Introduction

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Centre for Metropolitan History

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Matthew Stevens (editor)

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'Introduction', London Sheriffs Court Roll 1320. URL: http://british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=119318 Date accessed: 28 November 2014.


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The London Sheriffs' Court Roll of 1320

London Metropolitan Archives, CLA/025/CT/01/001 & 002
Edited by Matthew Frank Stevens.
Prepared as part of the ESRC-funded 'London women and the economy before and after the Black Death' project (Award Ref. RES-000-22-3343). See the project page at: http://www.history.ac.uk/projects/london-women

I. Resource Introduction

[Information regarding the origin, development and jurisdiction of the London Sheriffs' Court has been drawn from Tucker, 2007.]

This online resource contains an English translation of London's only surviving medieval Sheriffs' Court roll, covering cases heard before sheriff John de Preston over the period 1 July to 25 September 1320. Throughout the Middle Ages, the city of London was a legal liberty exercising its own local customary law. Later medieval London had the legal status of a county and could, following a grant of Henry I in 1131, elect its own sheriffs. From at least the thirteenth century, two sheriffs were elected annually for concurrent twelve–month terms. Probably originally hearing and determining minor pleas on an ad hoc basis, by the final quarter of the thirteenth century the London Sheriffs presided over 'the city court of first resort for most individuals and most kinds of minor criminal and civil cases' (Tucker, 2007, p. 98). The vast majority of disputes handled by the Sheriffs' Court were, in 1320, cases of debt and trespass (see below, II. Presentation and Content).

The array of cases which were laid in the Sheriffs' Court reflects the court's position within the hierarchy of courts maintained by the city of London. Below the Sheriffs' Court were Ward Moots, or local forums for dealing with regulatory offences in the individual wards, or neighbourhoods, of the city. Co–existing with the Sheriffs' Court, and also presided over by the Sheriffs, were the city's Courts of Hustings, both the 'Husting of Land' and the 'Husting of Common Pleas', which specialized in cases of land, and of naam (disputes over distrained goods) and dower, respectively. And, at the top of the city's hierarchy of courts was the Mayor's Court, a court both of appeal and for higher value or higher status litigation. In essence, the Sheriffs' Court was a catch–all body, in a relatively fluid system, which heard all actions not best suitable for resolution in the city's other courts.

In the early fourteenth century, each of the city's two sheriffs heard pleas independently, in the Guildhall of the city, most weeks. Tucker has suggested that the sheriffs each heard court at least once a week, although the sole surviving court Sheriffs' Court roll of 1320 contains intervals as large as seventeen days (e.g. 12 to 29 August 1320). This suggests either that courts could be held at roughly fortnightly intervals when fewer pleas were pending, or, as Tucker has speculated, the Sheriffs' Court Roll of 1320 is incomplete (Tucker, 2007, pp. 138–40). The surviving roll of 1320 indicates that cases laid before one sheriff were normally heard by that sheriff alone, to conclusion, with process continuing from one sitting of a particular sheriff's proceedings to the next. Thus, there were 'two sides' to the Sheriffs' Court, reflecting proceedings before each of the two sheriffs. Similarly, records, or rolls, of proceedings before each sheriff were maintained separately, by the sheriffs themselves, who normally retained them in their private possession after their term in office. This private retention of documents almost certainly accounts for the loss of all Sheriffs' Court records excepting the partial roll of 1320 presented here, the preservation of which in the city's archive is probably linked, in some way, to the subsequent visitation of a royal Eyre held in London during early 1321.

II. Presentation and Content

Presentation

The translation presented here is an amalgamation of two documents held in London Metropolitan Archives. The first is the 1320 Sheriffs' Court roll itself (LMA, CLA/025/CT/01/001). The second is an unattributed early twentieth–century manuscript translation, with personal–name index, compiled at the Guildhall of London (LMA, CLA/025/CT/01/002). The Sheriffs' Court roll comprises twenty–six membranes, written front and back in Latin, and bound at the head. Generally speaking, the membranes are preserved in good condition, with entries grouped by type (e.g. essoins, appointments of attorney, pleaded cases, etc.). Also, included among these twenty–six membranes, and bound together with the Sheriffs' Court roll, membrane number nine contains a copy of a single case heard before the court of London sheriff John de Dallyngge on 5 December 1318.

The unattributed translation is contained within a bound volume of ruled paper and has been compiled sympathetically, retaining the layout of the fourteenth–century document as closely as possible, taking care to begin each entry on a new line and to note where each new membrane front and dorse begins. The original Latin has been preserved only in formulaic marginal and interlinear notation. The translation has generally, but without perfect consistency, retained manuscript place–name and personal–name spellings, with the principal exceptions that in personal names the Latin pronoun 'de' has been regularly rendered as 'of' and the French definite article 'le', or 'la', has sometimes been rendered as 'the'. The translation has also employed the convention of rendering Latin Christian names as their Saxon equivalents, for example, 'Matilda' is rendered as 'Maude' and 'Benedictus' is rendered as 'Benet'. The folios of this twentieth–century document have been paginated, and a personal–name index, which standardizes the spelling of some surnames, has been compiled at its end. Overall, this document is serviceable, providing an accurate representation of the fourteenth–century document's layout and a dependable translation of the original Latin. But, it is frequently inconsistent in its transcription of the fourteenth–century scribe's, equally inconsistent, personal– and place–name spellings (particularly where names contain a sequence of minims), leading to occasional inaccuracies in its index.

The translation published here is largely that of the unattributed translation described above, checked for inconsistencies against the original 1320 Sheriffs' Court roll. Care has been taken to reproduce faithfully the arrangement of the 1320 document, inclusive of marginal and interlinear notation, which, given its formulaic legal terminology (e.g. vacat, patria, etc.), has again been preserved in the original Latin. Interlinear notation, normally superscript in the fourteenth–century manuscript, has been placed in line with the text, immediately to the right of the words over (or under) which they appeared in the original manuscript, demarcated by hyphens. Also, line breaks, present in the fourteenth–century manuscript, between sections of text, have been preserved to enhance clarity. The editorial conventions of rendering 'de' and 'le', or 'la', as 'of' and 'the', used in the early twentieth–century translation, have been retained. The document published below also reproduces the personal–name index appended to the unattributed twentieth–century translation. This index has been made serviceable by including, in this edition, pagination from the early twentieth–century manuscript in square brackets along the left margin. Inconsistencies of personal–name transcription in the text of the early twentieth–century translation have overwhelmingly been reproduced so as to maintain the functionality of the personal–name index. Where, in a few instances, lines of manuscript text were omitted from the twentieth–century translation these have been supplied and clearly indicated.

Additionally, this present edition includes, at its end, a case index alphabetized by plaintiff surname (in cases with multiple plaintiffs, the surname of the plaintiff first in order of appearance on the manuscript has been used for indexing), indicating the type of dispute on which the case was brought (e.g. debt, trespass, account, etc.) and a list of the fourteenth–century manuscript membranes on which entries relevant to the case appear. Multiple plaintiffs' and defendants' surnames have been separated with a forward slash. Alternative surname spellings, as per the fourteenth–century (and occasionally the twentieth–century) manuscript, have been listed within round brackets. Within the case index, cases involving a female litigant have been indicated with a '*' (e.g., '*Dask v. Cobbe/Cobbe, debt, mm.1d., 5d., 6d., 12d., 18, 22') . The starting point of each manuscript membrane, front and dorse, has been indicated in square brackets in the left margin of the present edition.

Content

The Sheriffs' Court roll contains a record of the proceedings heard by Sheriff John de Preston over the period 1 July to 25 September 1320 (plus the single case of John de Dallyngge from 5 December 1318). During this time, common courts were held on: 1, 10 and 31 July; 12 August; and, 2 and 18 September. Courts for foreigners (i.e. non–Londoners) were held on: 14 and 17 July; 28 August; and, 20 and 25 September. The records of courts held in 1320 contain approximately 1,590 entries detailing process and pleadings (not including appointments of attorney). These 1,590 entries record around 550 lawsuits, of which about 60 per cent (c. 325 lawsuits) are cases of debt and 30 per cent (c. 170 lawsuits) are cases of trespass, with the remainder being largely actions of account and surety de minis (a London action intended to force the defendant to provide sureties of good conduct towards the plaintiff). Wholly accurate figures can not be ascertained due to inconsistencies in the rendering of litigants' names. Nevertheless, this large number of cases, heard before just of one of the city's two sheriffs, during only one quarter of the year, suggests that the total volume of disputes to come before the Sheriffs' Court in 1320 may have been anywhere up to c.4,000 lawsuits. Even making generous allowances for the probability that many of the same cases would likely have dragged on throughout the year, a more moderate estimate of perhaps 2,000–3,000 cases per annum, c.1320, would not seem unreasonable, and would have made the Sheriffs' Court 'second only to the central Court of the Common Bench in this respect' (Tucker, 2007, p.1).

Of particular importance is the high proportion of Sheriffs' Court cases of 1320 which involve female litigants, often acting as a co–litigant with a husband. Twenty–nine per cent (159 of c. 550) of cases recorded on the 1320 roll involve a female litigant. Among cases featuring a female litigant, 53 per cent (85 lawsuits) are cases of debt and 41 per cent (65 lawsuits) are cases of trespass. Conspicuously absent among these numerous female litigants are any instances of a married woman litigating as a 'femme sole', or 'woman alone', independent of her husband. Nevertheless, the court respected as necessary for litigation to progress, the presence of both husband and wife in joint actions, postponing cases where a husband was present but his wife had made essoin (e.g., de Brichford/de Brichford v. de Mallyngge/de Mallyngge [LMA, CLA/025/CT/01/001, m.10], in which defendant John de Mallyngge appears but his wife is essoined).

Overall, the Sheriffs' Court roll of 1320 contains an array of detailed information about the lives of ordinary Londoners, of regional visitors to the city and of foreign merchants. Details of sums of money owed, of goods bought or detained, and of personal relationships ending in violent disputes can be teased out of the records, shedding unparallel light on everyday life in early fourteenth–century London. Additionally, legal process, as recorded on the roll, holds the potential to provide information about London legal custom and patterns of litigation before the court.

The most comprehensive work available on the Sheriffs' Court is:
P. Tucker, Law Courts and Lawyers in the City of London, 1300–1550 (Cambridge, 2007).

See also:
S. Jenks, 'Picking up the pieces: cases presented to the London Sheriffs' Courts between Michaelmas 1461 and Michaelmas 1462', Journal of Legal History, 29 (2008), 99–145.
M.F. Stevens, 'London women, the courts and the 'Golden Age': a quantitative analysis of female litigants in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries', London Journal, 37 (2012).
P. Tucker, 'Relationships between London's Courts and the Westminster Courts in the Reign of Edward IV' in Dunn, D. E. S., ed., Courts Counties and the Capital in the Later Middle Agesm (Stroud, 1996), 117–37.