The Assize Roll of 1299

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The Assize Roll of 1299

This article was first published in the 1967 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise


One of the recent additions to the Societe's library is a translation by F A L de Gruchy of the Assize Roll of 1299. The original Roll, written in Latin, is preserved at the Public Record Office in London. Although it has long been known to historians and there is in the library the manuscript of a French translation by M Chapelais, this is the first attempt that has been made to present the complete document in English.

During the 12th and 13th centuries it was customary for Assizes to be held in Jersey once every three years. Until 1204 they were conducted by visiting Justices from Normandy; after that date by the Warden of the Islands or by his Sub-Warden and Bailiffs. During the latter part of the 13th century the Island was also visited by Justices from England, who were given commissions to inquire into complaints against the administration.

The year 1299 is an important one in Jersey legal history because for the first time the Commission of Assize and the Commission of Inquiry were combined in a single General Eyre and, also for the first time, pleas de quo warranto were heard in the Island. Thus the Assize Roll for that year contains, in addition to particulars of civil and criminal cases, the replies of the Seigneurs and others who were summoned to show by what authority (de quo warranto) they exercised certain rights and privileges. Between the common pleas (civil cases) and the pleas of the crown (criminal cases) there appears a list showing the names of the Warden of the Island, the Receiver, the "chief Bailiff", the Jurats of the King's Court, the "tenants", and the "sworn men of Haro" (six in each parish).

In his History of the Island of Jersey the late Rev George Balleine dismissed the common pleas in a sentence as "a long series of dull civil cases about debts and dowers". In fact, the commonest allegation in the civil cases that were dealt with at this Assize is that the defendant is unjustly in possession of the plaintiff's land or that he has wrongfully detained money belonging to the plaintiff, or his boat, cows, oxen, sheep, hogs or corn.

Details of island life

And many of the other cases, both civil and criminal, are full of interesting details about life in Jersey at this period - from the sonorous complaint of the Prior of Wenlock against false accusations which he alleged had been made against him to the simple claim of Dionisius Le Feuvre for eleven weeks arrears of wages, at the rate of three pence a day, "from the time when the same Dionisius was in the garrison of Jersey castle". Poor Dionisius was unable to produce any evidence in support of his claim and had to be content with the six weeks wages which the former Warden's Receiver magnanimously offered in full settlement.

There are references to pastimes as well as to work: chasing rabbits with sticks and dogs, trapping pigeons (illegally) on the Castle walls, and catching larks with cloak, net and lantern - a sport that was still followed as recently as the end of the 19th century.

Modern criminal cases strangely echo those of 1299, when a boat was stolen from Saie Harbour, a girl was abducted from her home during the night and roysterers created disturbances in and outside taverns. There is fortunately no modern parallel to the charge that was made against John de Barentin - of imprisoning lepers in the King's prison without the permission of the Bailiff.

Those who are interested in the development of our legal system will find in the Assize Roll examples of long forgotten procedures as well as of others which have survived to this day. Parties came before the Justices to jurer treves, to restore property to its rightful owner "under the Viscount's rod", to pray that an important deed be inscribed in the Court rolls in their presence. No doubt this last was an exceptional procedure for a deed of exceptional importance. It related to the division of Vinchelez Manor on the death of Nicholas de Vinchelez and, in addition to having been evidenced by ouie de paroisse in four parish churches and sealed with the seals of the parties, it had been sealed "for the greater certitude of this matter" with the seals of the Bailiff and the Ecclesiastical Court.

Unfortunately no procedural details are given in connection with trials by jury and Clameurs de Haro, which were noticeably more frequent then than now. By way of compensation, however, the Assize Roll contains a full account of cases in which the Viscount was appointed to represent a defendant who had not appeared before the Court, the procedure which is known to Jersey lawyers as defaut, Vicomte partie.

For some time before it was abolished in 1963 this procedure had become a mere formality. It was evidently not so in 1299, when we find the Viscount taking the most active steps to conduct the defence of the absentee - even to the extent of demanding a trial by jury and challenging the right of the King (whose Officer he was) to appoint to the vacant benifice of St Lawrence.

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