Goodbye, freedom hello autocracy.


The growth in the power of the state and the Church.

Time wise we are towards the end of 1090’s, work on the census detailing who had what for the entire kingdom was well underway.

The Doomsday book was the equivalent of the state census.

It meant the King and Church could know who lived in each hamlet or village and what they possessed in the way of Land, property, and livestock.

The Doomsday book was a prime example of the maxim knowledge is power

(“Ipsa Scientia postetas est”).

The crown, with the assistance of the Church, could use the book to assess how much to tax everyone.

The king, by right of conquest, could make law by proclaiming what the law was and the Witan council was a thing of the past. The king’s advisers were mainly Norman lords or clerics. The new chief advisor became known as the Lord Chancellor, if you are a fan of Game of Thrones the role is that of the king’s hand if you are not you will wonder what I’m talking about. Other senior Lords from the church and state would also meet with the king as his royal council. Today this institution is called the Privy Council.

The English, (Saxon, Norse, Celtic and Romano British) were powerless they were under the control of the two pillars of the medieval period in Europe the Church and State. The Church owned huge estates, paid no taxes, had its own separate laws and courts.

This is not to say that the period before 1066 was tranquil, far from it.

The life expectancy for most was short, disease and death were a constant reality for most people.

But there was a Saxon legal system that had the wide support of the common people you will recall the Common Law of the land and trial by juries.

The Common Law Survived because of its adaptability it evolved when necessary as society changed. The fact it was laws which everyone knew and accepted, which was closely linked to custom and practice and moral norms helped it to survive to this day.

The Normans kept the Common Law intact because it worked, the state added new draconian laws to it, such as restricting hunting or the use of land, the King took huge portions of land as his playground for hunting This resource had been a common resource for most of the people to use to help feed their families, graze their animals and use the wood for fires or building homes.


The Crown made laws banning the people from using the King’s land on pain of death.

In addition, the Church required the poor to pay a “tithe”, a tax of ten percent from their income usually in the form of some of their produce on a yearly basis ;

Take a look at your local area, I bet you will find a reference to a Tithebarn which was where this tax was collected. Current road names, city and town names can still be linked to the 1100’s such as Manor, Common, Mill, Ham and Tithe.

The poor serfs were working his local lords land so that he could grow food for himself and his family on the communal strip farms.

  1. They were paying tax to the state
  2. They were paying tithes to the church
  3. In addition, they were also required to fight wars if their feudal masters required it. If they refused they faced severe punishment or death.

Law at a local level continued with manorial courts, but disputes between the gentry or involving serious crimes such as treason, or counterfeiting coins were dealt with by the local assize courts.

The local assize courts continued right up to 1971 when it was replaced by two courts the Crown Court and County Court.

The king appointed Sheriffs, circuit judges who supervised the assize courts, and high court Judges based in London.

Sheriffs held prisoners for the next assize court. The Sheriff was appointed by the King and was generally more independent than other local lords in protecting the king’s interest.

The king appointed Judges and sheriffs to administer law throughout the land.

Judges were trained lawyers sent out to decide important cases at certain times of the year in the local towns. They would travel a circuit of towns deciding cases, recording their decisions in each town then going on to the next town on their circuit. These judges were called circuit judges and the time of the visit at each town on each judges circuit was referred to as the assize time. Circuit Judges could decide many types of disputes, not just criminal matters but also land disputes, inheritance disputes etc.

More senior Judges, “Law Lords and high court Judges”, stayed at the Kings courts and heard cases on behalf of the king. All these cases were recorded in writing. The most senior Legal person was the King and his deputy the Lord Chancellor.

To give Justice legal decisions needed to be explained clearly so that everyone would know what the law was on any particular issue. Decisions also need to be consistent across the whole country.

Judges recorded the reasons for their decisions in writing and still do in what lawyers call a judgment. The actual decision part of a judgment we call the “ratio decidendi” and the rest of the judgment is called the “obiter dicta”. Ratio Decidendi, the reason for the decision. Obiter Dicta means things said by the way.


To provide consistency in their decisions judges would discuss the cases they heard with other judges and this lead to more consistency because judges would seek to be consistent with their colleagues.

The accumulation of the record of old cases is called case law and the rules of precedence about which case is to be followed by which court we will discuss in the next blog.

In summary, I have discussed the plight of the English after the Norman conquest, I have explained how the power of the state was maintained through force, and the church’s support. The blog also considered the role of the assize courts and circuit judges.


Tony Hughes LLB, PGCE Barrister(Retired)


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