The court leet

A less fleeting glance at a leet

Reader Dave Mitchell of South Africa never has it easy.

For him, doing genealogy isn’t just going to a courthouse across the country where he lives to look at records. It’s a matter of figuring out the laws half a world away.

courtleetFirst, back in January of last year, he had to try to cope with the question of divorce practices in the Canadian maritime provinces.1

Now he’s trying to figure out laws somewhere else after finding a record that reported that, on 19 April 1716, “David Mitchell of Killomalagh” was one of “The Severall Inhabitants of The Mannor of Goldsmiths summoned to appear at a Court leet held at New buildings for the said Mannor.”

So, he asks what, in 1716 Northern Ireland, was a court-leet?

The Legal Genealogist touched on this recently in a post defining the term “wyte,” noting that Black’s Law Dictionary defined a court-leet as an “English court … held once in the year, and not oftener, within a particular hundred, lordship, or manor, before the steward of the leet; being the king’s court granted by charter to the lords of those hundreds or manors. Its office was to view the frankpledges,—that is, the freemen within the liberty; to present by jury crimes happening within the jurisdiction; and to punish trivial misdemeanors.”2

But that doesn’t help much, does it? So let’s look at the more complete description of this court in Blackstone:

The court-leet, or view of frankpledge, which is a court of record, held once in the year and not oftener, within a particular hundred, lordship, or manor, before the steward of the leet : being the king’s court granted by charter to the lords of hose hundreds or manors. Its original intent was to view the frank pledges, that is, the freemen within the liberty; who … were all mutually pledged for the good behaviour of each other. Besides this, the preservation of the peace, and the chastisement of divers minute offences against the public good, are the objects … of the court-leet … All freeholders within the precinct are obliged to attend them, and all persons commorant therein ; which commorancy consists in usually lying there: … But persons under twelve and above sixty years old, peers, clergymen, women, and the king’s tenants in ancient demesne, are excused from attendance there : all others being bound to appear upon the jury, if required, and make their due presentments. It was also anciently the custom to summon all the king’s subjects, as they respectively grew to years of discretion and strength, to come to the court-leet, and there take the oath of allegiance to the king. The other general business of the leet … was to present by jury all crimes whatsoever that happened within their jurisdiction ; and not only to present, but also to punish, all trivial misdemeanors… The objects of their jurisdiction are therefore unavoidably very numerous : being such as in some degree, either less or more, affect the public weal, or good governance of the district in which they arise ; from common nuisances and other material offences against the peace and public trade, down to eavesdropping, waifs, and irregularities in public commons. But … their business has for the most part gradually devolved upon the quarter sessions ; …3

Wow. That doesn’t help much either, does it? Nobody’s speaking English here!

So let’s try it more simply.

There were a lot of things that needed to be done to run a place like a lordship or a manor. Some of them required assembling everybody who lived there. And sometimes it was just easier to set a day (or days4) aside for doing things like collecting rents, having the peasants swear loyalty to the king and generally taking stock of how things were going.

And the way things were set up, there was this system called frank-pledge, where all the regular folk who lived in a place were answerable for what everyone else who lived there did.5 You can think of it as a kind of organized system of tattle-taling, since it encouraged people to rat each other out. Not so much for big crimes, mind you, but for all the little niggling things like not keeping the road repaired, or not using proper weights and measures.

Most of these things didn’t take a formal court with judges and lawyers and serious penalties. So they were handled by somebody appointed by the lord of the place, like his steward. Big crimes were reported there, but then kicked upstairs to those formal courts.

It was up to the steward — usually through a bailiff — to give notice to those who had to be there. And that’s why Dave’s family member David Mitchell of Killomalagh was “summoned to appear at a Court leet.” That didn’t mean he’d done anything he had to answer for; it meant he lived there and everybody who lived there had to show up.

And once people did show up, there was an organized way of proceeding — you can read an entire set of instructions to a steward on how to proceed with a court-leet6 And there’s another short book on the court-leet by Ritson you can look at, too, for more information.7

We’ll leave for another day what happened when somebody was turned in at the court-leet for, say, putting up a post where it shouldn’t have been in the common…

But I will note for the record that the court-leet isn’t simply an anachronism: its functions continued in parts of the United Kingdom until 1977, and there still are operating court-leets even today in some parts of England.8


SOURCES

  1. Judy G. Russell, “Divorce or dalliance in early Canada,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 26 Jan 2012 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 31 Oct 2013).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 288, “court-leet.”
  3. Robert Malcolm Kerr, ed., Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the Fourth: Of Public Wrongs (London : John Murray, 1867), 322-323; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 31 Oct 2013).
  4. An earlier work by English lawyer Giles Jacob reports that courts-leet were to be held twice a year, not just once. See Giles Jacob, The Complete Court-Keeper: or; Land-Stewart’s Assistant (London : Royal Law-Printer, 1764), 3; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 31 Oct 2013).
  5. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 516, “frank-pledge.”
  6. Jacob, The Complete Court-Keeper: or; Land-Stewart’s Assistant (London : Royal Law-Printer, 1764), 28-68 and even sample minutes of the various aspects of what a court-leet might do in Jacob’s 1764 book, The Complete Court-Keeper: or; Land-Stewart’s Assistant.[6. Ibid., 126-137.
  7. Joseph Ritson, The Jurisdiction of the Court Leet…, 2d ed. (London : W Clark & Sons, 1809); digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 31 Oct 2013).
  8. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “court leet,” rev. 27 July 2013.
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