What was going on with the legal system during the reign of the Tudor and Stuart royalty? England has some of the oldest legal records in the world. Prior to the 16th and 17th centuries, common law dominated court proceedings. Because the courts were relying primarily on an oral system, it was applied differently across different jurisdictions. This means that legal systems could vary depending on which county or town you were looking at. Sometimes, the courts didn’t even have a clear jurisdiction that they were covering!
During the time period we are looking at, many changes were happening in England. The country was seeing a population explosion. This in turn was creating a great deal of income inequity- rich farmers who wanted to protect their money, and poor laborers who were desperate to survive. In earlier centuries, the Catholic Church had provided the majority of poor relief. As the country shifted to Protestantism, it began to fall to the legal system to protect the poor. We'll look in a later section how laws were passed to address this issue.
The growing population and income inequality directly affected the law at this time. Many of the crimes we see in the records relate to what the people at the time would have considered moral failings: drunkenness, fornication, and assault and battery. Scholars think that many of these crimes were underreported. Authorities at the time were very concerned with battling the violence they felt was very prevalent at the time. We’ll take a more detailed look at some court records in another section that shows how often these crimes show up in the records.
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia- Argument over a Card Game, Jan Steen, 17th Century
Agecroft Teachers Notes, Robert Hicks
The Development of Poor Relief in Lancshire, c 1598-1680. Johnathan Healey. The Historical Journal