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English Legal History: Important Points to Understand in Early English Law/Cases

English Currency

It may be important or at least a point of interest for a researcher to determine the relative amounts of money cases are being argued over. Sometimes the sums are very large and other times they are quite trivial. The table below gives the Mark (not a coin but a unit of measure for accounting) then its relative value in shillings (s) and pence (d) and pound (£). If you need some help figuring out relative values remember that twelve (12) pence equals one (1) shilling and twenty (20) shillings equals one (1) pound.

English Monetary Units


Shilling (s) and Pence (d)

Pound (£)


13s 4d



26s 8d






53s 4d



66s 8d





To Translate old English currency values into modern values with an easy to use calculator check out this site.

Modern currency values are highly inflated compared to currency values in the year 1270. Below is an example showing modern values to old English currency around the year 1270 (decimal points rounded up). These values were calculated using RPI, a value calculator that bases its values on the buying power of a currency value over the years. For example (completely hypothetical and overly simplified), if $1 could purchase a moon rock in 1980 but by 1990 it would cost $2, the purchasing power of the $ decreased by half / inflated by double.


English Currency Value circa 1270

English Currency Value circa 2011

U.S. Currency Value circa 2011


13s 4d



From the modern translation of 1 mark (13s 4d) into  £522.00 or $789.00 we can see why there were cases heard before England's highest courts for amounts that may sound small to modern readers. A case in the year 1270 disputing 13 shillings and 4 pence is the equivalent of a case in modern England disputing £522.00 or $789.00 in the modern United States. Essentially, the value of 13s 4d in the year 1270 is now worth 10,440s. Put another way, £1 in the year 1270 is now worth £782.50, an inflation of 782.5%. The table below shows the relative values for 1 mark, 1 pound, and 1 shilling.

English Currency Value circa 1270

English Currency Value circa 2011

U.S. Currency Value circa 2011

1 Mark










The Rulers of England - Kings and Queens



Period of Reign

Interesting Facts

William I (William the Conqueror)


First Norman king of England

William II



Henry I


Son of William I and brother of William II. Took power after his brother William II died in a hunting accident… which Henry was accompanying at the time.


1135-39, 1148-1154 (contested - See "Anarchy")


“Anarchy” 1139-1148 (Time of disputed rulers - Henry I had named his daughter Matilda as his heir to the crown. Additionally, most of the Barons of England recognized Matilda as the rightful heir. However, upon the death of Henry I, Stephen, Matilda's cousin, seized the crown. Stephen was able to rule for a few years until the dispute broke down into an age of civil war. Stephen eventually regained his crown, though still disputed, but Matilda's heirs would have the final victory. In 1153 Matilda's son Henry (later to become Henry II) invaded England and forced Stephen into a treaty whereby Stephen officially recognized Henry as his heir.)


Henry II



Richard I (Richard the Lionheart)


Led the Third Crusade




Henry III



Edward I



Edward II



Edward III



Richard II



Henry IV



Henry V



Henry VI




Edward IV

1461-1470, 1471-1483


Edward V

1483 (April to June)

Twelve years old at time of his reign. His reign was dominated by his Uncle, Richard III. After Richard III took power he sent Edward V to Tower of London “for his own safety,” but was never seen again.

Richard III



Henry VII



Henry VIII



Edward VI 1547-1553



Mary I (Bloody Mary)


Catholic Queen known for her bloody prosecution against Protestants

Elizabeth I




James I (James VI of Scotland)




Charles I




The Commonwealth



The “commonwealth,” in this context, refers to the government established after the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I.



The “protectorate” was an evolution of the commonwealth government into one ruled by the "Lord Protector" Oliver Cromwell. The protectorate continued on for some time with the son of Oliver Cromwell, Richard Cromwell.

Chaos 1659-1660



The period when the protectorate broke down and internal strife fractured Parliament's unity; thus allowing Charles II to eventually regain the crown.

Charles II



Charles II reestablished the English monarchy.

James II




William III (William of Orange) & Mary II 1689-1702



William & Mary - namesake of the Virginia university





George I



George II



George III


George III was the king during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. He was also the king during the era of Napoleon. His armies successfully opposed and eventually defeated Napoleon. The final battle was at Waterloo, the English troops led by Wellington and their Prussian allies led by Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher.

George IV



William IV







Edward VII



George V



Edward VIII



George VI



Elizabeth II 1952-Present


Elizabeth’s heir apparent is her eldest son, Charles Prince of Wales. Prince Charles has held the position as heir apparent since 1952 (when he was three years old). Elizabeth is one of the longest reigning English monarchs.

The King's Bench

Pyne, William Henry; Combe, William (1904) [1809] "Guildhall" The Microcosm of London or London in Miniature"Volume II ed.). London: Methuen and Company, pp. Plate 42 Retrieved on 13 July 2011

The King's Bench (or Queen's Bench during the reign of a Queen) was originally founded in 1215 as one of the Highest Courts in England, being co-equal with the Court of Common Pleas, but hearing - in theory - different cases. Originally the court accompanied the King where ever he traveled and heard matters relating to royal issues. Eventually the court was permanently placed at Westminster. Today, the court is one of the divisions within the High Court of Justice in England and Wales.

Essential Vocabulary

Below is a short list of some of the more common legal terms found in early English cases that most modern U.S. law students are likely unfamiliar with. 

Law French - Law French is a type of special language used in early English courts in a way akin to today's courts use of Latin. Early English courts used their native English, Law French, and Latin. Thus, it is important to be able to distinguish when Law French is used and what it means. Law French derives from the form of French used by the Normans. It was then influenced by developing popular Parisian French and English. The resulting hodgepodge became a standard in English courts after the Norman Conquest. It continued to be used - though more sparingly - for centuries. Some Law French survives to this day: attorney, plaintiff, defendant, bailiff, parole, chattel, estop, culprit, escheat, etc.... For a guide on the use of Law French see Manual of Law French by Professor Sir John H. Baker.

Assize - In early English law, a session or proceeding of court, a judicially supervised inquest conducted by a jury into the factual matter of a case.

Assize to be taken - A jury will decide the issue

Grand Assize - An assize composing of twenty four (24) knights/nobles

Proof by Body - A judicially supervised battle between parties, the victor of the battle being declared the victor of the case. Each party generally would have sworn an oath before God, each asking God to give victory to the rightful party. The courts believed God would decide the battle and thus decide the case. Only a defendant could request Proof by Body. It became common for each party to hire warriors to fight in their place. Only allowed in certain types of cases.

Wager of Law - A type of "proof" a defendant could offer to prove his defense. Essentially, if the defendant could present twelve (12) men to pledge to the defendant's side of the story, under oath to God, then the defendant automatically won. This type of defense was most powerful in the 1200's but began fade in later centuries. Restricted to certain types of cases.

Traverse/Traversable - A party to the action is allowed to deny an allegation of fact.

Non-Traversable - Means a party is not allowed to deny an allegation of fact (today we are not familiar with the concept that a party is not even allowed to try and prove or disprove a factual claim but in early English law it was common.

Imparl - A continuance 

Serjeant - A lawyer at trial representing a client

Writ - In early English law a writ was a formal written order issued under royal authority allowing one party to bring charges/claims against another. The writs began as an oddity necessary for parties to have their dispute heard by the King himself. However, as the legal system became more standardized permanent courts were established to take over this role. Additionally, while the original writs were drafted to specifically match the circumstances of the parties, this to began to change. In the year 1258 the creation of new writs was banned. As a response, those wishing to have their cause heard by the royal courts were forced to fit their claim into one of the existing writs, e.g., Writ of Debt, Writ of Detinue, etc.... Over time the strict ban was eased (see writs for Trespass on the Case). 

Trespass (writs) - A wrongful act against a person, property, or other thing. Included: Trespass to land, Trespass to property, Trespass (breach) of the peace, Nuisance, Trespass on the Case (Where the court makes up an individualized writ that applies only to the particular case). A latin term that may be used is "Trespass vi et armis," which means "Trespass with force and arms." Trespass with force and arms was used to classify tort actions where the "force" lead directly to injury. The other common trespass action is "on the case." The on the case type of trespass was also a tort action but where the act of the defendant indirectly lead to the injury, i.e., negligence.

Assumpsit (Writs) - A cause of action alleging that a party had assumed a duty or duties pursuant to an agreement, such agreement being either express or implied, and the party breached that duty. A example of this is the Bailment - the Bailor and Bailee relationship. When a party (bailor) leaves property to another party (bailee) for some reason, the bailee assumes certain duties depending on the reason for - thus type of - the bailment. A modern example of a bailment is when a costumer (bailor) leaves clothing with a dry cleaner (bailee). The dry cleaner (bailee) assumes certain duties and responsibilities beyond simply cleaning the clothing. The dry cleaner assumes a certain level of guardianship over the property. By the early 1700's English law recognized six (6) types of bailments, each one with its own types of duties. See Coggs v Barnard, 2 Ld Raym 909 (1703) (where the court discusses the six types of bailments and the writ of assumpsit).

Debt (writ) - The cause of action for the collection of money owed.

Detinue (writ) - The cause of action for the collection/return of property owed.

Account (writ) - Same as debt, but where an “accounting” would be necessary to discover the true amount owed; most often used between merchants.

Covenant (writ) -  Akin to modern day contracts - parties form mutual agreements to some performance. An action for covenant was brought when the parties had made an agreement for a certain performance but one of the parties failed to fulfill their end of that agreement. The relief for a writ of covenant was specific performance.

Date Reckonings

Many early English cases will refer to events, both factual and procedural, by their relation to certain celebrations. For example, one English judge stated, "If perchance the aforesaid William could reveal anything by reason of which the said castle and manor ought not to be restored to Humphrey, then he is to be on the Octave of Michaelmas before the king himself or before his lieges holding his place in England...." Coram Rege Roll, no. 1 (Michaelmas 1273), m.17d; 55 Selden Society 2 (1936) (emphasis added). We can discern the date of the above quoted "Octave of Michaelmas" using the list below. Michaelmas is September 29 and an Octave means 8 days afterwards. Thus, the date is October 7. From the above you can see how important it is to know these dates.

All Hallows - November 1

Ascension Day - 40 days after Easter (May or June)

Candlemas - February 2

Chair of St. Peter - January 22 or February 18

Feast of St Martin - November 11

Lady Day - March 25

Lammas Day - August 1

Michaelmas - September 29

Midsummer Day - June 24

Octave (as in Octave of St. Martin) - One week (8 days) after the stated date (so, November 19)

Quadragesima - First four weeks of Lent (March)

St. Hilary - January 14

Whitsunday (Pentecost) - 7 weeks after Easter (May or June)

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