Changes to the Law in Norman England

What was the Norman legal system?
One of the main features of Norman government was the legal system. William I kept most of the Saxon system, but did introduce some important changes.
How did Norman law enforcement work?
The Normans kept the Anglo-Saxon system of local community law enforcement and collective responsibility, with trials by ordeal run by the Church.
What stayed the same in the Norman legal system?
When William became king he promised to keep the laws of Edward the Confessor. He did this for various reasons.
  • The Saxon legal system was sophisticated and it worked. There was no need to change it.
  • Keeping Saxon laws meant continuity and would help William's claim to be the legitimate king of England.
  • Keeping Saxon laws removed a reason for the Saxon population to rebel against Norman rule.
How did the Normans change the legal system?
Although he kept much of the Saxon legal system in place, William did make a few important changes.
  • He introduced some new laws, in order to maintain Norman power in England.
  • He introduced new courts, which increased the power of Norman lords over their lands.
  • He made changes to the way criminals were punished, which helped to maintain Norman power and also made money for the king.
  • The Normans centralised the system. Under the Saxons there had been many regional variations in the laws and legal system, so the Normans introduced uniformity throughout the country.
  • Under the Normans, the language of the law became Norman-French. This was a disadvantage to the Saxons, most of whom did not speak the language.
What new laws did the Normans introduce?
Although William I kept most of the existing Saxon laws, he did introduce some new ones to ensure the Normans kept their power and control.
  • He introduced new laws, such as the murdrum fine, to protect his Norman followers against attacks by the Saxons.
  • He introduced the forest laws to protect the land he set aside as his own hunting grounds.
  • He introduced new laws on inheritance to prevent his lords' estates from being broken up. This helped his lords to consolidate and maintain their power.
What was murdrum in the Norman legal system?
The murdrum fine was introduced by the Normans. If a Norman was killed, people in the local area had five days to produce the murderer. If they failed, they faced a large fine.
How did the Normans enforce the law?
The Saxon system of law enforcement, which worked on the principle of collective responsibility, was effective. The Normans continued this.
  • Normans continued the Anglo-Saxon tradition of constables and watchmen who were elected or appointed in towns. They kept the peace and enforced curfews.
  • The tithing was kept, where groups of men guaranteed each other's good behaviour.
  • The hue and cry remained and was raised whenever a crime was committed. Everyone was expected to help chase and catch the criminal or face a fine.
How did trials work in the Norman legal system?
The Normans kept the Saxon methods of trying criminals. As evidence was sometimes difficult to produce, there were various ways to establish innocence or guilt.
  • People would swear oaths in court about a person's guilt or innocence, based on their knowledge of the person. As oaths were religious rituals, people were expected to tell the truth or face God's punishment.
  • Trial by ordeal was sometimes used. The Saxon ordeals included trial by cold water and trial by hot iron. The Normans also introduced trial by combat (or trial by battle).
What were the courts in the Norman legal system?
Trials were held in the courts. The Normans kept most of the Saxon courts, but also introduced new ones.
  • The King's Court dealt with royal pleas, including the most serious offences: murder, treason, arson, robbery and rape. The king would also hear appeals from the lower courts.
  • The Shire Courts were supervised by the sheriff (or shire-reeve). These met regularly in each shire and made judgements on violent crime and theft. They also heard land disputes.
  • The Hundred Courts were held monthly and supervised by a bailiff, who was appointed by the sheriff. These dealt with minor disputes that did not need to be heard by the sheriff himself.
  • The Lord's Court (or honorial court) was introduced by the Normans. Lords could deal with their tenants, hearing criminal cases and disputes and also dealing with property transactions.
  • The Manor Courts were held at village level. Each lord of the manor would deal with cases arising from day-to-day life.
  • The Normans also introduced Church Courts. These dealt with religious and moral crimes, including adultery. Church courts were also reserved to try members of the Church for any crime.
What punishments were there in the Norman legal system?
Norman punishments tended to be harsher than under Saxon kings. They also provided revenue for the king which increased his wealth.
  • If the accused was found innocent, the accuser was punished for making a false claim and had to pay a fine to both the king and the accused.
  • Some lesser crimes such as theft or causing injury were settled by paying compensation to the victim. This was similar to the Saxon system.
  • The Saxons had operated wergild for more serious crimes, where compensation was paid to the victim's family. Every freeman had a wergild price.
  • Under the Normans, wergild declined. Serious offences were now punished by hanging or mutilation. The Normans were more inclined to use brutality and terror as a deterrent.
  • Fines paid for more serious offences now went to the king rather than the victim's family.
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