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CONSTITUTION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Northampton charters franchises cognizance pleas eyre lawsuits jurisdiction infangthef quo warranto coroner election records crime punishment

Subject: The fragility of chartered liberties
Original source: Public Record Office, Eyre rolls JI/1/633 m.186, JI/1/635 m.78
Transcription in: Donald W. Sutherland, ed. The Eyre of Northamptonshire, 3-4 Edward III, A.D. 1329-1330, vol.1, Selden Society, vol.97 (1981), 56-60.
Original language: Latin
Location: Northampton
Date: 1329


Juliana widow of Henry de Lungeville claims from Richard de la Porte one-third of a tenement, three shops, and six shillings and eightpence in rents, with appurtenances, in Northampton as dower right.

Richard comes. Upon which the mayor and and bailiffs of the town of Northampton appear by their attorney Richard Blount and state that those tenements which [are claimed by Juliana] are in the town of Northampton and that King Henry the great-grandfather of the present king granted by charter to the burgess of Northampton that none of them (other than moneyers and royal officers) need plead outside the walls of the borough of Northampton in any plea except those concerning tenements outside [the borough]. And that the same King Henry granted and confirmed to his burgesses of Northampton by another charter that they might have infangthef, and none of them might be impleaded outside the walls of the borough of Northampton except in regard to external tenements, nor for any trespass committed within the borough unless the matter concerns the rights or person of the king; and that they could exercise the franchise of infangthef and certain other liberties specified in the latter charter whenever they wished, even if at other times they did not exercise them. This King Henry also granted to them that they and their heirs might have all the liberties previously granted them by the charters of himself and his predecessors, kings of England, insofar as that they had been reasonably exercised up to this time. Which two charters of King Henry, King Edward the grandfather of the present king by his charter (which they produce) granted and by reciting it confirmed. In addition he granted for himself and his heirs to his burgesses that they, their heirs and successors could elect every year at Michaelmas from among their own number a mayor and two bailiffs, presenting at the king's Exchequer within the week following that feastday the one whom they have thus elected as mayor, so that he may there take an oath to carry out faithfully those duties that belong to the office of mayor of the town; which mayor and bailiffs should hold and administer all pleas related to the liberty of the town, just as the town bailiffs were accustomed to do in times past. On these grounds, by virtue of the charters of King Henry and their confirmation by King Edward, they seek cognizance of this plea before themselves within the walls of the town.

Richard de Aldeburgh, who sues for the king, says that this plea ought not to be transferred to their court within the town. Because, he says, they claim cognizance of this plea before themselves by the charters of King Henry and the confirmation of King Edward. Granted that in the first charter of King Henry it specifies that none of them need plead outside the walls of the borough in any plea except those concerning tenements outside etc., and similarly in the second charter of the same king it specifies that none of them might be impleaded outside the walls of the borough except in regard to external tenements, nor for any trespass committed in the borough unless the matter concerns the rights or person of the king; and granted that in the charter of confirmation of King Edward it specifies that the mayor and bailiffs may hold and administer all pleas related to the liberty of the town, just as the town bailiffs were accustomed to do in times past. Yet nowhere in those charters or the confirmation do we find it granted that they have cognizance of this kind of plea [i.e. dower] before themselves within the walls of the town. He further says that in the last eyre here both common pleas and pleas of the crown were dealt with by the justices in eyre and also, since that time, pleas of assizes have been dealt with before the justices appointed for that, and not before the mayor and bailiffs. Therefore he requests judgement be given for the king.

The date of 27 November is assigned for the parties and for the mayor, bailiffs and community to return here.

On which day the parties and the mayor and bailiffs come in person. On behalf of themselves and the community they disavow the claim made by their attorney for having cognizance of the plea before the mayor and bailiffs; they request that the justices come to the town's Guildhall and there take cognizance of pleas of this kind and do justice to the parties. But because it is determined by the justices from inspection of the roll of attorneys admitted here in the eyre that the mayor, bailiffs and community of the town appointed Richard Blount to claim, prosecute and defend their franchises on their behalf, they cannot now change the claim made by their attorney. And since it is not found from inspection of the aforesaid charters and confirmation that they have been granted cognizance of pleas of this kind, whilst similar inspection of the rolls of the [previous] justices in eyre shows that the same sort of plea was dealt with by those justices in eyre – and not before the mayor and bailiffs – it is decided that the case in question shall remain here and that the franchise of cognizance of pleas of this kind is to be seized into the king's hand.

[ .... ]

The sheriff was ordered to summon all who had been coroners in this county since the last eyre up to the present, if they were still living – or, if they had died, their heirs or executors, or the tenants of their lands and tenements – in order to hand over their rolls and provide answers to those matters related to the office of coroner. With regard to those who had been coroners of the town of Northampton, the sheriff reported back that he had passed along the writ [of summons] to the bailiffs of the liberty of the town of Northampton, who responded that Isabelle the wife of John de Hemyngton and the heir of William de Stormesworth, who was recently coroner, and John son of Henry son of Robert Sauce, the heir of Robert the other coroner, have nothing in the way of inherited [possessions] by which they can be summoned [i.e. obliged to come], nor are any others the tenants of their lands. Consequently the sheriff is ordered to have the mayor, community and town bailiffs appear, in order to answer etc.

Subsequently, the mayor, community and bailiffs came. Being asked how coroners are selected in the town of Northampton, they say that among other franchises which King Henry great-grandfather of the present king granted to them, and which King Edward grandfather of the present king confirmed, by the charter and confirmation which they produce in evidence, it was granted to them that they might elect from among their own number four coroners to perform within the town those duties belonging to the coroner's office. They go on to say that in that way they have been accustomed to elect coroners in the town since the time of the grant and confirmation.

Richard de Aldeburgh, who sues for the king, says that since the mayor, bailiffs and community acknowledge that they elect the coroners in the way indicated, and since the court has determined from the response made by those bailiffs to the sheriff that the heirs of William de Stormesworth and Robert Sauce have nothing by way of inheritance from William or Robert the coroners elected by the mayor and community, nor are there other executors or tenants of their lands and tenements who can or ought to answer for those coroners, it is thereby evident enough that those coroners were insufficiently qualified. He requests on behalf of the king that the mayor and community be held responsible for them and, through their [i.e. the coroners'] default, be answerable to the king both for the coroners' rolls and for other circumstances relevant to the performance of the coroner's office.

The mayor, community, and bailiffs say that although one coroner might suffice for the town, because many of the townsmen are merchants and frequently travel abroad to distant lands to conduct their commercial affairs, it has therefore been their custom to elect four coroners, so that those coroners who have stayed at home can take responsibility for all the duties of the coroner in the absence of the others and make record of the same in their rolls. When the absent coroners return home, they have copied onto their rolls, from the rolls of the coroners who remained at home, all the pleas of the crown that arose during their absence, so that everything that is entered in the rolls of one coroner appears in all their rolls. They say that during the term of office of William de Stormesworth and Robert Sauce there were two other coroners, Robert de Bedeford and John le Waydour, whose rolls have been turned over to this court by the hands of the mayor and bailiffs, along with the other coroners' rolls from the time of the last eyre up to the present. They say, at their peril, that in those [rolls] are contained everything touching [the rights and jurisdiction of] the crown that occurred within the town since the last eyre; so complete are they that nothing is missing from them which is required for the sessions of the pleas of the crown to proceed.

Richard de Aldeburgh makes the further request for the king that the rolls be inspected and examined. As a result of this inspection and examination, it is found that on 30 April 1311 Walter de Longestaunton of Cambridgeshire, arrested on suspicion of theft of some wax, appeared in full session of the court of the town of Northampton and confessed to having broken into the church of Goldington next Bedford by night and having stolen from it candles and wax worth 2s. He was consequently hanged.

Also, on 14 June 1294 Simon son of Bella le Mire of Manby and William fitz Simon of Manby were arrested in the town of Northampton at the suit of Thomas de Hulton, for the death of John Chapeleyn servant of Master William of Manby in Lindsey; they appeared in full session in Northampton on the same day and admitted to having killed John on Master William's manor at Manby in Lindsey on 2 June of that year and of plundering [from the corpse] forty shillings, six silver brooches, a coat of burel, and a tunic of perse. He was consequently hanged.

Also, on 13 September of the same year Reginald fitz Robert of Wyewell in Herefordshire, arrested at the suit of John le Caretere of Kislingbury (his pledges: Peter de Eston and Robert de Maneby of Kislingbury) in possession of a blue cloth overcoat, a russet tunic, a hood, and a pair of russet shoes, appeared in full session in Northampton and admitted to having broken into the house of John le Caretere in Kislingbury and stolen from it a blue overcoat and the other items mentioned on 2 September of that year. He was consequently hanged.

Also, on 8 November of the same year Henry fitz Nigel of Little Doddington in Northamptonshire, arrested in possession of a ploughshare and two coulters, appeared in full session and, asked how he came into possession of the ploughshare and coulters, said that he had stolen them from Northamptonshire fields between the town of Northampton and Abington. He was consequently hanged.

Also, on 18 April 1295 Ralph Sale of Hardwick, arrested at the suit of William Scarlet bailiff of Warwick, appeared in full session and admitted that he was a thief and had broken out of Warwick gaol and escaped prior to 30 November 1294. He was consequently hanged.

Richard de Aldeburgh, for the king, requests judgement on the grounds that they who were elected by the community [i.e. the mayor and bailiffs], in derogation of the privileges of the king and his crown, took upon themselves by their own presumption, under colour of the franchise of infangthef granted them by the present king's predecessors, jurisdiction over the life and limb of so many loyal subjects of the king. He requests that their franchise of infangthef, along with all their other franchises, be forfeited by seizure into the king's hand.

The mayor, bailiffs and community – questioned on this matter as to why they presumed to pass judgement on the aforesaid Walter, Simon son of Bella, William fitz Simon, Reginald, Henry, and Ralph in their court within the town of Northampton and condemn them to be hanged, thereby usurping from king and crown royal power in such matters – cannot deny what has been stated, nor that they had passed judgement on Walter and the others without any warrant and against the law and custom of the kingdom, as is more fully described in the rolls of the coroners whom they elected and which they by their own hands and at their own peril turned over to the court (as already mentioned). Yet, they say, despite the fact that they or some of them have wrongly and negligently applied the franchise of infangthef, that does not make it right to deprive them of the other franchises granted them by charter, whose application they have not infringed, and they request that they might keep their other franchises.

Upon which the community, mayor and bailiffs are asked who presides over pleas of the crown in their court of the town of Northampton. They say it is mayor, coroners, and bailiffs.

Because the mayor, community, and bailiffs, under colour of the franchise of infangthef, have condemned to be executed within the town so many loyal subjects of the king, for felonies committed outside their jurisdiction, in derogation of the king's crown and his royal privileges, it is decided that the franchise of infangthef along with the offices of mayor, bailiffs, and coroners of the town are to be taken into the king's hand. But it is impossible for the town and its other franchises to be administered, for the common good of the people gathering there, without capable administrators, unless officers are appointed to serve in the offices in that town. Therefore after consideration by the court, it is ordered that a keeper of the town of Northampton now be appointed. And the king commanded the justices there to admit Robert de Arderne as keeper of the town And John Waydour and William de Tekne were assigned to the office of coroner, and Pentecost de Morton and John Caudroun as bailiffs. All of whom having taken oath before the justices to execute their duties faithfully, the offices were committed to them.


What the king could give, the king could take away. Many towns experienced periods during which their chartered liberties were suspended – sometimes for serious offences, sometimes for provocations that appear slight. (For an example, see "Hanging without due process".)

Eyres had a mandate to investigate local government and its exercise of powers delegated by the king. The aggressive (one is almost tempted to say bloody-minded) efforts of the king's justices and lawyers of the Northamptonshire eyre to carry out their mandate presented a peril to local government in Northampton. The king's officials seem to have been bound and determined to seize local government powers into the king's hand.

At this period the eyre was on its last legs as a mechanism for maintaining law and order. The last eyre in Northamptonshire had taken place in 1285. Edward I had suspended the use of eyres in 1294, partly (or ostensibly) because of their unpopularity, but also because he was turning his attentions to war with France and Scotland, which would absorb him for the next decade. That period saw a serious decline in rule by law; one contributor being Edward's preparedness to pardon felons in return for military service, a policy continued by Edward II. The latter's reign added domestic strife that further increased lawlessness. Other judicial mechanisms – commissions of trailbaston and appointments of special keepers of the peace – had little effect. Edward II tried to revive the eyre, but his motives were suspect. After his overthrow, parliament (1328) complained of widespread crime, subversion of the law, and oppressive and extortionate actions of officials.

Those acting in the name of Edward III decided to give the eyre another try. The commissions to visit Northamptonshire and a few other counties were considered an experiment which, if successful, would be a prelude to a nationwide itineration. The justices were given broad powers of investigation allowing them to conduct a thorough review of local administration, and thereby (it was hoped) re-establish public order and good government. The eyre session held in Northampton lasted from November 1329 to June 1330. The idea of a nationwide effort was subsequently abandoned, however. Eyres were still unpopular, not least with local authorities, whose administrations were disrupted. Local communities did not like them either: commerce suffered disruption as some market activities were suspended; justices, lawyers, the various juries of localities, and the representatives of each locality, all had to be boarded without remuneration to the hosts; and communities were subject to multiple fines as well as having to hire lawyers and attempt to win the favour of court officials through "gifts". In 1334 Kent paid 1000 marks (£666.13s.4d) to escape having an eyre. The attempt to hold an eyre in London in 1341 led to riots and the eyre had to be suspended after two weeks.

The official account of the attention given by the 1329 eyre to the borough of Northampton clearly indicates why local authorities must have dreaded such an event. As usual, the official record itself is somewhat dry. But by this time in the history of the eyre, the development of the legal profession had resulted in law reporters attending eyres, to take notes on the conduct of cases and precedents that might serve to instruct law students. The revival of the eyre, in a location reasonably accessible to their Westminster base, attracted several reporters to Northampton, and almost two dozen versions of their reports of the eyre have survived. They give us a closer look at the legal arguments behind the official record of proceedings, although each report varies somewhat from the others in summarizing and interpreting the arguments.

The borough authorities' interventional challenge over cognizance of dower claims provided the first opportunity for the eyre to put Northampton's franchises under scrutiny. It was in retrospect foolish of the town authorities to try to have the dower case transferred, particularly given that eyres usually dealt with common pleas involving disputes over real estate. However, the town was used to making this kind of claim in other royal courts and having it allowed. Or perhaps, since Henry III's charter allowed Northampton to model its liberties on those of London, the Northampton authorities were hoping to exclude the eyre from common pleas entirely, as was the case in London.

If so, it was a futile hope. The eyre officials were determined to resist any efforts to obstruct their authority and mandate. In particular the justices had in in mind their Quo Warranto mandate, requiring them (they maintained) not merely to accept at face value a claim of jurisdiction, but to investigate the validity of that claim and whether the jurisdiction had been exceeded or misapplied. This rendered ineffective the borough's attempt to support its claim of jurisdiction over dower by presenting precedents where the king's justices of King's Bench and Common Pleas had allowed the borough's cognizance. From the perspective of the eyre officials, the issue in hand was not merely the dower case itself but the town's claim of jurisdiction in such cases. The crown officials backed the town lawyers into a corner, forcing the town authorities to modify their position. The latter recognized that the justices were determined to try the case so, instead of insisting on their own jurisdiction, they tried simply to protect the charter franchise allowing such cases to be tried only within the town (which would have restored jurisdiction to the borough officials after the departure of the justices). But it was too late for backtracking. The court was on its way to removing the borough's judicial jurisdiction.

There followed hard on a challenge over the coroners' records – an issue which had been a source of argument during the preliminaries to the eyre, when the justices had repeatedly warned the borough authorities to produce the coroners' rolls. They had already, at that stage, threatened that fraudulent withholding of records could result in permanent confiscation of the borough franchises, whereas admitting to loss of records due to negligence would result only in temporary forfeiture. Producing the records of past officers posed problems for Northampton's authorities, as it did in other towns. Archival practices at this period were undeveloped in most towns; the perception of corporate records, in this period prior to formal incorporation (despite the justices' opinion that the community was corporately answerable for the records of its officers), was applied mainly to the most important documents – such as royal charters – and the rolls compiled during the term of office of specific officials might or might not find their way into a communal archive.

There was nothing unreasonable in the justices' expectation that all the rolls of every one of Northampton's coroners should be presented for review. This was, after all, part of the rationale for compiling those records. If the claim of the borough was true that all cases investigated by the coroners were copied onto each coroner's roll, then its defence that the eyre did not need a full set of rolls was valid. But the court could not know this to be the case without examining all the rolls.

In the end, however, it was the matter of jurisdiction in cases of infangthef that provided the means for bringing the town under the thumb of the eyre. Examination of the coroners' rolls turned up several cases in which town authorities had abused infangthef by hanging felons whose crimes had been committed outside their area of authority. The borough's attempt to limit forfeiture to the abused franchise was defeated – indeed, one cannot help suspect that the wholesale seizure of local government powers was a goal from the beginning. By seizing the borough offices into the king's hand as well – not just because of infangthef but also because of the earlier dispute over claim of cognizance of pleas of land before the town court (both matters reaching judgement point, it appears, on 27 November) – the justices created the pretext for turning local government over to a royal custodian. Chief Justice Scrope then dismissed the mayor. He had the bailiffs turn in their rods of office, but then reappointed them under the custodianship. As for the coroners, he informed them only two would be needed, and dismissed the surplus pair. Four days a mandate was obtained from the king appointing Sir Robert de Arderne, who had recently served as a justice of pleas of the Forest, to the position of keeper. This strategy must have ensured the eyre could proceed without any further obstructionism from the town.

Some at least of the legal reporters saw in this a precedent, establishing that any exercise of a franchise that exceeds its scope, so that people suffered as if from an oppression, must result not only in the forfeiture of the franchise but the attachment of the officers administering the franchise, and furthermore the confiscation of all of the franchises within the jurisdiction of such officers, until they could make fine with the king for restoration.

Not until August 1330, a few weeks after the eyre had finished its work, did the king allow the townsmen to regain the liberties of local government, by paying a fine of £20.



Blount himself was not permitted to present legal arguments before the justices; other, recognized "pleaders" acted in that capacity on the town's behalf.

The charter of Henry III referred to is that of 1227 which, with regard to external pleading, simply reiterates the charter of 1189. The second charter referred to is that of 1257, while that of Edward I was granted in 1299; the latter, being the latest and therefore fullest grant of privileges, powers and exemptions, also served as the workhorse, in terms of it being presented before justices when need be. The borough authorities seem to have gone well beyond what was necessary for claiming jurisdiction over the case of dower at hand, perhaps because in an earlier case of dower they had made the same claim of cognizance, by referring only to the charter clause referring to no pleading outside the town, and had run into problems with the court as a result. However, judging from one reporter's account, the borough authorities may have initially made their claim in this case exclusively on the basis of the same clause, but after this became the subject of legal arguments there was examination of other clauses in the charters. Just possibly there was something sinister behind that more extensive citation from the charters; it may have been an initiative of the court itself – for it was the claim of the franchise of infangthef, not related to the Lungeville vs. Porte case, that subsequently proved the lever by which the court could disempower local government; the law reporters seem to have perceived a connection between the two attacks on Northampton's liberties.

The right of a court to try thieves caught within the region of its jurisdiction, notably those caught red-handed (and, since the punishment was hanging, in effect the right to a gallows).

"Richard de Aldeburgh"
The king's sergeant in the eyre, with special responsibilty for prosecuting pleas of Quo Warranto and other civil pleas in which the king's interests were involved.

"cognizance of this kind of plea"
According to the reporters, Aldeburgh's initial line of attack was that Edward I had granted the mayor and bailiffs cognizance over pleas related to the franchises of the borough, but that dower was not a plea related to a franchise but a plea related to real estate; therefore, he argued, the borough's past cognizance of such cases was a usurpation of royal prerogative and that jurisdiction should be seized into the king's hand. This would appear a fragile argument – perhaps not to the legalistic minds of that time! – since dower cases were clearly pleas related to real estate (Bracton had certainly classified it thus), and besides royal charters clearly indicated that real estate pleas be tried within the town. Argument therefore turned to an attack on the undetailed terminology of early royal charters (later ones becoming more legalistic in tone), in particular the question of whether the jurisdictional rights claimed by the borough had been held from time immemorial or from the time of a specific grant. The crown lawyers, with agreement from the chief justice, argued that Edward I's grant that mayor and bailiffs have the same jurisdiction held by the previous bailiffs implied a "time immemorial" basis for the jurisdiction, since it did not specify the point when ballival jurisdiction commenced; but that the town's lawyers were making their claim for cognizance on the basis of a specific grant (Henry III's charters) – i.e. time within mind. The change in form of government between the time of Henry III and Edward I, from a mayoral to ballival executive, presented further openings for attack.

"disavow the claim"
According to the law reports, this was not the immediate strategy. Aldeburgh opened with the argument that although Henry III's charter permitted pleas of land be held within the town, it did not specify that they be held by the mayor and bailiffs (Aldeburgh was evidently sticking to his differentiation between pleas of land and pleas of franchises). At this point the mayor, speaking through one of the pleaders representing the town, stated that it had been in claiming the cognizance of pleas of land within the town, it had been the intent of borough authorities that such pleas be heard by the king's justices; if the town attorney had given the impression that the pleas were to be heard by mayor and bailiffs, then he had misrepresented the town's intent. Chief Justice Scrope's retort was that the borough authorities could not make the second claim because it was contrary to the first, which was now a matter of record; but by making the second they had admitted that the first claim was untenable. This left the borough without a leg to stand on.

"passed along the writ"
It was one of the franchises of the borough that they had "return of writs", i.e. the sheriff could not intrude on the jurisdiction of the town authorities but had to forward to them any commands placed upon him by royal writ, with the authorities then taking responsibility for fulfillment and reporting to the sheriff accordingly.

"insufficiently qualified"
It was coming to be expected, explicitly (and was possibly implicit at an earlier period), that persons chosen to the higher urban offices be men of sufficient substance that their possessions would provide compensation for any fines they incurred as a result of malfeasance; lesser officers were instead expected to find guarantors who themselves might have to provide compensation.

"at their peril"
I.e. they are prepared to stand to judgement on this matter.

A coarse woollen cloth, typically worn by servants or peasants, while perse was a cloth of dark greyish-blue colour.

The village is in Northamptonshire, a little southwest of Northampton.

A coulter is the smaller blade that cuts the ground ahead of the ploughshare.

"Chief Justice Scrope"
Geoffrey Scrope had a distinguished career in the royal judicial service. He was the king's chief legal representative (i.e. prosecutor) in the London eyre of 1321 and, as a perceived agent of the Despensers, Londoners sought his blood during the October 1326 rebellion against Edward II. Under the Despenser government he was promoted to Justice of the Common Bench (1323) and then to Chief Justice of the King's Bench (1324-38). Despite his associations with the Despensers and Edward II, he was able to retain office under the regency of Isabella and Mortimer, and again after Edward III seized the reins of power; he was simply an able and loyal servant of the crown. Possibly he may have been one of the planners of the revival of the eyre in 1329, although this is debated.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 15, 2002 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003

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