Tag Archives: christianity

The Law of Pandemics

Infectious and communicable diseases have been affecting humans for many thousands of years and ancient populations suffered many of the diseases our modern society is inflicted with, for example a 2008 study recently concluded that Tuberculosis is at least 9,000 years old from an analysis of ancient skeletons. However, it is only since the rise of agriculture and cultivation 11,000 years ago, and the associated wider mixing of communities and establishment of trade routes, that infectious diseases have had the channels available to more readily spread across populations as a whole.


Hippocrates (credit: Wikipedia)

The word epidemic originates around 2,500 years ago and the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates prominently used it in his set of books ‘Epidemics’ as an adjective to mean a disease “which circulates or propagates in a country” and its exact meaning and usage has evolved over time. The first recorded usage of the word pandemic is much later in Harvey’s ‘Anatomy of Consumptions’ (1666), its origin taken from the ancient Greek ‘pan’ to mean ‘all’ and ‘demos’ meaning ‘people/country’ and its definition as a noun is now commonly accepted to be “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population” (Meriam-Webster). Incidentally, Harvey suggested preventative measures for pandemic diseases, two of which were for an individual to “walk daily in a pleasant, airy and umbragious [shady] garden, park or field” and eat less “flesh-meat”, meaning animals.

The first detailed account of a pandemic in global history is the disease that reached and spread through Athens (believed to have originated near Ethiopia) in 430 BC, the symptoms and effect of which were recorded by the Greek historian Thucydides. It is believed to have killed one third of the population of ancient Athens. The symptoms comprised fever, inflammation of the eyes and throat and difficulty breathing, amongst other things. Whilst there has been much debate amongst historians about what disease this pandemic involved, two prominent suggestions are Typhoid and Measles.


The Plague of Justinian (credit: Devastating Disasters)

Another significant early pandemic was the emergence of the Plague of Justinian in 541 AD in the Byzantine Empire and named after then emperor Justinian I. During the following two centuries, it spread throughout the world across a number of outbreaks, likely first hitting Britain in the year 597 AD, at that time attributed to travellers from abroad and their attempts to convert pagan Britain to Christianity. A further outbreak occurred in 664 (later known as ‘The Yellow Plague’) which may have killed one third of the population. Anglo-Saxon monk-historian Bede in his ‘Ecclesiastical History’ states that this plague began on 1 May 664 and coincided with a total solar eclipse. The Yellow Plague may have been viewed at the time as an omen of dire times to come and in the following centuries may have been re-framed by religious authority figures as a communal punishment for transgression against God’s laws and due to the paganism of the British people at that time. Scientists have recently concluded that it is likely that the disease of Justinian’s Plague was caused by the same bacteria that caused the very well-known pandemic Black Death in Europe in the 14th Century.


A Black Death plague doctor (credit: Wikipedia).

The European outbreak of the Black Death began in Sicily in October 1347 and, prior to the start of the Black Death in England in 1348, the vast majority of English epidemics since 664 (in the wider sense) were famine-sickness related and were a relatively common but less impactful occurrence. The Black Death’s impact was like nothing the world had seen and is believed to have entered Britain in August 1348 and quickly spread to London by the end of the year, leading Parliament to be prorogued on 1 January 1349. The disease ravaged the country and drastically thinned the population by an estimated 30-40% over the course of 1349. In response to a sudden loss of workers, King Edward III issued the Ordinance of Labourers on 18 June 1349 which stated that all those under the age of 60 must work and employers could not pay, nor employees demand, wages that exceeded pre-Black Death (1346) amounts. Generally seen as ineffective in a practical sense, Parliament tried to reinforce the Ordinance by passing the Statute of Labourers in 1351 which is widely considered the origin of English labour law. Again, practically this did not work because workers were now at a premium. Farm wages in 1351 were two or three times the amount of pre-Black Death wages and generally farming wages on the whole doubled between 1350 and 1450. These restrictive labour laws were also a significant factor in the cause of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 which had a number of wide-ranging impacts on Britain’s societal and class structure. Instances of the bubonic plague occurred in England (on lesser scales) throughout the next two centuries and lastly affected England in 1666. Whilst quarantining in the time of the Black Death had been followed informally at a personal level, it was not until the Quarantine Act of 1710 where the quarantining of incoming ships and crews to prevent the plague travelling from country to country was formally introduced. A number of further Quarantine Acts followed introducing various procedures and quarantine mechanisms, eventually being repealed by the Public Health Act of 1896.

A number of global pandemics have affected the UK, ranging from Smallpox across the 16th and 17th centuries, various outbreaks of the bubonic plague, cholera and influenza and more recently the Spanish Flu of 1918-19 and Swine Flu of 2009-10, amongst others. Responses to some of which have been direct and indirect catalysts for changes in English law. The response to the current global pandemic (Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)) is a prime example of such legal changes.


Global Pandemic (credit: Axios)

Particularly severe cholera outbreaks in 1831-32 brought to the forefront of people’s minds the poor conditions of sanitation in the cities of the UK. Eventually, following consultation and papers for reform, this led to the introduction of the Public Health Act 1848 which introduced a Central Board of Health whose remit was improving supplies of water, drainage and sewerage, as well as regulating the country’s environmental health with local authorities being responsible for practical implementation. Whilst this initial Act was limited in its scope, a more comprehensive Public Health Act 1875 was later passed which also required each local authority to have a medical and sanitary officer whose powers extended to isolating patients in hospital, requiring the disinfection of property and belongings, suspension of schools and temporary closure of businesses. The key principles of the late 19th Century for improving public health were adequate sewers, removal of rubbish and clean drinking water.

A particularly bad pandemic of Smallpox in 1870-1875 led to the introduction of other relevant pandemic laws of note, being the Vaccination Acts 1885, 1898 and 1907 which required compulsory vaccination. These Acts were met with much opposition as there was fiery debate at the time about the causes of infectious diseases and the effectiveness of vaccines.

Supplementing these Acts were the Infectious Disease (Notification) Acts of 1889 and 1899 which required General Practitioners and people generally to report cases of infectious diseases to the local authority; failure to do so would incur a fine of up to 40 shillings. Over the following decades, various specific health Acts were introduced, prominently among them being the 1936 and 1961 Acts which built on and reiterate the provisions of the older Public Health Acts.

The bedrock of English law relating to infectious diseases specifically is the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984 which modernises and extends many of the general powers described above that appeared in the Public Health Act 1875. This Act, together with a large number of supplementary Acts and regulations, is what gives the Government the authority to take the recent actions they have in response to Covid-19 (e.g. closing of non-essential businesses). With the reorganisation of the National Health Sefvice in 1974 and 1990, the responsibility for relevant community healthcare moved from local authorities to the National Health Service although legal responsibility for infectious diseases still remained with the local authorities which made the performance of certain duties in this respect more difficult, and by whom, ambiguous.


Covid-19 (credit: New Scientist)

The most recent pandemic which is rapidly spreading across the world is Covid-19 (originating in Wuhan, China in late 2019) which as at 26 March 2020, has infected 491,180 people across the world and caused 22,165 deaths. In response to the pandemic Parliament has passed, in force as of 25 March 2020, the Coronavirus Act 2020. This Act defines coronavirus to be severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-Cov-2) and the coronavirus disease means Covid-19. This Act grants wide powers to the police to suspend public gatherings, to detain people suspected to be infected by Covid-19 and for the Government to intervene in a number of industries to limit the spread of Covid-19. Related regulations are The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 which came into force on 10 February 2020 which supplement the provisions of the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984. The regulations allow for the designation of certain buildings as isolation facilities and for people to be kept in isolation where there is a reasonable risk of spreading Covid-19. The Coronavirus Act 2020 has a 2 year time limit (25 March 2022) and can be extended by 6 months at government ministerial discretion, although the Act is subject to 6 monthly renewal by Parliament. It is apparent that the UK Government felt they needed the powers afforded by this additional legislation to provide an effective legal framework for its response to Covid-19. This may have been due to the out-of-date nature of the law relating to infectious diseases and public health generally, the framework for which dates back to the mid-19th Century.

Given provisions in the Covid-19 legislation to delay or prevent the eviction of residential and business tenants from their properties and supporting employers to pay their employees 80% of their wages if they cannot work due to Covid-19, it is probable that a post-Covid-19 UK will face difficult legal and ethical questions regarding the extent to which certain laws should be amended for the public good generally. There will undoubtedly be a knock-on effect on the laws regulating a number of industries and workplaces and relating to issues affecting us all. The Covid-19 pandemic and the UK Government’s response to it will hold a clear mirror up to our laws and societal structure. There will be permanent changes to both but, for the moment, it is not yet known the extent to which the Law of Pandemics will become the Law of the Land.


Filed under English Legal History

History of Divorce

divorce picDivorce is perhaps the civil legal issue which most grabs the attention of modern society and one does not have to look far to see high profile media coverage of celebrity divorces and the intrigue surrounding them. Many people have a personal experience of divorce, either of their own marriage or of the marriage of a close relative or friend. Given that 42% of marriages in England and Wales now end by divorce and the average duration of marriages is 11.7 years (Office for National Statistics), it is surprising that divorce has only relatively recently become easier to obtain and for many centuries was first a legal and then a practical impossibility.

In the Anglo-Saxon period in England (pre-1066), there are examples of divorces being legitimate by consent only. It was the medieval interpretation of Christian scripture by Church scholars which led to the concept of marriage as unbreakable. For example, an extract of the Bible at Mark 10:2-12 states: “What God has joined together, let no one separate”.

Until the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, the law of divorce in England and Wales was governed by Ecclesiastical law and was under the jurisdiction of the Church Courts. Broadly, the Church Courts would only declare a marriage a “nullity” (and not allow divorce) with the effect that a marriage was deemed to have never existed, rather than divorced. The grounds for a declaration of nullity were that there was no consent at the time of marriage, there were other grounds of incapacity or that the marriage could not be consummated due to impotency or frigidity on the part of one of the parties. A lack of consent could be proved in several ways. If it could be evidenced that one party faced undue pressure or was insane or generally there had been a mistake, the marriage could be declared a nullity. Alternatively, if the parties were too young, they were deemed to be incapable of giving valid consent to the marriage. The age of consent for an agreement to marry in the future was a mere 7 years old and generally the age of puberty applied for actually entering into a marriage (initially set at 12 years old for girls and 14 years old for boys). The minimum age for validly consenting to marriage was equalised for boys and girls and raised to 16 years old by the Age of Marriage Act 1929, although in England and Wales, you are required to have your parents’ consent to marry if you are 16 or 17 years old.

Incapacity could be shown by the fact that there had been a previous marriage with another spouse, the parties were within a certain degree of blood relationship or a certain degree of affinity relationships. Affinity meant for example that a man who had had sex with a woman’s sister was forbidden to marry that woman. The prohibited degrees of blood relationship always included marriage between a parent and their child and the modern law prohibits marriage in a myriad of blood relationship circumstances, for example marriage to the granddaughter of a former wife until both parties are over 21 years old and where the granddaughter until 18 years old had not been in a family relationship with the potential husband.

This doctrine of nullity bears similarities to the more modern principles of annulment, whereby a marriage can be annulled for several reasons and treated as if it never existed. A marriage can be annulled if the parties are closely related, one party is under 16 years old, one party is already married, the two parties have not had sex with each other since the start of the marriage, one party did not consent to the marriage, one party had a sexually transmitted infection/disease at the time of the marriage or the woman was pregnant by another man at the time of the marriage. An annulment can be applied for at any time after the marriage and the 1 year waiting period before applying for a divorce of a marriage does not apply.

The famous divorce case of Henry VIII in the 16th Century was a flexible interpretation of the Ecclesiastical law principles referred to above and was a key driver of divorce reform in 16th and 17th Century England and Wales. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of Henry VIII, Thomas Cranmer, suggested divorce should be allowed on the grounds of adultery, cruelty, desertion or bitter opposition. Over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, several Acts of Parliament were passed permitting the divorce by wealthy nobles of their wives on the grounds of adultery and private members’ bills in Parliament became common to achieve these divorces. This avenue of divorce became open to less wealthy parties as it became common practice to bring your divorce case first in front of the Ecclesiastical Courts and which would then lead on to a petition to the House of Lords to pass the appropriate Act of Parliament. Adultery was therefore confirmed as a ground for divorce by the above convoluted process.

henry VIII divorce

The Society for Promoting the Amendment of the Law in the 1850s published proposals suggesting that divorce should be dealt with in a separate Court and should be a cheaper process. These proposals were accepted and by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes came into existence and the Ecclesiastical jurisdiction over divorce was abolished. The 1857 reforms only changed procedure and adultery remained as the only ground available for divorce. If a wife was the party claiming a divorce, she had to prove cruelty or desertion, in addition to the act of adultery by her husband.

Abuse of the new procedure by wealthy Victorian families, combined with clashes between the Government of the time and the Church, meant that further reform was slow in coming. A Royal Commission in 1912 suggested that cruelty or 3 years’ desertion should be introduced as separate grounds for divorce and that the rights between wives and husbands should be equalised. The Church was opposed to anything that widened the possibility of divorce and the recommendations of the Royal Commission were defeated in 1914. A further Royal Commission in 1923 attempted the same reforms but only succeeded in equalising the rights between wives and husbands. As a matter of practice, married couples often contrived to stage an act of adultery by the husband to achieve a divorce ‘by consent’. In 1935 a committee within the Church finally agreed to the proposals originally suggested by the Royal Commission in 1912. Further reform suggestions were delayed until post-Second World War and in 1951 a bill was presented in Parliament to permit divorce by consent after separation for 7 years. A Royal Commission argued against this proposal in 1955, however Lord Walker in the arguments of that 1955 Royal Commission dissented and suggested divorce should be permitted where a marriage had irretrievably broken down. After a further 10 years, this approach was endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and was brought into law by the Divorce Reform Act 1969.

The current position is set out in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and the sole ground for divorce is that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. This breakdown can be proved by the fact of adultery by one of the parties, unreasonable (abusive) behaviour, 2 years’ separation if both parties consent, 2 years’ desertion or 5 years’ separation if only one party consents. Originally under the 1973 Act, the parties had to wait until 3 years into the marriage before a divorce could be applied for but this period was reduced to 1 year by the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984.

Since 2004 in the United Kingdom, people of the same sex have been able to enter into civil partnerships and from 2014, same sex marriages have been lawful. Whilst the rights of same sex married couples are broadly aligned with those of opposite sex married couples, there are several surprising inequalities. Notably adultery as a ground for divorce can only be used by same sex married couples as sexual intercourse is defined as being between a man and a woman and for annulment, the ground of not having had sex with each other since the start of the marriage is not available for same sex married couples.

Following several highly publicised divorce cases, senior judicial figures in England and Wales have called for reform of ‘out-dated’ divorce laws, which are now almost 50 years’ old. The current grounds for divorce necessitate the proving of fault and suggested reforms revolve around introducing the concept of ‘no-fault’ divorces, with a focus on maintaining family and children relationships, as well as achieving more through mediation processes, rather than through the Court system. A ‘no-fault’ divorce reform was introduced into by Parliament in 2015 by way of a private members’ bill but this was not passed. The UK Government’s stated position is that it will consider all the evidence for divorce reform as part of its wider reforms of the family justice system but that the Government would not “rush to a conclusion” regarding divorce reform.


Filed under English Legal History

The Semantics of “Sanctuary”: Why Sanctuary Cities are no safe haven

Ben Darlow and Charlie Eastaugh*

Westminster AbbeyTalk of “sanctuary cities” has become flavour of the day in recent months, with a growing interest in their legality and—to the contrary—the unconstitutionality of federal attempts to attack such havens (as demonstrated by a January 2017 Executive Order, analysed by Garett Epps here). Volokh Conspiracy bloggers at the Washington Post have provided insightful commentary in line with the growing interest in this complicated area of constitutional law, including a helpful overview from Ilya Somin here, and executive order analysis here. This week David Post cited the English Legal History Blog, in arguing that the moniker “sanctuary” is misapplied and misleading. We will attempt to support such a claim in more detail.

Contemporary American legal context
Decades-old Supreme Court precedent gives us constitutional context for this issue. First, New York v. United States (1992) made clear that the 10th Amendment prevents “commandeering” of state governments to enforce participation in federal regulatory programmes. This was applied to the criminal context in Printz v. United States (1997), where a 5-4 majority led by the late Justice Scalia held unconstitutional certain provisions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act on similar anti-commandeering grounds.

In NFIB v. Sebelius (2012)—as helpfully flagged by Somin—federal funding conditions with the effect of such commandeering are also unconstitutional. In sum, cities (or even full states) are free to operate in a way that rejects federal cooperation, especially with respect to immigration policies and legislative requirements such as that contained in Section 1373 of the United States federal code (8 U.S.C. § 1373). Section 1373 mandates cooperation between states and the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the January 2017 Executive Order has threatened to attach funds to that requirement. Making funding conditional on such strictures is likely to engage a constitutional question under the 10th Amendment (as outlined above), the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the 14th Amendment’s due process clause, which have been held applicable to “persons who are part of a national community or who have otherwise developed sufficient connection with this country to be considered part of that community.”

The English common law privilege of Sanctuary was born out of principles that pre-date the common law itself. The basis, definition, and limitations of Sanctuary lead to the strong conclusion that the semantics of naming US immigration havens as “sanctuary cities” is at best misleading and ill-founded. At worst, it severely muddies the waters of discussion, preventing serious analysis in this important area. Appreciating the origins of common law Sanctuary is therefore vital to understanding contemporary use of the term.

Origins of Ecclesiastical Sanctuary
St. Augustine of Rome’s successful conversion of the Saxons to Christianity in the 6th Century AD introduced the idea of ecclesiastical Sanctuary to the ruling Saxon King, Aethelbert. In 597 AD—in support of his newly-adopted religion—Aethelbert introduced severe penalties for interrupting the peace of the Church. Clearly, the concept of Sanctuary at its English origin was, and remained to be until its abolition, an ecclesiastical principle and a creature of the Christian Church.

Sanctuary’s original intention in these earliest times was to protect a criminal from the devastating impact of vigilante justice at the hands of his own family and friends—fundamentally opposed to the contemporary notion of an asylum-seeker, who is likely to find refuge with those close to them. Sanctuary was used to nullify the blood feuds that wreaked havoc in Saxon communities and itself interfered with the pre-cursor to sovereign jurisdiction. William the Conqueror—upon his successful conquest of Saxon England in 1066—adopted many of the Saxon laws already in place, including those of Sanctuary. Later Norman Kings continued to support this privilege without controversy.

Around 1250, English common law was clear: a criminal could take Sanctuary in Churches; other consecrated ground; or even within the confines of a consecrated cemetery—it was fundamentally an Ecclesiastical privilege. If the fleeing criminal had no physical ground in which to take refuge, his Sanctuary began as soon as he placed his hand on the Church door. At this time, Sanctuary was still intended to give the common law legal process sufficient time to effectively run its course and not to provide indefinite refuge to criminals. It was a requirement for the criminal to admit his guilt—again drawing a stark contrast with any modern engagement of the term.

Indeed, it was a settled common law principle in the 13th Century that Sanctuary should last no longer than 40 days. After that period had ended, the Church was no longer allowed to provide food to the criminal and the authorities seeking the criminal hoped this would starve him out of his Sanctuary. Any person providing sustenance after the 40 days could be convicted as an accessory to the criminal’s original crime. Thereafter, the criminal had three options open to him. One, he could surrender, two, be exiled from the country at the escort of the authorities, or three: flee to another Sanctuary to begin a fresh 40 day limitation period. The extent to which this Sanctuary-hopping occurred is unclear, but certainly the privilege of Sanctuary was open to abuse.

Sanctuary curtailed
Over the next two centuries, due to abuses of Sanctuary, English public opinion developed to view the practice as the Church openly harbouring criminals. There are even instances of criminals in London successfully running their nefarious activities from within the confines of a Sanctuary. This abuse of Sanctuary was abhorrent to the English public and was seen as far removed from its original intentions as a safe haven from vigilante justice.

Sanctuary was later diluted in 1504 when King Henry VII successfully asked Pope Innocent VIII to allow the authorities to enter Churches and apprehend a criminal when they committed a fresh crime whilst taking Sanctuary. This was an attempt to curb the abuses mentioned above. Henry VIII followed in his father’s footsteps and initiated further reforms. A significant case in 1519 involving St. John’s Priory and Westminster Abbey (two large sanctuaries) challenged the remit of Sanctuary for murder and other heinous crimes. Henry was moved to state that: “I will have [Sanctuary] reformed which has been encroached by abuse, and brought back to the true intention of the makers”.

In 1540, the English Parliament abolished the use of Sanctuaries for the worst crimes such as murder, rape, and arson. It had already been abolished for High Treason. Following these restrictions, Henry VIII established eight Sanctuary cities where approved asylum seekers had to remain permanently. These national Sanctuaries quickly fell out of use in the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, in the mid-16th Century.

During his reign, Henry VIII attempted to restrict the use of Sanctuary by making it unappealing for criminals. A Sanctuary seeker had to wear a 10-inch badge on their upper arm, often had to adhere to a curfew, and had to be branded with an ‘A’ on their right thumb. A 16th Century Sanctuary became something much more closely aligned with a gulag than a haven of respite: not something the Constitutional Framers would transpose over a century later.

Following continued controversy, negative public opinion and the numerous restrictions outlined above, Parliament finalised the reform in 1624 by passing a Statute that stated “no Sanctuary or Privilege of Sanctuary shall be hereafter admitted or allowed in any case”. Plainly, 150 years prior to American Independence, the English principle of Sanctuary had been diluted into obscurity, with the original concept of a place of haven long consigned to the annals of history, excluded from the common law.

It is worth noting at this juncture that there was no mention of Sanctuary Cities (or anything like them) in the 85 Federalist Papers, nor in the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Although the Founders did describe the Capitol as a “sanctuary of liberty” and Jefferson remarked that it would be the nation’s “first temple”, no illusions were made as to the importance of federalism, the notion that states’ rights were fundamental to a successfully operating Republic, and the separation of Church and State.

Constitutional Convention

The 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia: no mention of Sanctuary Cities

Closing remarks
As the foregoing outline has shown, the common law principle of Sanctuary is an English ecclesiastical principle deriving from early Christianity. Its status as a bargaining chip between the Church and the State in the 15th and 16th Centuries led to its ultimate abolition as a common law practice, far removed from its haven-providing origin. The Philadelphia Convention of the late 18th Century included an emphatic decision to separate the Church from the State, with the Union founded on this secular basis. According to long-standing judicial precedent it is plainly unconstitutional under the republican Constitution for the federal Government to commandeer sovereign state cities for its own bidding in an unfettered way. Contemporary American usage of the term “sanctuary cities”—as has become de rigeur in modern political discourse—cannot be divorced from the historical (originalist) underpinnings of the term “Sanctuary”. To do so causes injury to tenets of federalism, constitutional law, and endangers the secularity of the debate.

*Charlie Eastaugh is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Surrey and he has a PhD in US Constitutional Law.
His contributions were limited to those of legal accuracy and any criticism or opinion expressed in this commentary remains that of the English Legal History Blog.


Filed under English Legal History

Early English Law – Æthelberht

A stained glass window of Æthelberht in All Souls College Chapel, Oxford.

A question I’ve often been asked is ‘What was the first English law?’ and it’s an interesting one but begs several other questions before it can be answered.

For example, the difficulties of shedding light on what came first, what can be considered ‘English’ and even what can be considered law. In answer to these questions, we look to the early historical records of the 7 principal kingdoms of the land (prominent among them Kent, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria) that would not be unified into England until the early 10th Century. We also look to the first written codification of local customs.

The druids would have long been enforcing pagan customs in the Dark Ages but there was no need, or even capacity, to set these in writing. The Romans had written laws but during their occupation of Britannia these were mainly enforced upon Roman citizens, whilst the native Celts were allowed to continue their customs.

Æthelberht, King of Kent, in around 600 AD was the first to attempt a written code of local customs. It has been suggested that Æthelberht desired to write a code of law because he had been impressed by Christianity (and thus the Roman system of law) brought to him by the missionaries of Rome. Christianity had only been made legal, and the official religion, across the Roman Empire in 313 AD and all English Kings had been pagan until Æthelberht’s conversion.

With the help of his wise men to counsel him, Æthelberht devised a list of 90 sentences, called dooms (‘judgments’), to give a structure of monetary compensation for wrongs committed. An example follows:

“If one man strike another with the fist on the nose – three shillings”

This very early code became the grounding for Kentish law. Subsequent Kings of the 7th Century such as Hlothar, Eadric and Wihtred followed this example and added approximately 50 new dooms to the list of 90.

Leave a comment

Filed under English Legal History