The Courts Christian in Medieval England
By Peter D. Jason
The Catholic Lawyer, Volume 37, Number 4, 2017
Introduction: This article examines the structure and jurisdiction of the pre-Reformation ecclesiastical courts in England to determine their effect on the Reformation. Although the ecclesiastical courts operated similarly throughout Western Europe, this article will highlight only the English courts. England is the focus of this article because the English legal system was the forerunner of our own. As a result, the effort to discover the impact of the ecclesiastical courts upon the Reformation has value for presentday Americans.
The workings of medieval English courts reflect the time period. In the eleventh century, most governments in Western Europe were monarchies. Generally, when a monarch died, he was succeeded by his eldest son. However, if that son was unpopular, then the closest male relative would succeed to the throne.
In England, a group of lay and ecclesiastical people, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, chose the new monarch. The Archbishop then presided at the new King’s coronation service. During the coronation service, the King was “solemnly vested with the official robes and emblems of his office and anointed with holy oil in a ceremony somewhat resembling that used at the consecration of a bishop.” The Archbishop would then place the crown on the King’s head; after this symbolic gesture, the King would receive holy communion during a celebration of Mass.
The King’s power and authority during this time was, in theory, absolute. The King, it was believed, received his authority from God. During the coronation ceremony, the people swore allegiance to the King; this allegiance, however, was not without limits. The King’s power was severely limited by the economic system. This was due, in large part, to the prevalence of the feudal system in twelfth-century England, which made the King dependent on his lesser lords for food, soldiers and even money. This provided the lesser lords with some measure of autonomy and power.