Outside the law
|During the course of the Middle Ages a system
of law known as the common law developed in England. This simply
meant laws common to the entire kingdom. Based primarily on
precedent, the common
developed gradually over time. In the earlier part of the
12th century, the Leges Henrici Primi (c.1118) described
a country with various legal codes - the law of Wessex, the
law of Mercia, and the Danelaw. But it was not until the reign
of Henry II (1154-89) that a coherent legal code came into being
- the first step in what proved to be the royal monopolization
Claiming English citizenship, 1482
From the late 12th century onwards, a central feature of
the legal system was the establishment of trial by jury. An
individual who was apprehended or responded to a writ of summons
would stand trial before 12 of his peers. Yet a fundamental
problem remained - how to get an unwilling defendant into
court. In particular, those who kept one step ahead of the
authorities and reached a church were able to claim right
of sanctuary. Certain foundations, such as Durham, Beverley
and Beaulieu, offered permanent sanctuary; but defendants
who sought refuge in a parish church were entitled to only
40 days' respite. After that time, they had to either surrender
for ever. Other fugitives from justice simply evaded arrest
or refused to give themselves up.
By the 14th and 15th centuries this 'mesne' or middle process,
whereby steps were taken to get the defendant into court,
had become a lengthy and protracted business. Take Sir Henry
Bodrugan of Cornwall, for example. His criminal activities
had been denounced in the 1459 Parliament. Orders were given
for his arrest in June 1461, but following the Yorkist
takeover he was able to establish himself as a valued royal
Commission to apprehend Henry Bodrugan
Petition against Bodrugan
|Not that this moderated his behaviour.
By 1473 his unpopularity had reached such a level that there
was a flood of complaints against him in Parliament. He was
and outlawed. Yet the following year he was able to get that
decision reversed, and it was only his support for Richard III
that brought about his downfall.
Over time the common law became more sophisticated, but
not all who resided in England were treated equally before
the law. Under the early common
law, aliens - those born outside
the realm - had virtually no enforceable rights at all. Although
aliens within the realm owed a temporary allegiance by virtue
of their presence, they were not entitled to own land or bring
actions in the courts. By the 15th century, this had been
rectified and aliens were able to bring complaints in both
local and central courts.
Act concerning ‘Egyptians’, 1530
(133k) | Transcript
Grant of alien subsidy to Edward IV,
(261k) | Transcript
|Nevertheless, distinctions remained.
On the eve of the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) the general
unpopularity of England's growing community of foreign merchants
and craftsmen resulted in an Act of Parliament (1335) that made
a landmark distinction between natural-born subjects and aliens.
The latter were defined as persons of a foreign nation or allegiance.
Furthermore, the alien
grants of 1440 and 1483 subjected them to higher rates of taxation
than English-born subjects.
|During times of crisis and tension,
suspicion of aliens increased. In some instances it even became
necessary to prove English nationality - in the disputed borderlands
between England and Scotland, for example. Also, measures aimed
at repressing riots and controlling the behaviour of vagabonds
Acts for the repressing of riots (1503)
and the punishment of vagabonds (1572)
(1037k) | Transcript
Elizabethan register of aliens, 1571
|The 16th century witnessed a growing concern with
matters of law and order. As a result, the regulation of aliens
intensified. In 1529 an Act of Parliament ratified a Star
decree requiring all aliens to swear allegiance to the king,
and more detailed records of alien residents were maintained.
At the same time, English subjects who spread sedition, rumour or libel against
the monarch found themselves liable to much harsher penalties.
Towards the end of the 16th century there was great fear of
foreign plots against the monarchy, and the penalties imposed
on those found to be implicated were particularly severe.
Penalties for 'seditious words and rumours'
against the queen, 1580-1
(332k) | Transcript
The treason trial of Patrick O'Collen,
conspiring to assassinate Queen Elizabeth
(202k) | Transcript
|A typical case is that of Patrick
O'Collen, an Irishman serving in Sir William Stanley's Regiment
in the Low Countries, who became embroiled in a plot to assassinate
Queen Elizabeth. In 1594 he was tried and executed - but not
until a confession had been extracted from him and details of
other culprits had been divulged.
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