 1720-29—25
  • 1730-39—39
  • 1740-49—36
  • 1750-59—137
  • 1760-69—385
  • 1770-79—660
  • 1780-89—246
  • 1790-99—469
  • 1800-09—847
  • 1810-19—853
  • 1820-29—205          The Progress of the Nation G. R. Porter 1836
  • 1726—Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels published (Dean Swift characterized enclosure as “sheep eating men…”
  • 1727—Death of George I, accession of George II
  • 1733—Excise crisis: Walpole abandons plans to reorganize customs and excise
  • 1738—Wesley’s conversion; Methodism
  • 1745—Jacobite rebellion led by “Bonnie Prince Charlie”
  • 1746—battle of Culloden Moor
  • 1747—Scottish Reconstruction—all heritable jurisdictions shall be abrogated and extinguished (This is also known as the Highland Clearances)
  • 1765—Stamp Act attempts to make defense of American colonies self-financing, repealed 1766
  • 1773—Boston Tea Party—American colonists protest East India Company’s monopoly
  • 1776—American Declaration of Independence; Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations
  • 1781—Surrender at Yorktown
  • 1783–Some Accounts of the Parish of Great Coxwell in Berkshire, by J. Nichols
  • 1791—Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man
  • 1792—Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women
  • 1793—War with France; Board of Agriculture; commercial depression
  • 1795—“Speenhamland” poor relief system adopted
  • 1800—Act of Union—Ireland brought into the United Kingdom
  • 1800—Combination Act—labor unions were not encouraged
  • 1802—Factory Act—small beginning in labor legislation, poor-law children
  • 1803—General Enclosures Act—simplifies enclosure of common land
  • 1805—Battle of Trafalgar
  • 1807—Abolition of the Slave Trade
  • 1809-10—Commercial boom
  • 1811—Depression; “Luddite” movement in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire
  • 1813—East India Company’s monopoly abolished
  • 1815—Corn Law Amendment
  • 1815-17—Commercial boom
  • 1817—Slump; the Blanketeer’s march, other disturbances
  • 1819—Factory Act—legislation applied to all children
  • 1819—Peterloo massacre, troops intervene at mass labor reform meeting, killing 11 and wounding 400
  • 1820—Death of George III, accession of George IV
  • 1821-3—Famine in Ireland
  • 1824—commercial boom
  • 1825—Trade Unionism Legalized; commercial depression
  • 1829—Catholic Emancipation—end of restrictions on civil rights, property, public office
  • 1830-2—First major cholera epidemic
  • 1831—“Swing” riots in rural areas against mechanization of agriculture
  • 1832—Reform Act—parliamentary reform was long overdue, the “rotten boroughs” had been severely depopulated by enclosure, resulting in seats in the House of Commons secured by appointment rather than franchise
  • 1833—The Abolition of Slavery—essentially allowed for a seven-year apprenticeship toward emancipation, Jamaican planters were given £20,000,000 compensation and protective tariffs as compensation
  • 1833—Factory Act—still Dickensian, but a beginning to protection of children employed in the textile industries
  • 16 October 1834—Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons “Old Corruption” (caused by the burning of “tally sticks”), painted by JMW Turner.  (This event seems to have been entirely coincidental to Parliamentary reform.)
  • 1834—Poor Law Amendment—What to do with the poor, workhouses of course
  • 1844—Catholic Emancipation Act—ultimate abolition of the Penal Code (re:1829)
  • 1846—Repeal of the Corn Laws—high tariffs on imported grain, intended to protect English landowners from market forces, contributed to starvation conditions during the Napoleonic wars, and exacerbated Irish poverty in the Potato Famine.
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About michaellangford2012

Timber framer, boatbuilder, dreamer, writer, musician; collector of books, tools, aphorisms. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing…half so much worth doing…as simply messing about in boats."
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