The Early English Laws project based at the Institute of Historical Research and the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London has digitalised all English legal texts up to, and including the issuing of Magna Carta in 1215.  The project hoped to reinvigorate research into early English law and legal systems by providing an indispensable new digital resource.   

The project has sought to address four principle research questions that signify a) the current state of research into the law codes b) shows a way forward in understanding and debating the meaning and content of the legal texts.  These questions can be summarised as:

  1. What are the early English law texts?
  2. What do the texts say?
  3. What do the texts mean?
  4. What exactly was the law?

Felix Liebermann is the key provider of many early English legal texts in German translation.  Early in the twentieth century other scholars translated Libermann’s text (editions were 1922; 1925; 1953; 1955) and studied the originals either in Latin or Old English.  The shape and content of the texts as presented to modern scholarship is therefore based on the judgement of researchers reaching back to the beginning of the twentieth century.  The editorial decisions made by Liebermann in his 1903 translation remains a powerful force in this research even if some of his decisions have since been called into question.

Witan_hexateuch

Sixteenth century scholars had no such editions to guide or instruct them in early English law.  However, thanks to a few interested lawyers, lexicographers and historians the first real attempts to learn more about early law began early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

The story really begins with the patronage of Sir William Cecil of the antiquarian, cartographer, and linguist Laurence Nowell.  Nowell provided Cecil with transcriptions of Anglo-Saxon documents (including Beowulf), an Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (the Vocabularium Saxonicum) and an atlas of Anglo-Saxon Britain.  However, Nowell himself was never to publish this material.  That fell to two members of Lincoln’s Inn: William Lambarde and William Cordell.

The role of Cordell in the publication of the work begun by Nowell is uncertain.  Lambarde dedicates his publication, the Archanomia (Greek for ‘Original Laws’), to him stating his distinguished abilities in interpreting the law, his interest in preserving old manuscripts and his assistance with the translations as his reasons.  The resulting publication contained transcriptions of Anglo-Saxon law codes, genealogies, a brief history of the period, and a map of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy.  At the time, it was the most complete re-analysis of the period since the days of the monastic chroniclers.

In the Acts and Monuments a selection of Anglo-Saxon law codes are drawn from William Lambarde’s 1568 Archanomia as a last minute addition (Foxe adds the content from Lambarde after completing Book Six as attested to in the text itself.  See A&M, 1570, bk. 6, p. 943.  Foxe notes ‘I thought to fill up a litle end of paper here left’ on p. 944).

John Foxe abridged and translated only the law codes that he viewed as relevant to an ecclesiastical history.  For instance Foxe found that King Æthelrede made ‘but few [laws] touchyng matters Ecclesiasticall’ (A&M, 1570, bk. 6, p.  944) whilst other kings prescribed laws that varied from the duty and authority of priests to the maximum allowed time before an infant is baptised.

Foxe listed these laws as an additional means to undermine the Roman Catholic stance that the Pope has always held total authority over ecclesiastical matters and that no king could have or ever had similar powers:

‘these be sufficient to giue the vnderstandyng reader to consider, how the authoritie of the Byshops of Rome, all this while, extended not so farre to prescribe lawes for gouernement of the Church, but that Kynges and Princes of the Realme, as they be now, so were then full gouernors here vnder Christ, as well in causes Ecclesiasticall, as temporall, both in directyng orders, institutyng lawes, in callyng of Synodes, and also in conferryng Byshoprikes and benefices, without any leaue of þe Romish Byshops.’ (A&M, 1570, bk. 6, p. 944).

Lambarde’s reasons for publication were very different.  J. D. Alsop has shown that Lambarde was a devout reformist but for Lambarde the central importance of the reformation to his publication derived more from the support of Matthew Parker – the purveyor of many of the manuscript texts upon which his research had relied upon – rather than any overt religious purpose.  This fact is clearly demonstrated in the preface when Lambarde describes his reasons for publication.

Further Reading

J. D. Alsop, ‘Lambarde, William (1536–1601)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008.

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