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21.09.34 Karn, Kings, Lords and Courts in Anglo-Norman England

21.09.34 Karn, Kings, Lords and Courts in Anglo-Norman England

Nicholas Karn has undertaken to investigate and clarify how courts functioned in late eleventh- and early twelfth-century England. While his focus is specific, he nonetheless brings together traditional legal sources alongside broader evidence to paint a fascinating and engaging picture of lordship, status, and obligation in England during the formative time of Norman consolidation.

Karn organizes the book around an expansive introduction, seven thematic chapters, a brief conclusion, and a useful appendix, which lists the identities and geographical distribution of royal justices in England between 1100 and 1154. This organizational structure serves Karn’s purpose well, as it brings a thematic focus to his discussion while maintaining a basic chronological thread. This allows Karn, and the reader, to follow clearly the often-complicated developments of royal and noble power, law, and local custom.

Karn sets out to trace the origin of lordly courts in medieval England and to cast their development against the backdrop of royal initiative and local practice. In this aim he succeeds admirably, and along the way he sheds light on developments in law and practice adjacent to his primary focus. He examines laws and legal texts, narratives of legal proceedings found in chronicles and hagiographical accounts, writs and charters, administrative sources such as Domesday book, and personal letters. While his choice of materials is familiar, he uses them effectively to paint a compelling picture of Anglo-Norman courts and laws.

Chapter one sets the stage for the later discussion by examining how the English state functioned on the eve of 1066. Karn outlines the contours of pre-1066 lordship and the myriad forms it could take, including commendation (the strong, fundamental bond between lord and dependent), landlordship (a bond over mutual landed interests), and soke, which is the most difficult to define. Here Karn follows the reasoning of T. B. Lambert in arguing that soke was a historical process whereby the term shifted from lords gaining protection from royal exactions to something approximating later suit of court. While it could be thought of as equivalent to “holding a court,” this was a later (twelfth century) idea and did not apply to the eleventh century. Karn communicates the fungibility of soke effectively, but he should have provided a stronger working definition (as he does later) here at the outset.

Regardless, Karn shows how lords gradually tried to monopolize certain types of lordship and pleas to their own courts, especially with lordship based on soke, even within the hundred court. He writes, “The general trend was towards the accumulation of as many different kinds of lordship as possible in the hands of landlords, who thus came to exercise exclusive or near-exclusive claims over the dependents on their lands” (36). Overall, before 1066 there is a clear assumption that disputes over lordship belonged to the hundred courts.

Chapter two lays the foundation for the development of lordly “manor” courts and a further discussion of soke. Following on the developments of the mid-eleventh century, lords increasingly sought to shift business and disputes to environments where they exercised direct control, including their own parish churches (and out of minsters) and their own courts. Here is where Karn offers a stronger and clearer explanation of soke and its role in royal/noble relations. Soke essentially meant a grant designed to protect the lord’s interest from the demands of the sheriff or a royal reeve. Prior to 1066 it could exist in three forms (that we know of): lords could hold soke over lands they owned or parts of those lands, lords could hold soke over their dependents, without territory being distinguished, and soke could be granted over any dependents of any lords within particular hundreds. After 1066 we see two trends: the granting of soke was expanded even further and grants made after 1066 tended to focus more on the actual lands involved. As Karn summarizes, “Soke did not result in actual separate courts before 1066, but it did give rise to circumstances that helped their creation....Soke represents overall an ideal of lordship which was intensified and exclusive in managing dependents and their relationships with others” (71).

Chapter three covers the creation of private courts by lords, and Karn ties it to a lordly desire to monopolize power, both in their own domain and over hundred courts. Karn provides a good, clear definition of what qualifies as a private court, and gives a very strong discussion over the process of subverting hundreds through the expansion of soke (especially by churchmen). It is from this discussion that Karn is able to show that the mid-twelfth-century phenomenon of lords being granted control over a hundred did not emerge suddenly, but rather developed over time from earlier proto-precedents.

Chapter four examines the rise of the halimota as early example of a lord-controlled space. While they may not have risen to the level of a private court under later definitions, they still served as an important example of lords subverting the traditional role of hundred courts. While it is unclear that lords could exclude sheriffs and bailiffs from the halimota (as they could in later private courts), they are important in that they shifted how dependents interacted with lords. Prior to 1066 this all was done in hundred courts, but by 1100 or so men were pleading in different courts and the role of hundreds had diminished, mostly because the French lords brought to England undermined their role in favor of creating private, or, at least, reserved courts (126).

Chapter five examines the origins of debates over competing jurisdictions. Karn shows that in this early period of competing jurisdictions, kings were often brought in to settle disputes over rival claims to jurisdiction. Lords sought a variety of methods to improve their positions within the scope of law, though they did not have a unity of approach (nor much legal basis to stand on). Litigants could align themselves and their interests with the king and then appeal to his authority to support their claims, all with an intention to eventually claim jurisdiction over the dispute.

Chapter six brings the discussion more fully into the early twelfth century with a discussion of the efforts by kings, particularly Henry I, to essentially turn hundred courts into royal lordship courts. Karn also traces the growing distinction between the terms curia and placitum, with the former increasingly being used to refer to the court itself, while the latter referred to the business conducted at the court. He also shows the growing efforts of Anglo-Norman rulers to exercise control over the law, but through the use of letters, rather than through general legislation. He also gives a strong overview of the legal reforms of Henry I from 1107 to 1108, and he casts them as essentially conservative in nature in that they largely codified existing practice, rather than created radical revolutionary change.

The final chapter, chapter seven, examines the development of the system of pleas and royal justices. Karn examines how kings enforced their claims alongside the more traditional focus on what they were claiming, and in this he succeeds. He outlines two broad changes: the first was that the term “royal pleas” or “king’s pleas” came into usage. He writes, “From the early 12th century, the king’s pleas were matters where someone actively pursued cases in the king’s interest, summoning participants into the king’s hundreds and bringing accusations against them” (178).

The second is that a new class of royal officials emerged to manage the pleas: the justices. These likely emerged around 1107/8 as part of Henry I’s reforms. These justices, according to the Leges Henrici Primi, had multiple roles at courts, including summoning, setting the days for pleas, distraining people, etc., but unlike later justices they did not make judgments. Karn writes, “The role of these royal functionaries was to pursue cases, to accuse people and summon them to court--one of the king’s courts, for preference--and use that opportunity as a means for enforcing the king’s claims and extracting some profit thence” (186).

Karn concludes with a brief encapsulation of his main points, including reaffirming why the hundreds persisted (in modified form) in England, whereas the similar institution (the mallus) did not in France. He argues that Henry I’s active interest in bringing a royal presence to the hundred court, especially over cases such as theft and murder, enabled the hundreds to survive. Karn examines a topic that has drawn historical interest for well over a hundred years, and, despite that lengthy historiography, he offers a lively, well-argued, well-supported, and original interpretation.