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A Guide to English Medieval Government….

Court of King's Bench - time Henry VI

Court of the King’s Bench Time of Henry VI

If, like me, you become puzzled or just downright confused by all the different offices, posts, departments and so on of English medieval government (many of which still exist today), then the site below is very helpful for clearing the confusion. After all, is it not bewildering to find that ‘in the king’s presence’ doesn’t mean he was present at all? “From the reign of Edward I, a Chief Justice of Common Pleas headed the panel of judges. Common Pleas was known contemporarily as ‘the Bench’ (banc), while King’s Bench was called ‘Coram rege’ (in the presence of the King – although the King was not actually present.)”

I recommend a dip into Medieval English Government by J.P. Somerville.

What is a Wapentake?

English counties were divided into smaller administrative units. Normally, these are called ‘Hundreds’ but in the former Danelaw, they are called ‘Wapentakes’.

It is thought the name comes from the ancient practice of brandishing weapons to signal assent.

If a wapentake was in crown hands the sheriff would hold his ‘tourn’ there at intervals, usually twice a year, to receive indictments against all those who needed to be tried by royal judges and ensure those indicted were in custody.

If the wapentake was in private hands (as many were) the lord (or lady) could either allow the sheriff to hold a tourn, or alternatively organise a similar process under his own authority. Writs from the King would go to the lord of such a wapentake, instead of, as normal, to the sheriff.

In  some cases (not all) the lord could appoint the coroner and even hang felons.

It was a very complex system, and much depended on what rights had been ceded to the lord, often in the distant past.

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