CRIME AND JUSTICE Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London judicial administration legal procedure eyre customs franchises ceremony officers record keeping scribes compurgation oath bribery crime detection
Subject: Procedure for conducting an eyre
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Liber Custumarum, ff.222-225
Transcription in: Helen Cam, ed. The Eyre of London, 14 Edward II, A.D. 1321, vol.1, Selden Society, Year Books of Edward II, vol.26, (1968), 5-10.
Original language: Latin
Location: London
Date: ca.1320


How the citizens of London shall act toward the king and his council when pleas are held in the Tower of London

[ .... ]

First, when the barons and citizens have been given official notice that presentments are again to be made concerning attachments and misadventures affecting the royal prerogative, the great and more judicious men of the city ought to and are accustomed to meet in a specified and appropriate location to bring a peaceful resolution to the hostilities, grudges, and disagreements that had previously arisen in the city.

If by chance it should happen that anyone causes trouble in the city and bothers the citizenry, that person should be viewed by all citizens as a public enemy and an outsider, and he and his heirs should be denied and deprived of the privileges of citizenship forever. Because it cannot be allowed that because of such a person the king should seize the city and its franchises into his own hand, to the damage and detriment of the entire city.

Arrangements are to be made for the sheriffs and chamberlain, together with their clerks, to meet at a predetermined place and time (which should be between 29 September and 1 November) before the city council, to go over their rolls for the previous year and check that they agree. This should be undertaken every year within that period, in order that a new roll setting down in writing the attachments and misadventures of each year be drawn up by a capable and competent scribe, who is to be required by an oath to carry out this task faithfully and not to reveal the information to others. Thereby the roll will be added to from year to year; and afterwards it is to be put for safekeeping with the city charters.

Once the king has sent his instructions summoning [an eyre to enquire] into Crown attachments, that writ should be enrolled. If by chance it should happen that the date prescribed in the king's writ for summoning [the eyre] is within a period of less than forty days, then men of judgement and eminence are to be sent to persuade the king and his council to assign them another day in writing. For, according to their ancient franchises and customs, they ought not to be summoned regarding such attachments without at least forty days notice.

Once they have received explicit orders (saving the franchises of the city) for presenting and pleading those attachments and misadventures, each of the aldermen should draw up a separate roll for his own ward, which ought to contain the pledges and attachments pertaining to the Crown [pleas]. They should advise and warn their neighbours to assemble at Barking church on the day assigned and, when directed by the city council, proceed from there to the Tower of London, so that they can make answer, judiciously and with forethought, to those questions put to them by the king and his justices. They should have the names of those who have died written out, distinctly and clearly, so that they can be properly essoined at the gate of the Tower of London, before the constable [of the castle] and the city chamberlain or their deputies, three days in advance of the date for trying the pleas of the Crown. The same instruction is to be followed regarding those out of the country, so that they can be essoined in the same way.

On the day before that on which the pleas of the Crown are expected to be heard, the custom of the city is as follows. That on that day, first thing in the morning, all the laymen of the city should as usual gather at Barking church and, from there, as a body enter the Tower of London, smartly and presentably dressed. No stall, shop, cellar, or plot of land where goods are sold or made may be open during the sessions of the pleas of the Crown at the Tower.

On the same day, six or more of the more eminent, respectable and judicious barons of the city, [chosen] by the common council of the city, are to be sent from Barking church to enter the Tower to greet and welcome the king, his council and his justices on behalf of the city. They are to request them that, if the king pleases, they may appear safely before them in the Tower, saving to the mayor and the other citizens all their franchises and customs – for the king and all his predecessors who were kings of England, and their justices, have always preserved the citizens' franchises and customs safe and intact for them.

Those aforementioned men shall make it known to the king, his council and his justices, that they should in the king's name forbid that anyone presume to guard the entrances or passageways other than citizens whom the citizenry appoint to that task. Nor should any marshal or crier appear among the citizenry, unless one of their number and answerable to them. For, according to the liberty of the city, it is not their custom or obligation to have any doorkeeper, usher, marshal or crier other than those whom they wish, [chosen] from among themselves. All entrances and passageways should be open to the barons and all citizens, for the duration of holding the pleas of the Crown, so that they can come in and go out freely. So it ought to be and has been in the past.

Next, three judicious and sound men should be selected, of whom one should present to the king, his council and his justices, in [chronological] order, those accidents and misadventures falling within purview of the king that have occurred in the city, from the time when the old pleas were last tried, up to the present. The two other men are to stand next to the presenter, one on his left and the other on his right; so that if by chance he happens to become fatigued by making the presentments, one of the others can take over the task. Or if he should make a mistake in presenting any case, the two standing nearby can without speaking alert him to the fact. No-one else, other than the two bystanders already mentioned, is to presume to disturb or correct the presenter in any way. There is to be no uproar, murmuring, quarrelling, or talking back and forth among the people while the presentments are being made. Everyone is to behave peacefully and avoid contentiousness, if they wish to uphold the honour and liberty of the city, and ensure the presenter can be heard and understood by everyone without difficulty.

Let it be known and kept in mind that the city should respond in the following way to all objections made against the barons and all the citizens. They should make no answer unadvisedly, no matter how well they may have been tutored and informed. Instead, after discussing the matter and obtaining communal advice, they should reply as they have been counselled, saving the franchises of the city. For preparing such responses, 24 or more are to be chosen from the common council, who are to have constant access to the common council of the city, so that [the interests of] the citizens are protected and safeguarded. No outsider may go among them, so that he can hear the consultations of the city, while they are engaging in their group discussions.

After the king's justices have shown and delivered to the mayor and barons of the city the articles [concerning pleas] of the Crown, the mayor and barons are immediately to request an adjournment to allow them to take counsel and prepare, so that they can reply to those articles properly on the day assigned them by the justices, and to give them an opportunity during that period to write out and enrol the articles and their prudent responses.

From the group of 24 men (or more) mentioned above, 4 or more are to be designated by common counsel of the city to be associates of the mayor in responding to the articles and to the principal challenges made. The mayor's clerk, together with the common clerk of the city and the sheriffs' clerks, are to sit in front of them to note down memoranda of all challenges made, to avoid them being forgotten through failure to take notes. One of them is to be the chief notetaker, whose notes shall serve as a guide to the others in writing both the king's challenges and the responses of the community.

The following provisions should be made in the cases of sheriffs and aldermen. The sheriffs should have their sergeants present, and every alderman the beadles of his ward, in smart and presentable clothing and footwear, ready and willing to carry out such orders of the mayor and barons of the city as may be given to each one of them; they are to march along in their smartest tunics and surcoats, caps and cloaks removed, carrying straight white rods in their hands. Of these, four or more (depending on needs) are to be assigned as keepers of the entrances and passageways, two as criers, and the remainder as marshals to carry out orders given them. If any of them happens to be old, feeble, infirm, or of poor eyesight, a substitute should be provided in the form of someone else from the community of that same ward who is capable of what is required. And let it be ensured of such men that they are presentable and tastefully dressed, with a fresh shave and haircut.

Note that, according to the ancient franchises and customs of the city of London, there are three forms of purgation in pleas of the Crown whereby those appealed, accused and put on trial can clear themselves. The first is for cases of homicide or murder; this form of purgation is called the Great Law. The second form of purgation applies to cases of mayhem and is called the Middle Law. The third form of purgation can be used in cases of assault, battery, extortion, wounding, bodily harm, bloodshed, and other similar injuries inflicted during the Christmas season, or during Easter week or Whitsuntide, and is called the Third Law.

For anyone for whom it is appropriate to clear himself by the Great Law, the procedure for that law is as follows. He who is appealed, accused, and put on trial should personally take six oaths; that is, in each oath he shall swear that he is guiltless and innocent of felony and breach of the king's peace and of the entire offence laid against him, so help him God and the holy gospels. Afterwards six men shall swear that, to the best of their knowledge and belief, he has sworn a true and sound oath, so help them God and these holy things. And this process is to be continued until the full number of 36 men have sworn, with the accused swearing as indicated above and after him a group of six men, until the entire number indicated above has been completed.

The selection of those thirty-six men ought to be, and is according to the ancient custom of the city of London, done in the following manner. That, with the accused being absent, eighteen men are to be chosen from the east side of the Walbrook and eighteen men from the west side of the Walbrook; they are not to be relatives by birth or blood or members of his family, nor linked to him by marriage or in any other way whatever, but only trustworthy freemen of the city. The names of these are to be read out to the accused. After hearing them he identify to the mayor and barons of the city any of which cause him concern. If he can show a reasonable cause for objecting to them, the names of such men shall be crossed off the list and others chosen in their place to make up the full number, and their names shall be read out to him. Once he is satisfied with the list of names and has committed to their purgation of the accusation against him, then, when the city decides, he may appear before the king's justices to wage his law on a date and at a place assigned. According to the ancient custom of the city, such a person shall have an adjournment of up to a full 40 days [to prepare] for making his law. The names of the thirty six men are to be delivered to the king's justices.

The procedure for performing the Middle Law is as follows. He who is appealed and brought to trial for mayhem should personally take three oaths. In each oath he shall swear that he is guiltless and innocent of that felony and breach of the king's peace and of the entire offence laid against him, so help him God and these holy things. After him, six men shall swear that, to the best of their knowledge and belief, he has sworn a true and lawful oath, so help them God and these holy things. And this process is to be continued until the full number of eighteen men have sworn, with the accused swearing first as indicated above and after him a group of six men, until the entire number indicated above has been completed.

For the selection of the eighteen men, the same procedure is to be followed for everything as indicated above for the Great Law.

The procedure in performing the Third Law is as follows. He who is accused of assault, battery, extortion, wounding, bodily harm, bloodshed or similar types of injuries, inflicted during the abovementioned festival seasons, should personally take a single oath that he is guiltless and innocent of the offence laid against him and of breach of the king's peace during festival season, so help him God and these holy things. After him, six men shall swear that, to the best of their knowledge and belief, he has sworn a true and lawful oath, so help them God and these holy things. Let it be known that these six men are to be chosen from the neighbourhood where the accused lives. However, they are not to be relatives by birth or blood or members of his family, nor linked to him by marriage or in any other way whatever, but only trustworthy men of that neighbourhood and freemen of the city. Whose names are to be read out to the accused, etc., as above indicated regarding the Great Law.

By consent of the community of the city, the two aldermen nearest the Tower are under orders to go into the Tower three days before the sessions of the Crown, for purposes of inspecting the benches in the great hall to see that they are in good shape. If they happen to be broken, they are to have them properly repaired at the expense of the city. Similarly, they are to have a strong bench made for the middle of the hall, with three seats, to be placed in the middle of the hall facing the great seat of the king. The mayor and the barons of the city may sit upon this when responding to the king and his justices on matters relating to [pleas of] the Crown.

Since it is impossible for the barons and entire citizenry of London to proceed with pleas of the Crown elsewhere than before the king and his justices, the barons and citizenry are obliged to secure their favour and good will – that is, by lavish bestowal of generous gifts on them and their clerks, just as previous barons and citizens of London (who have so manfully and strenuously administered and protected the city of London and its franchises and customs at other times) have been accustomed to do. It is not dishonourable or shameful to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, who were experts in their time; therefore it is advisable for us to do as they did, to avoid the citizens being disquieted and vexed by [legal] challenges, instead of being left in peaceful possession of their franchises.

If the mayor and barons of the city are asked who are the presenters [of offences] and the finders of those killed, murdered or otherwise having suffered misadventure, it has been decided in common that the answer should be as follows. No matter what the usage of the realm is outside the city, the ancient custom and franchises of the city prescribe that there are in London no presenters or finders of such things. For in a city with such a large population, it is impossible to conceal occurrences of that sort – even before the bailiffs can be informed, news of them spreads throughout the entire city. Consequently, there are no such [presenters or finders] in the city, nor have there been in the past, but only reports from the general populace of the city.


This document cannot quite be considered to typify the same matter in other towns, not merely because London was always in a class of its own, but because the eyres were held only in counties and London was (at this period) the only city that was also a county. Professor Cam plausibly argued that this set of instructions was likely drawn up, based on examination of records of previous eyres, by the hypothesised compiler of the Liber Custumarum, Andrew Horn, in late 1320, after the king had decreed that an eyre would be held in London.

An eyre was always a nerve-wracking event for its host community. Since eyres undertook a broad investigation of general governance and public behaviour for the previous several years at least, and since errors were inevitably found and fines levied, the eyre was probably perceived as just another way of extorting money for the king. As was noted in Liber Custumarum, once the Londoners heard the news about an eyre – several weeks notice being required – they not only examined their copies of records of previous eyres, but also took legal counsel, prepared what they would present at the eyre, and where possible settled legal disputes out of court.

In this case, London had particular cause to worry. The eyre had become so cumbersome by the late thirteenth century as to make itself obsolescent. London had hosted no eyre during Edward I's reign. Edward II, however, attempted a limited revival, with an eyre in Kent (1313) and that in London. The decade or so leading up to the London eyre had seen reforming and reactionary administrations alternate in London. Baronial opponents to Edward II had stimulated demands for reform of the city government and the city had, in general, seemed sympathetic to Edward's enemies, led by Henry of Lancaster. The king had been obliged to confirm in 1319 a set of new administrative regulations produced by the reformers.

The eyre of 1321 has been interpreted as his tool for revenge. Justices in eyre were supposed to make allowance for local custom when administering common law. Instead, over an exhausting five-month session during 1321 they systematically challenged London's customs and franchises, demanding the citizens provide documentary proof for each, and rejecting those that they felt went against royal prerogative. One by one the franchises were suspended, pending further examination by the king's council. It has also been suggested that Despenser, a rising power, was flexing his muscles or, at the least, encouraging Edward to subjugate London to their authority.

Londoners offered some resistance through their leaders, among them Andrew Horn, and eventually had their own revenge when in 1326 they followed Lancaster into the camp of Isabella and Mortimer and assisted with Edward's overthrow, even taking the lead in agitating for his deposition; the justices of the 1321 eyre were searched for (in vain) by the angry mobs. In return London was allowed to submit to the 1327 Parliament a long list of petitions, which made frequent reference to the depredations of the eyre. A new charter of liberties, responding to the requests in the petitions, was granted restoring London's liberties and even adding new ones – such as criminal jurisdiction for London's court (not previously held except presumably during the period when London had a justiciar), thanks to the mayor being made an ex officio justice of gaol delivery.

There were no more eyres in London. Although Edward III threatened London with them once or twice, it was with a view to being bribed to drop the idea.



Barons was a name applied to Londoners almost uniquely (the Cinque Portsmen were also so described), as an alternate to citizens. FitzStephen equated the two terms. Here however barons and citizens seems mutually exclusive categories, and likely refer to the aldermen (and other men of that group of wealthy and propertied residents) and the commons.

"it cannot be allowed that because of such a person"
Ironically, this is just what happened as a result of this eyre: the king confiscated London's franchises upon the eyre giving credence to complaints that a murderer had evaded punishment by, after the fact, bribing the mayor to make him a freeman, so that he be tried according to London custom. Professor Cam suspected this a pretext on the part of the Edward II to justify the seizure. However, kings as a whole were quick to seize city liberties, as a means of assering their authority and forcing citizens to pay a large fine to repossess their privileges.

"Barking church"
All Hallows, Barking, the closest city church to the Tower.

"by the common council of the city"
It is not easy to say whether phrases such as per commune consilium civitatis in the text should be translated as referring to a common council (i.e. a formal element of city government) or to communal counsel (i.e. a process of taking advice with the community, or its representatives). The evidence for a formal common council as a permanent part of London's constitution at this period is not unambiguous – in fact the document above is one of the principal sources used to argue for the existence of such a council. Professor Cam appears to have been uncertain, using both translations in different contexts without any evident logic. I am no more certain and also use both possible translations, not always in the same way as Professor Cam. One reference coram consilio civium suggests that there was a specific body of men with conciliar status. However, this does not mean that other uses of consilium in the text refer to such a body, rather than a process of consultation. The Londoners probably did not distinguish, or concern themselves about a distinction, between the process and the institution, for the latter was simply a mechanism for the former.

The term here translated "sound" is moderati and perhaps implies self-controlled and unexcitable (in the face of provocative questioning by the justices and lawyers).

"principal challenges"
The "principal challenges" (obiecta) made stemmed from the court's investigation of the crimes presented, and concerned matters such as why city officials failed to take certain actions, why witnesses or other parties implicated in a case were not present in court, etc. Some other matters, such as points of law or technicalities of London custom, might be responded to by the city recorder or its lawyers.

A symbol of office.

"three forms of purgation"
These forms of purgation were, ironically, already out of favour with the citizenry, who usually preferred the opt for trial by jury.

A class of offence in which there occurred a serious and permanent injury to someone (i.e. maiming).

"the Walbrook"
A stream that divided London into eastern and western halves.

"two aldermen"
The aldermen who performed this duty in 1321 were in charge of Tower Ward and Langbourn Ward. Tower Ward was immediately east of the Tower; Langbourn, to the north-east of Tower Ward, was in fact not as close as Aldgate or even, it could be argued, Billingsgate.

"strong bench"
It was elsewhere specified that the cost of building the central bench (and perhaps of repairing existing Tower benches) was to be covered by the two aldermen, presumably from ward revenues.

"three seats"
What has been translated here as "three seats" (triplici sedilio) might instead mean a bench three times as big as a standard one.

The eyres had too much ground to cover, both geographically and in terms of the wide range of offences dealt with; as the volume of litigation increased dramatically in the thirteenth century, the frequency of sessions and circuits decreased. By the time of the final suspension of the eyre (1331), the judicial work was being taken over by regularized sessions of assizes, gaol delivery, and (increasingly) the peace – which focused on the major towns as their venues – as well as by more ad hoc commissions of trailbaston and other oyer and terminer. As in many areas of government, itinerant judicial administration was the product of experimentation.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: May 25, 2007 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2007