The Medieval Review 10.02.12

Gallagher, Eric James. The Civil Pleas of the Suffolk Eyre of 1240. Suffolk Record Society 52. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2009. Pp. c, 349. $70 ISBN 978-1-84383-433-5. .

Reviewed by:

Barbara Hanawalt
Ohio State University

This volume joins a number of other published eyre rolls, mostly to be found in the Selden Society or local record societies. Starting in 1176, during the reign of Henry II, groups of itinerant justices were sent by the central administration to travel in circuits through the counties of England. Their work, laid out in the articles of the eyre, was to oversee the administration of criminal and civil justice as well as the performance of local officials, and ensure that the king's rights were upheld. The eyre was both cumbrous and unpopular. Preparations for the eyre were expensive for the county and the sitting of the justices required the presence of juries of presentment made up of the leading freeholders of each hundred and the boroughs in the county. Gallager estimates that attendance at the eyre of Suffolk in 1240 involved over 6,000 people. From the king's point of view, the eyre system paid well. In criminal cases, the king collected the value of convicted felons goods. In civil cases, the king could charge for writs to have civil disputes settled in his court, fines for non- appearance in court, and fees for making and recording concords. In addition, he had oversight of the workings of local justice and was thus able to link administration at the local level with that of the central administration. Those bringing their cases into the king's court could hope for the settlement of disputes without recourse to violent self-help.

The civil pleas heard in the Suffolk eyre in 1240 were largely those involving novel dissesin and mort d'ancestor, but dower, writs of entry, and other cases were also tried. Many of the cases did not reach conclusion and were referred to another sitting of the eyre, to other courts, or to Westminster. Litigants, usually the defendants, were permitted to beg to be excused from attending for a set number of times and this procedure delayed judgment of the cases. Both parties could use attorneys to represent them in court. Gallager's introduction contains very fine explanations of the various pleas that the court heard and the writs needed to originate the pleas. The tables he includes in the Introduction are of immeasurable help to scholars. They give a quantitative breakdown of the types of actions that were brought to the court and the outcome of these actions. The tables are explained with textual examples taken from the plea rolls. These examples give a nuanced picture of the irritants that freeholders faced in medieval society and the remedies that they could find through the royal courts.

The plaintiffs' complaints were various. Cases of novel disseisin (204) that the Suffolk litigants brought involved the unjust seizure of property including taking lands, pasture, common rights, and rents. Neighbors had often not only taken the property, but had also done damage to it (action of nuisance). They might take harvests, consume animals, cut down trees, and in other ways despoil the land they occupied. The jurors were called upon to use their knowledge of local conditions to decide who owned the property and what damages should be awarded to the wronged party. In cases of mort d'ancestor heirs to the deceased freeholder could sue to be admitted to rights of inheritance. The cases were complicated and jurors were called upon to relate the relationships among the litigants and trace the marriages of heirs and heiresses, sales of property and rights, seizure of land by a lord who had granted the property as a fief, bastardy, and any other complications that arose in the descent of property. In dower cases, jurors determined if the widow's husband had been siesed of the land or if it had been alienated before he died. In 40 percent of the cases the widows won their dower plea.

Although the civil pleas tried in the eyre were intended for free holders, including women, some cases involving villeins also appear. The most interesting of these are cases in which either a villein claimed to be free or a lord claimed rights of villeinage over another person. In these cases, both sides brought evidence of the genealogy of the person in question, going back four generations in some cases. Sometimes groups of villeins tried to show that they were exempt from certain dues on the manor.

Unquestionably, a visitation of the eyre put a burden on the county officials and the jurors, but the eyre of 1240 in Suffolk concluded with reasonable success for the litigants. Sixty-two percent of the litigants, be they plaintiffs or defendants, won their cases or reached a concord. Royal justice obviously provided a successful dispute resolution for property holders. For the crown, the eyre system was very lucrative. The eyres of the 1240s, it has been estimated, raised upwards of 24,000 for the crown. The money collected from justice was greater than taxation of a thirteenth on movables. Justice paid for the crown. Furthermore, the eyres reinforced the power of royal government at the local level.

If eyres were generally useful to all parties, why did they decline in popularity by the end of the thirteenth century? The reasons are various. Gallager points to changes in the administration of justice. Itinerant justices of assize and gaol delivery, who came to the counties two to three times a year, provided more immediate remedy to civil disputes and criminal indictments. Also, Edward I and his successors found more lucrative ways of raising money including taxation, loans, and customs. Gallager mentions that the eyres had become more cumbersome with the Suffolk eyre of 1289 had 80 percent more business than that of 1240. This increase in cases stands to reason, since the population of England had increased substantially from 1176 to 1289. The eyre was too cumbersome to deal with the volume of cases.