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Describe the developments in medieval English legal and constitutional history and their importance in the rise of modern democratic institutions and procedures, including the Magna Carta, parliament, and habeas corpus.

Topics on the Page

Developments in Medieval English Law
The Battle of Hastings
  • The Bayeux Tapestry
After the Norman Conquest
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine
The Magna Carta
  • Women's Rights
  • LGBTQ Rights
Habeas Corpus

external image John%2C_Magna_Carta.jpg

Focus Question: How developments in medieval England contribute to the rise of modern democratic institutions and procedures, including the Magna Carta, parliament, and habeas corpus?

The image to the rightshows King John of England signing Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, at Runnymede, from a 19th century colored wood engraving


Medieval England existed between the 5th century and the 16th century and is called as such because it is the middle period in the three-part division of European history. This period saw a transition in legal beliefs along with the creation of many laws and documents that are still relevant and in use.

primary_sources.PNGKing John I Signs the Magna Carta(1215)

external image Red_apple.jpgMagna Carta: Cornerstone of the U.S. Constitutionfrom EDSITEment introduces how the Great Charter created a framework for parliamentary government and declaration of individual rights in England and the United States.

primary_sources.PNGMedieval Legal History Sourcebook

Developments in Medieval English Law

Anglo-Saxon law[1] was the name given to the laws that existed in medieval Britain from the 6th century up until The Norman Conquest of 1066[2].
  • Anglo-Saxon law was notably different from Roman law[3] which was heavily used in the same time period and for centuries before.
  • Following 1066, Norman law[4] became the law of the land until Common Law[5] was established in the 12th century.
  • Throughout most of the time from the Norman Conquest on, the law of the Anglican Church, Canon law [6], was also very influential.

Anglo-Saxon law is the name given to a large grouping of laws that changed with several monarchs. During this period of time there were a few important parts of the law that are worth noting. There was a built up police presence around England that was used to preserve the peace. Peace itself was very important in this period, and although it was not always kept, it is important to see how far they went to try and keep it.

Battle of Hastings

William the Conqueror landing in England
William the Conqueror landing in England

Go here for a detailed look at The Battle of Hastings, 1066 CE

William the Conqueror, also known as William the Bastard, landed on the shores of England in 1066 with a force of spearmen, mounted knights, and archers.
  • Though outnumbered significantly, William was able to utilize his mobility and range-advantage to devastating effect; in a feigned retreat, he baited Harold and his force of Saxon heavy-infantry into a chase, and as they pursued, had his archers fire a massive volley high into the air above their ranks.

Counties of England in 1086, as documented in the Doomsday Book
Counties of England in 1086, as documented in the Doomsday Book

Following the Norman Conquest, the Normans just expanded on the system of government already in place and made it stronger. They created the Domesday Book [7] which was an intense census done in 1086. Also during this period,

primary_sources.PNGIn 1100, The Charter of Liberties [8] was written and it read quite similarly to the Magna Carta [9], only it was written over a century prior. It was used to try and restrict the king’s growing power.

Common Law is probably the most influential series of laws to come out of medieval England. Before it was established, many areas had different laws they were following, and with its establishment around 1154 by King Henry II, the laws were all grouped together and a concise set of laws common to all was created. Trial by jury and even grand juries came out of this period along with the notion of precedents.

The Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the Battle of Hastings
The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the Battle of Hastings

The Bayeux Tapestry A tapestry showing the the Norman Conquest of Anglo-Saxon England.
  • It was made for William the Conquer and includes a detailed account of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the decisive battle in the Norman Conquest.

Multimedia.pngBayeux Tapestry

What Macron's Loan of the Bayeux Tapestry Really Means to Britain, The New Yorker (January 28, 2018)
  • The Tapestry will cross the Channel for the first time in 900 years.

Screen Shot 2016-10-29 at 12.06.19 PM.pngHenry III Fine Rolls Project: A Window into English History, 1216-1272.
  • A fine in the reign of King Henry III (1216–1272) was an agreement to pay the king a sum of money for a specified concession.
    • The rolls on which the fines were recorded provide the earliest systematic evidence of what people and institutions across society wanted from the king and he was prepared to give.

Henry II and the Power of the Church

In 1154 CE King Henry II ascended to the throne. He would reign England until his death in 1189, after great conquests in both France and Ireland and setting the basis for English Common Law. Perhaps even more well-known is Henry's conflict with Thomas Becket, his appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry and Becket differed over a number of ecclesiastical matters, most of all the question of whether or not clergymen should be tried under English law, rather than the law of the Church under the Pope.

The Common Law

1180: Catholic Monk Glanville makes compilation of laws under Henry II, including:
  • Juries
  • Outline of the King's court power and authority
  • Trial by ordeal; water and combat
  • The "King's Peace"
This was the most comprehensive and detailed code of laws since Roman times.

The Becket Controversy

Though originally good friends, Henry II's difference in opinion with Thomas Becket led to tragedy, in which the Archbishop was killed by four of Henry's loyal knights. Whether or not Henry gave the order is still up for debate, but the commonly accepted story is that Henry II, somewhat known for his temper at certain times, yelled out "will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?!" An exclamation that his knights took seriously, and carried out Becket's murder in 1170. Henry was distressed by the turn of events and paid homage in Canterbury, and gave legal ground to the Pope over the issue of secular vs. church law.

external image EleonoraAkvitanie_soud.jpg
womens history.jpgWomen in History: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Brief Biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine from BBC

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 11.48.22 AM.pngMore material from the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Miuseum

The Importance of the Magna Carta, Parliament and Habeas Corpus

Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was initially seen - both by the 'cowardly' King John and the rebellious Barons lined up against him - as simply a bargaining chip, and not of very great significance. In this BBC article, read more on the events that culminated in the signing of the Magna Carta by King John on June 1, 1215.

The Magna Carta, which was compiled and issued in 1215, paved the way for what we now know to be constitutional law.
  • The Magna Carta was issued because of increasing concerns about King John's domineering and ineffective reign and ever - growing power.
  • The barons of the realm wanted to reaffirm Henry I's Coronation Charter to further limit this power and hold the king responsible when he breaks the rules set forth. The king had to follow the laws or he would be held accountable for his actions.
  • What set the Magna Carta apart from prior attempted legislation is that this a document that the king had actually agreed to (although with great reluctance).
Multimedia.png Magna Carta's importance explained

This animated film tells the history of Magna Carta and explains how it has become a global symbol for Human Rights.

external image Red_apple.jpgClick here for the Magna Carta and its American Legacy from the Baronial Order of Magna Charta.

womens history.jpgWomen were not granted many rights to property, liberty, or education in medieval Europe. They learned only the necessary skills to become a wife or mother.
  • While the Magna Carta did not substantially change woman's rights or roles in society it did grant them a few more rights upon their husbands death.
  • Many times before the Magna Carta the king would abuse his power and women were cheated out of what was rightfully their due.
  • Below is the direct parts of the Magna Carta that pertained to woman's lives.
    • (7)"At her husband's death, a widow may have her marriage portion and inheritance at once and without trouble. She shall pay nothing for her dower, marriage portion, or any inheritance that she and her husband held jointly on the day of his death. She may remain in her husband's house for forty days after his death, and within this period her dower shall be assigned to her.
    • (8) No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband. But she must give security that she will not marry without royal consent, if she holds her lands of the Crown, or without the consent of whatever other lord she may hold them of."

Gay_flag.svg.pngClick here for an article arguing that the basis of LGBT rights can be found in Clause 39 of Magna Carta: "No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or dis-eased, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land."

King John I
King John I

The Magna Carta also set a precedent for similar documents such as the U.S. Constitution, which would borrow from ideas that had been first presented in the Magna Carta.

Its importance was also symbolic because in 1215 it was one of the few documents that could stand up to the might of a powerful monarchy. It was perhaps not the documents own achievements, but the achievements that would result later from its creation, that has had such a lasting impact on the modern world.

primary_sources.PNGThe series of documents were heavily influenced by King Henry I’s Charter of Liberties, also known as the Coronation Charter. The charter established what was to become due process and even repealed some of the King's own powers.

Test your Magna Carta knowledge with this Jeopardy-style game.


Parliament Postcard 1910
Parliament Postcard 1910

Click here for The Evolution of Parliament from the Parliament website that offers an overview of how the parliamentary system evolved in England.

Parliament was originally a group of important members that advised the King of England.
  • The name given to them was derived from the French/Norman "parler," which means to speak.Their job was to advise the king and give different views. They helped with the administration and organization of the kingdom and were the ones responsible to choose the next person fit to run the kingdom.
  • After the Norman Conquest, the Curia Regis (“Royal Court”) was established and, like the Witenagemot, were direct advisors to the king.
  • Throughout both of these periods, though, this group did not have too much power. It wasn’t until after the Magna Carta that Parliament really gained some power and were an important force.
  • The parliament's role would come into question during the reign of the King Charles I. Admiring the absolutism existing in France, he wished to take the power away from the parliament.
Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell

  • This drew protest from the parliament and caused the English Civil War. Charles I would lose this battle, and Oliver Cromwell was named Lord Protector of England. He sought to make sure the parliament had more of a voice than they had under Charles I (who was executed in 1648).

timeline2_rus.svg.pngClick for a detailed timeline on the evolution of British Parliament from the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 until the 1900s.

Habeas Corpus
Habeas corpus [11] came out of the 12th-14th centuries.
  • It is used by prisoners to challenge the legality of their imprisonment and is seen as one of the most important concepts to come out of medieval law.
    • It is used as a safeguard to protect liberties and was seen as a major change and step in the right direction towards protecting civil liberties.


External Links

[1] (February 13, 2007). Anglo-Saxon Law - Extracts From Early Laws of the English. Retrieved February 13, 2007, from The Avalon Project at Yale Law School Web site: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/medieval/saxlaw.htm
[2] (2006). Explore the history of the Norman Invasion in 1066. Retrieved February 13, 2007, from Essential Norman Conquest Web site: http://www.essentialnormanconquest.com/
[3] (2012). Roman Legal System. Retrieved February 12, 2012, from KET Web site:
[4] Norman Law. Retrieved February 12, 2012,
[5] (2009). Common Law. Retrieved February 12, 2012, from New Advent Web site:
[6] Vervaart, O (April 15, 2005). Canon Law. Retrieved February 13, 2007, from Personal information of Otto Vervaart Web site: http://home.kpn.nl/otto.vervaart/canon_law.htm
[7] (2007). Discover Domesday. Retrieved February 13, 2007, from The National Archives of the United Kingdom Web site: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/domesday/discover-domesday/
[8] (1999). Charter of Liberties of Henry I, 1100. Retrieved February 12, 2012, from National Humanities Institute Web site:
[9] (January 26, 2007). The 1215 Magna Carta. Retrieved February 13, 2007, from Magna Carta Plus Web site: http://www.magnacartaplus.org/magnacarta/

[11] (February 13, 2007). Habeas Corpus.

n John's mind, it was only ever a stalling action, intended to demonstrate his reasonableness to the undecided baronial majority in the run-up to inevitable hostilities. It was a bargaining chip: nothing more.