England: One Country, Two Courts
Journal of the History Students at San Francisco State University, Volume XVII (2008)
In 1066 when William the Conqueror defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, the Anglo Saxon form of government in England effectively ended. Though William held onto many of the administrative practices of the Anglo Saxons, he did not keep the Anglo Saxons’ judicial structure, which consisted of one court presided over by lords and bishops. Instead, William instituted a two-court system much like that of his native Normandy. Under this new system, the bishops and archbishops oversaw a church court in which they addressed spiritual matters. Separate civil courts, which adjudicated ‘violations of the king’s peace,’ were presided over by lords, as well as clerks, because clerks tended to be the most versed in law.
The problem with the new system was that not all matters fit neatly into either one court or the other. Usually when a crime was committed, the offender had violated both a spiritual law and the king’s peace. For example, when a man murdered his neighbor, he not only committed a felony but also broke the spiritual law that commanded one not to kill. The confusion over which court had jurisdiction evolved into conflicts between representatives of each court system. The disagreement between the two systems generally remained at a low level of discord that maintained a steady tension between England’s kings and her ecclesiastical leaders. Periodically, however, the matter erupted into a crisis, as it did during a debate between King Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, to be addressed later.