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Building a Legal System: Common Law Vs. Statutory Law

If you were living in Tudor-Stuart England, what would the law look like? First, let’s talk about what we mean by law. Generally, we are talking about a set of rules that govern our future behavior. In the 16th and 17th century England, many types of laws existed within their system. There were laws that governed the state: these laws concerned people’s obligations to society. This would fit with what we might think of laws today. But they were also concerned about Divine law. Divine law was more concerned about moral conduct. We will be focusing more of our time on the first type, which we can refer to as laws of nations

Laws of nations have two sections that we see in Tudor Stuart England. The first section is referred to as common law. Common law is unwritten. The laws develop through court decisions and custom. We can trace common law in England all the way back to the early Celts and Saxons. This is an oral tradition which still exists in legal systems today. For example, arguments must be made orally in a court of law.

The second section concerns statutory law. This might be the type of law that you are more familiar with, as the US legal system tends to rely more on statutes. In England, statutory law dates to the Magna Carta in 1215. This consists of laws that are written down, which become statutes. This section of the legal system developed rapidly during the 16th and 17th centuries in England, which we will talk about during this event.

Can you think of any example of common law being used in any recent and prominent cases? What about statutory law?

Photo Courtesy of Agecroft Hall


Agecroft Hall Teachers Notes, Robert Hicks.

Governing England Through the Manor Courts, 1550-1850/ Brodie Waddell. The Historical Journal





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