A Brief Overview of the Legal System During Elizabeth's Reign
by Fred Louaillier

The first thing one needs to be aware of is that I am concentrating on Elizabeth's reign only, not before and after -- this is a legal system very much in transition. Also, there are as many different courts in the Tudor kingdom, mostly minor, as we have special election districts, school districts, air quality districts and the like. I'm only touching on the major points and there are many, many exceptions to what I'm about to say. Still, this is enough to bedazzle and confuse your audience.

The first major judicial system I will deal with are the so-called "Councilor Courts." The Councilor Courts derive their authority from the fact they are the sovereign's council. There are three significant Councilor Courts:

There are two extensions of the Privy Council that are very significant in a study of the legal system. First is the Council of the North. By Elizabeth's time, it was essentially a mini-privy council dealing with the northern counties. It has the Star Chamber type of authority for dealing with riot in it's jurisdiction, and Chancery created a sub-office in York under itsauthority, sending cases there.

The other important one is the Council of Wales. It has the same authority in relationship to Wales as the Council of the North does to the Northern Counties.The activities of both are carefully monitored by the Privy Council in London.

The other important courts are the Ancient Courts. They are comprised of the three courts in Westminster and Chancery court. The three in Westminster are:

Chancery Court liked to call itself a court of common sense. You went there if the law was so ancient it obviously produced an injustice, or if the civil law hadn't caught up with whatever your problem was.

Other significant courts are the Admiralty Court -- if it's a crime and occurson the sea, it is under the authority of the Lord Admiral. It may be considered a "councilor court."

There is also the Stannery Court, which deals with mines and mineral rights and some other things.

The other very important court system is the Ecclesiastical Courts. These are divided into two types -- Courts Ordinary and the High Commission.

Courts Ordinary covered the following types of offenses: misbehavior of the clergy. Certain types of misbehavior by the laity, marriages, problems betweenthe laity and clergy, failure to pay tithes, and what is arguably the single most important function that touches everyone -- probate is under the ecclesiastical courts. For example, the will of Sir Ralph Sadler was probated in the Archbishop of Canterbury's court.

The High Commission is just what is sounds like. It is a commission that also sits as a court monitoring and controlling all church activities. Big Father is watching you. It's a court of Ecclesiastics and laymen. In the first part of the reign, the laymen slightly outnumbered the clergy. From 1580 on, the balance went slightly the other way. For our purposes, it is nine members --Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of York, the Bishop of London, and the Bishop of Winchester and the following laymen: Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir Ralph Sadler, Sir Francis Knollys, Dr. Thomas Wilson, Sir Francis Bacon.

It is interesting to note that Elizabeth never seems to have put any peers on the High Commission and all the laymen were Privy Councilors.

One final note: there are dozens of minor courts. Manorial courts, whose authority is rapidly vanishing, Pied Powder Court, who administered justice atfairs relating to commercial matters, and a ton of others much to numerous to mention.


This article first appeared in the April 1996 issue of The Court Newsletter.
© 1994 by Fred Louaillier. All rights reserved.