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Why Roman Law Did Not Succeed in England

Henry I by Matthew ParisWhy Roman Law Did Not Succeed in England

By Bernard W. Hoeter

The Scrivener, Volume 13 Number 1 (2004)

Introduction: England is the only European country whose legal system is not based on the Code of Emperor Justinian I, the Corpus Juris Civilis, the splendid codification of old Roman Law (AD 532). And while, during the 13th century, Roman Law successfully penetrated the juristic systems of continental Europe, Germany, and France, England never adopted Roman Law; she developed her own legal system, the Common Law.

Why? It is simplistic to suggest that the Channel excluded England from the great juridicial changes taking place on the Continent during the 11th and 12th centuries.

England had close cultural ties with the Continent and in particular, with France. Cantor states: “England was viewed as an intellectual satellite of France.” And Fisher: “The Norman Conquest had made of England a province of French civilization.”

Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis was well known in England at that time. Scholars of the Northern Italian universities taught in England. The royal administrators of the reign of Henry I (1100–1135) were educated in France or Italy. Judges during the reign of Henry II (King of England 1154–1189) were usually churchmen familiar with Romano-canonical procedures and principles.

Anglo-Norman rulers had actually no interest in preserving Germanic legal traditions that were opposed to a strong central government but rather based on community power. Legal absolutism and centralism, enshrined in the Justinian Code, actually would have better conformed to the policy of the Angevin (Plantagenet) kings of England than did the traditional Germanic law system. Henry II—like his contemporaries Emperor Barbarossa of Germany and the Capetian monarchs of France—favoured central authority. Thus, Henry II might logically have imposed the new civil law on England.

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