English Legal History and its Materials

"But with the First Gleam of Dawn”

The English legal system sought to maintain unfreedom of both people and property as a means of maintaining stability and control. However, due to contingencies created both internally and externally, both became free. The people gained the rights of freeholders through labor shortages, revolt, and the ensuing fear by the lords that both may happen again. Property became alienable and disposable by will after the Statute of Uses turned landholders against the crown.

The Unfreedom of People

When William the Conqueror made claim to England in 1066, he brought with him the system of feudalism as a means to provide the lower class with land in exchange for service as knights. He solidified this system in 1085 through development of the Domesday Book, which codified the class and relationships of peasants to their lords. For these workers, unfreedom meant that they not only did not own the land upon which they worked, but that they were deprived of any substantial rights, borne out of a Norman distrust of the Anglo-Saxons over which they ruled. Peasants were bound to the soil upon which they worked, unable to leave or take up another profession. While freeholders answered claims in the court of the king, peasants only had claims against those in their class and were unable to make legal claims against their lord. Further, they were also burdened by providing labor and incidences to their lord, such as daughters to be married and servitude as knights, as well as taxation to compensate their lord to compensate for loss of incidences if a daughter was married out of the lordship. This unfreedom was reinforced by the Medieval Catholic church, which embraced servitude as humility towards god. Illiteracy also prevented peasants from interpreting scripture on their own, forcing them to rely on the church.

The initial shift began with the Black Death in 1348. (Plucknett 32) The peasant population was decimated, leading to a social and economic shift for those that were left behind, making lords desperate for laborers and initially providing a market for higher wages. (Plucknett 32) The upper class sought to maintain the social structures that once existed and reinforce unfreedom. As workers became costlier, in 1349, landowners began to place a ceiling on wages and forcing workers to take them. (Plucknett 32) Soon after, workers began to face increased taxation due to a poll tax, shifting taxes on land to taxes on people, as well as additional taxation caused by an ongoing war with France.

Workers who had experienced a taste of greater freedom were watching their rights and wages being taken away. At the same time, following the Protest Reformation in Europe and the introduction of Calvinism in Scotland, there was a shift away from seeking salvation in the church combined with encouragement to seek a personal relationship with god. With the translation of the bible, workers began to claim the powers of the priests in interpreting scripture while reformers began to preach equality. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was a response by the people against the revocation of their rights and an attempt to reclaim freedom.

While the revolt was ultimately quashed, much like after the Black Death, the dynamic between the classes had shifted. Lords who were unable to find new laborers would lease their property or provide laborers with freehold benefits. (Plucknett 33) When faced with a decreased labor supply, lords were forced to concede rights to workers in exchange for ongoing security. The English legal system could have persisted with feudalism intact, but the unpredicted loss of peasants to disease and revolt presented a contingency. Unfreedom of the people dissipated over time because it became too risky for the lords who benefitted from their labor.

The Unfreedom of Property

In contrast, the freedom of property was caused by a contingency created by statute. While the king sought complete control over the alienation of property, Parliament’s intent to prevent the abuse of the law forced it to allow for property to be disposed at will.

Lords had an interest in controlling alienation perpetually, because it kept power stability over time. Initially, they would benefit from military tenure, but by the 13th Century, this shifted to income streams from socage tenure and later, incidences from sargenty tenure. Under the legal system, when a man married, he would take a life tenancy in the property for the benefit of his heirs, unable to sell or dispose of the property to anyone else. In 1285, with the passage of De Donis Conditionalibus, lords ensured that gifts of property in maritagium would revert to the lord if the conditions were not met. (Baker and Milsom, Sources of English Legal History 48) Following this, a formedon writ could be used to enforce a conditional gift and to return the property to the donor when a woman alienated the property by remarrying. (Harding 90) The Statute of Quia Emptories further restricted the rights of property holders by forcing purchasers to assume the obligations of the seller and preventing further subinfeudation of the property.

In response, landowners began to employ the “use” as a means of controlling conveyances of property through a life tenancy. (Harding 91) The user would “use” the life tenancy to the benefit of the heirs, allowing the original tenant to dictate how the property is passed down, how daughters will be married, and how money will be paid. Uses created a separation of legal and beneficial ownership.

In 1532, Henry VIII, acting through Parliament, implemented the Statute of Uses, which remerged legal and beneficial ownership by making all gifts immediate and thereby dismantling the estate planning of a generation. (Baker and Milsom, Sources of English Legal History 112) (Harding 108) Landholders rebelled in 1536 in response, and Henry was deprived of the ability to enforce the statute. (Plucknett 587) As a concession, in 1540, Parliament passed the Statute of Wills and established a court specifically to deal with the changes, which allowed landholders to dispose of their property “at his free will and pleasure.” (Baker and Milsom, Sources of English Legal History 116) (Harding 110, 587) While the crown had intended to gain control over the disposition of property by inheritance, the statute it implemented created a contingency through which property began to become free.

-- By DexterXHeeter - 21 Dec 2017

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r1 - 21 Dec 2017 - 22:30:14 - DexterXHeeter
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