Medieval Justice – In the time of King Edward the First – a brief outline.

Here comes the Judge!

Most medieval communities did have a judge and jury system, though hearings were much speedier than today’s lengthy, made-for-TV affairs, generally lasting less than a half-hour. If the judge so chose, he (and it was always ‘he’) could ask a few simple questions and deliver a verdict himself without ever consulting anybody else.

Boys will be Boys.

Medieval villages and towns grouped youngster together by age. The oldest child would be responsible for the younger ones and if anyone committed an offence or a social faux pas they could be punished by the ‘leader’ without recourse to the village elders. But along with leadership came responsibility for if the ‘leader’ let someone get away with it then they would be punished as well.

The main protagonist in The King’s Jew grew up in such a village. Longhurst by name LINK to BOOK

Hue and Cry.

Earlier medieval communities had much more social responsibility than today, in fact. If one member of a village claimed they’d been wronged, he or she would raise a “Hue and Cry” and every resident had to join in the hunt and persecution of the criminal or else they would all be held responsible.

By the Statute of Winchester of 1285, 13 Edw. I cc. 1 and 4, it was provided that anyone, either a constable or a private citizen, who witnessed a crime shall make hue and cry, and that the hue and cry must be kept up against the fleeing criminal from town to town and from county to county, until the felon is apprehended and delivered to the sheriff.

The Church.

The pious Middle Ages were serious about their religious offenses, and each town’s church generally ran its own kind of court to investigate everything from bad attendance to heresy. However, the church was also a place where criminals could avoid sentencing or punishment. The concept of sanctuary was well known in medieval times and let offenders escape the law. But woe to those who stepped outside church property.

Beaulieu Abbey - the remains

In the novel “The King’s Jew” Cristian Gilleson and Mathew ride through the vast holdings of BEAULIEU ABBEY to meet his father. Being approached by mounted men Cristian is informed that the Abbey grounds are the haunt of ‘dangerous’ men for ‘they dwelt there in sanctuary from the law of the land’.


Three strikes and you’re out.

Criminals who committed lesser offenses were often subject to a policy of three strikes and you’re out-literally. Rather than killing them off or letting them clog up prisons, repeat offenders were often simply banished from the town and not allowed back. Humane and cost efficient eh? Pity the folks in the next village though!

Movie myths.

Hollywood would have us believe that medieval evil-doers were killed on a whim and often in public squares for everything from slapping a soldier to stealing the king’s chickens. In truth, capital punishment was sentenced only in the most serious of cases, which included murder, treason and arson. Hanging was the punishment of choice.


“The criminal condemned to be hanged was generally taken to the place of execution sitting or standing in a wagon*, with his back to the horses. When the criminal arrived at the place of execution the noose was placed around his neck from which he was suspended and thereby strangled to death. When the words “shall be hung until death doth ensue” are to be found in a sentence, it must not be supposed that they were used merely as a form, for in certain cases the judge ordered that the sentence should be only carried out as far as would prove to the culprit the awful sensation of hanging. In such cases, the victim was simply suspended by ropes passing under the arm-pits, a kind of exhibition which was not free from danger when it was too prolonged, for the weight of the body so tightened the rope round the chest that the circulation might be stopped. Many culprits, after hanging thus an hour, when brought down, were dead, or only survived this painful process a short time.”

In the novel – only one person is hanged – you’ll have to read it to find out who and why! LINK to BOOK

Was the King above the law?


Well, kind of. While medieval nobles did enjoy certain privileges when it came to bending laws or decreeing new ones to serve their purposes, most European countries had legislation preventing their kings and queens from completely running amok. England’s Magna Carta, which limited the monarchy’s financial powers among other things, is just one example. But then again the King and his nobles could only be tried by their peers and thus got away with a lot of misdemeanours. Nothing changes eh?

Off with his head?

Beheading-was swift and painless, as long as the axe was sharp! It was considered a “privilege” to die that way and was reserved mainly for members of the nobility, rarely commoners. Treason was their crime of choice and the beheading usually took place inside private castle walls.

A burning issue.

Though a few pagan “witches”- as presumed by their persecutors- were certainly tried and burned at the stake during medieval times, it is only during the Reformation period (circa 1550) that this practice really took off. Still, even at the height of hysteria, witches in England were rarely burned. They were usually hanged instead.

What’s this ear?

Mutilation, like the severing of an ear or hand, was occasionally used as a punishment against those who’d committed serious crimes, especially in larger towns. More often, though, medieval law enforcement simply used the prospect of losing bodily bits and pieces as an empty threat, rarely actually carrying out the deed (one wonders how long it took criminals to figure that out?).




My latest novel “The King’s Jew” (Book One) Available here has, as one of its central characters King Edward the First (1239 to 1307) who made many changes to English law.

When you see a judge or magistrate sitting in a modern court, you are actually looking at the result of 1,000 years of legal evolution.

Scales of Justice


Justice for the Anglo-Saxons and even after the Norman invasion of 1066 was a combination of local and royal government. Local courts were presided over by a lord or one of his stewards. The King’s court – the Curia Regis – was, initially at least, presided over by the King himself.

Nowadays going on trial in an English and Welsh court is not exactly a comfortable experience. But it’s far better than trial by ordeal, used until almost the end of the 12th century to determine guilt or innocence in criminal cases.

Under this system, the accused would be forced to pick up a red hot bar of iron, pluck a stone out of a cauldron of boiling water, or something equally painful and dangerous.

If their hand had begun to heal after three days they were considered to have God on their side, thus proving their innocence. The number of ‘not guilty’ verdicts recorded by this system is not known.

Another, extremely popular ‘ordeal’ involved water; the accused would be tied up and thrown into a lake or other body of water. If innocent, he or she would sink.


There were two problems with this method, which was often used to try suspected witches: the accused was tied right thumb to left toe, left thumb to right toe, which made it almost impossible to sink; and opinion is divided as to whether those who did sink were fished out afterwards.

William II (1087-1100) eventually banned trial by ordeal – reportedly because 50 men accused of killing his deer had passed the test – and it was condemned by the Church in 1216.


Criminal and civil disputes could also be decided by trial by combat, with a win held to prove either innocence or the right to whatever property was being disputed. Either side could employ their own champions, so the system wasn’t perhaps as fair as it might be.

Trial by combat gradually fell into disuse for civil cases, although it wasn’t until someone involved in a dispute in 1818 tried to insist on it that it was realised this was still, technically, an option. Trial by combat was quickly banned, forcing litigants to rely on more conventional routes.


During this period judges gradually gained independence from the monarch and the government. The very first judges, back in the 12th century, were court officials who had particular experience in advising the King on the settlement of disputes. From that group evolved the justices in eyre, (An Eyre or Iter was the name of a circuit traveled by an itinerant justice in medieval England (a Justice in Eyre), or the circuit court he presided over who possessed a mixed administrative and judicial jurisdiction).

The Justices in Eyre were not, to put it mildly, popular. In fact, they came to be regarded as instruments of oppression.

The seeds of the modern justice system were sown by Henry II (1154-1189), who established a jury of 12 local knights to settle disputes over the ownership of land. When Henry came to the throne, there were just 18 judges in the country – compared to more than 40,000 today.

In 1178, Henry II first chose five members of his personal household – two clergy and three lay – “to hear all the complaints of the realm and to do right”.


This, supervised by the King and “wise men” of the realm, was the origin of the Court of Common Pleas.

Eventually, a new permanent court, the Court of the King’s Bench, evolved, and judicial proceedings before the King came to be seen as separate from proceedings before the King’s Council.


In 1166, Henry issued a Declaration at the Assize of Clarendon (an assize was an early form of the King´s Council; the term later became the name for a sitting of a court).

The Assize of Clarendon ordered the remaining non-King’s Bench judges to travel the country – which was divided into different circuits – deciding cases.

To do this, they would use the laws made by the judges in Westminster, a change that meant many local customs were replaced by new national laws. These national laws applied to everyone and so were common to all. Even today, we know them as the ‘common law’.

The system of judges sitting in London while others travelled round the country became known as the ‘assizes system’. Incredibly, it survived until 1971.

Changes evolved slowly; even in the middle of the 14th century, under Edward III, there could be close collaboration between the Court of King’s Bench and the King’s Council. A third common law court of justice, the Court of Exchequer, eventually emerged as the financial business of the Royal Household was split off to a specialist group of officials.


Martin de Pateshull, Archdeacon of Norfolk and Dean of St Paul’s, became a Justice of the bench in 1217. By the time he died in 1229 he was known as one of the finest lawyers in England; even 60 years after his death, his judgments were being searched for precedents. He also had  a license from the king to keep fifty hogs in Windsor forest (perks of the job eh?)

Like Martin, many judges of this era were members of the clergy – although this did not necessarily mean they were parish priests, performing services, weddings and christenings. In an era when the church was rich and the King poor, joining the clergy was often just seen as a sensible means of support.

By the middle of the 13th century, knights had begun to join clerics on the bench. The first professional judges were appointed from the order of serjents-at-law. These were advocates who practised in the Court of Common Pleas. Lawrence de Brok, a serjeant, became a judge in 1268, starting the tradition, which lasted until 1875, of serjeants being the group from which judges were chosen.

This was important, because it meant that the judiciary now had real professional experience of the law before moving on to the bench.

Over the years, serjeants were overtaken in popularity by barristers and solicitors, and even today, these are the groups from which the judiciary is appointed.


During this era bribes and payments were common, but even so, in the middle of the 13th century the judiciary was openly accused of corruption.

In 1346, judges were obliged to swear that “they would in no way accept gift or reward from any party in litigation before them or give advice to any man, great or small, in any action to which the King was a party himself”.

Judicial salaries were also increased, so as to make them less dependent on other forms of income.

This didn’t always help: in 1350 the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, William de Thorpe, was sentenced to death for bribery (he was later pardoned, but demoted – lucky he wasn’t a peasant!).


Meanwhile, a new type of court began to evolve – that which we now recognise as the magistrates’ court. Magistrates’ courts hark back to the Anglo-Saxon moot court and the manorial court, but their official birth came in 1285, during the reign of Edward I, when ‘good and lawful men’ were commissioned to keep the King’s peace.

From that point, and continuing today, Justices of the Peace have undertaken the majority of the judicial work carried out in England and Wales (today, about 95 per cent of criminal cases are dealt with by magistrates).

KING EDWARD THE FIRST (Reigned from 1272 to 1307) played an important part in organising the judiciary but at the same time ensured that his status and income were increased. No point in being a King if you can’t turn it to your advantage is there?

Certain legal aspects are dealt with in “The King’s Jew” though not in such depth as detailed above. The main thing is that even in law the King could be the final arbiter of who inherited what and who married who.

Any questions – just ask and here’s a link for those who wish to know more but within the context of an Historical Fiction novel.

Vikings Invade British Isles – The Battle of Largs (Tuesday 2 October 1263).

In Book Two of “The King’s Jew” a new character is introduced in chapter one. His name is Cathal and he is (allegedly) a hermit. Cathal plays an important (though secondary) part in the plot of the book. Yet I needed some background information as to his past life before he became a follower of Lord Cristian Gilleson (my main protagonist). It was then that I stumbled across the last Viking invasion of the British Isles (see below). Thus Cathal arrived with the invading forces, was captured and eventually meets Cristian two years later (1265). Very little (indeed hardly any) of the battle of Largs is mentioned in “The King’s Jew” but it seems only fair that I share this information with those of you who were unaware of this last battle of the Vikings on our Sceptered Isle.

Norwegian realm in 1263

The Battle of Largs (Tuesday 2 October 1263) was an indecisive engagement between the kingdoms of Norway and Scotland near Largs, Scotland. The conflict formed part of the Norwegian expedition in which Magnus Haakonsson, King of Norway attempted to reassert Norwegian sovereignty over the western seaboard of Scotland.

Since the beginning of the 12th century this region had lain within the Norwegian realm, ruled by magnates who recognised the overlordship of the Kings of Norway. However, in the mid-13th century, two Scottish kings, Alexander II and his son Alexander III, attempted to incorporate the region into their own realm.

Following failed attempts to purchase the islands from the Norwegian king, the Scots launched military operations. Hakon responded by leading a massive fleet from Norway, which reached the Hebrides in the summer of 1263. By the end of September, Hakon’s fleet occupied the Firth of Clyde, and when negotiations between the kingdoms broke down, he brought the bulk of his fleet to anchor off The Cumbraes.

On the night of 30 September, during a bout of particularly stormy weather, several Norwegian vessels were driven aground on the Ayrshire coast, near the present-day town of Largs.


On 2 October, while the Norwegians were salvaging their vessels, the main Scottish army arrived on the scene. Composed of infantry and cavalry, the Scottish force was commanded by Alexander of Dundonald, Steward of Scotland.

The Norwegians were gathered in two groups: the larger main force on the beach and a small contingent atop a nearby mound. The advance of the Scots threatened to divide the Norwegian forces, so the contingent upon the mound ran to re-join their comrades on the beach below.

Seeing them running from the mound, the Norwegians on the beach believed they were retreating, and fled back towards the ships. Fierce fighting took place on the beach, and the Scots took up a position on the mound formerly held by the Norwegians.

Late in the day, after several hours of skirmishing, the Norwegians were able to recapture the mound. The Scots withdrew from the scene and the Norwegians were able to re-board their ships. They returned the next morning to collect their dead.

The weather was deteriorating, and Haakonsson’s demoralised forces turned for home. Hakon’s campaign had failed to maintain Norwegian overlordship of the seaboard, and his native magnates, left to fend for themselves, were soon forced to submit to the Scots.

The Scots invaded and conquered the Isle of Man the following year, which was, with the whole of the Western Isles, then annexed to the Crown of Scotland.

Three years after the battle, with the conclusion of the Treaty of Perth, Magnus Haakonsson King of Norway ceded Scotland’s western seaboard to Alexander III, and thus the centuries-old territorial dispute between the consolidating kingdoms was at last settled.

And that was the last time the ‘Vikings’ invaded the British Isles.

You can view “The King’s Jew” here

The protagonists: –

Magnus Haakonsson (Old Norse: Magnús Hákonarson, Norwegian: Magnus Håkonsson; 1 May 1238 – 9 May 1280) was King of Norway (as Magnus VI) from 1263 to 1280 (junior king from 1257). One of his greatest achievements was his modernisation and nationalisation of the Norwegian law-code, after which he is known as Magnus the Law-mender (Old Norse: Magnús lagabœtir, Norwegian: Magnus Lagabøte). He was the first Norwegian monarch known to personally have used an ordinal number, although originally counting himself as “IV”.

Alexander III (Medieval Gaelic: Alaxandair mac Alaxandair; Modern Gaelic: Alasdair mac Alasdair) (4 September 1241 – 19 March 1286) was King of Scots from 1249 to his death.

Seal of Alexander III, King_of_Scots_(seal)

Alexander Stewart (1214–1283), also known as Alexander of Dundonald, was 4th hereditary High Steward of Scotland from his father’s death in 1246. A son of Walter Stewart, 3rd High Steward of Scotland by his wife Bethóc, daughter of Gille Críst, Earl of Angus, Alexander is said to have accompanied Louis IX of France on the Seventh Crusade (1248–1254). In 1255 he was one of the councillors of King Alexander III.