The role of law in governing medieval England

What were the ‘Laws of the Londoners’? Why was Thomas Becket killed? Nick Vincent discusses law-making and the relationship between the King and the Church in early medieval England.

So, this is a project about the use of manuscripts in England and France from 700 onwards and what I’m really going to look at now are manuscripts that deal with that period after the Norman Conquest of 1066, when as a result of that great English defeat at Hastings, England and France were brought into conjunction. And what I want to look at particularly is the way in which law changed. We think of law as something that is natively English, but we’ve got two manuscripts here which I hope show that things were rather more complicated. This one is the earliest collection of the ‘Laws of the Londoners’. It was made in London around about 1210, in the reign of King John, and it’s famous, apart from anything else, because it contains a series of instructions for the king. The king must rule according to law and law must be good law. If it’s not good law, then it is not the law. And what we have here is the first reference to the twenty-four Londoners who govern the city of London and this is an oath that’s administered to them. And really what we’ve got there is an early example of what we might think of as an entirely English institution, the jury, or in this case the grand jury, two juries of twelve, twenty-four men, and I think that here we have something that lies pretty closely behind the idea of Magna Carta, that twenty-five barons should actually control the king. It’s fascinating too because opposite it is a fifteenth-century recipe for something that we all of us think as entirely English – beer – and this is written in English. But this of course is written in Latin, the language of the Church, the language of the elite. 

Now, if we turn to this one, this shows us in another sense the way that English law is influenced by the laws of Europe, in this case by the laws of the Church. This is one of the most important early manuscripts associated with Thomas Becket. It’s the first real attempt to gather what the king might have regarded as the ‘fake news’ of Becket, but what Church historians certainly regard as the true news of Becket’s martyrdom. And it does that by bringing together hundreds of individual letters, sent from across France, across northern Europe, dealing with Becket’s life, his dispute with Henry II, and his martyrdom. And here we’ve got one of the very first images of Becket confronted by the four knights who cut off his head. Why does that matter? Because this was a dispute in which the king said the laws of England should govern the Church, and the Church said no. There are higher laws. There is canon law. There is the law of the Pope in Rome. There is the law of the Church more generally and that should apply. And in a sense, what happens thereafter in English law is a continual debate, down to our own days of Brexit, of the extent to which English law is a closed or an open system. Are we a closed people, looking only inward, or are we an open people, open to all these influences from outside? 

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