Category Archives: Legal Historical Methods

Worth a look: Raffles

Worth a look: R.W. Ireland, ‘Criminology, class and cricket: Raffles and real life’. Legal Studies article

Legal Studies has not always been known for its articles on Legal History, but there is a good one in the current issue – Richard Ireland’s consideration of the Raffles stories in their historical context. These stories, once extraordinarily popular, deal with the adventures of a cricket-playing gentleman burglar. I have never been a fan of them (cricket, gentlemanly caddishness – enough said) but they certainly were a striking success, and this article is an original exploration of their relevance to ideas of crime, ‘criminal classes’ and professionalism, past and present.

I am even less of a fan of Foucault than I am of cricket, and it is unfortunate that anyone looking at the history and theories of criminology and penology feels obliged to mention Foucault. Although Ireland does not reject Foucault, it is good to see him gently pointing out that those who have actually looked at prison history are less likely to be enamoured with his work than some social scientists. Give me Maitland any day.

Richard III – usurper’s law

All medievalists must be interested in the confirmation that Richard III’s body has at last been found – Ric. III is a divisive and fascinating figure – and the fact that the bones in question do seem to suggest some degree of disability or distortion will no doubt lead to any number of new or reheated debates. But what about Ric. III and legal history? What are his major claims to legal historical fame (aside from the usurping and probable bumping off of his nephews?

Well, he did show a bit of an interest in technical legal matters. His first legislation (Statutes of the Realm II, 477) dealt with secret feoffments, and he also provided for bail in cases of felony (SR II, 478), and attempted to stop premature forfeiture of goods before conviction. He made provision for the powers of justices of the peace and the finding of sufficient jurors, for the commercial jurisdiction of ‘pie powder’ courts, the procedure for transferring land by ‘fine’,  as well as the detailed and (to all but the economic historian) tedious regulation of different types of cloth, their size and properties,rules about bowstaves and malmsey wine, and the depressingly still-with-us populist anti-foreigner laws. So quite a lot of legislation for such a short reign, and much of it designed to show the king’s strength and involvement in doing justice to his people.

His plea rolls have been put on the internet by the excellent AALT project. They show some attractive iconography, with the symbol of the boar (see CP 40/ 885B m,1) and the York rose (see CP 40/886 m.1, CP 40/888 m.1; CP 40/890 m.1) appearing on common pleas rolls.

There is certainly room for a study of Richard III and his relationship with law – comparing his dubious royal legitimacy with his wish to be seen to uphold the law.

For a poem on the discovery, see




LH internet resources

In the past few years, a large amount of information relating to legal history has been made available on the internet. This is a brief guide to those resources which I have found useful, and which may be of interest to others working in law, history and legal history.

1. Legislation and records of government activity
Pre-1215 laws are being placed online via Early English Laws project:

Statutes of the Realm (to 1713) can be found via Heinonline > English Reports.

The Calendars of Patent Rolls from Henry III to the middle of the reign of Henry VI (1216-1452) have been made available by Prof. G.R. Boynton and the University of Iowa Libraries, with a useful and generally reliable search facility:

British History Online has some content available free, (including the Victoria County Histories, Calendar of Papal Registers, parts of Rymer’s Foedera and journals of the early modern houses of parliament). Other items, such as the Parliament Rolls of Medieval England  and the Calendars of Close Rolls, however, are only available with the ‘premium’ subscription service.

Calendars of Fine Rolls from the reign of Henry III have been made available free as part of the Fine Rolls Project:

The National Archives website gives links to freely downloadable images of its class SC8 (‘Ancient Petitions’) which include many petitions to the king, his council, Parliament and royal officers. These documents are usually in Norman French. The National Archives catalogue is itself a useful resource, with helpful descriptions of documents and classes of documents, and a number of research guides:

Eighteenth to twentieth-century parliamentary papers can be found at: and a variety of 18th Century official publications at:

The National Archives has many projects making available original records. For example, many Poor Law records have recently been put online (free):

2. Court cases
A major project led by R.C. Palmer and E.K. Palmer at the University of Houston has made available, free of charge, high-quality images of the rolls of the royal courts of medieval and early modern England (and, to a limited extent, Wales): There are King;’s Bench, Common Pleas, Exchequer, eyre records and other categories. This material is not, however, particularly ‘user-friendly’, since there is no index or search facility, and in order to understand it, some knowledge of Latin and palaeography is required.

Another American project, led by D.J. Seipp at Boston University, has catalogued and cross-referenced all of the Year Books (lawyers’ reports of the pleading in notable cases in the central courts in medieval and early-modern England): Links to images of the printed ‘black letter’ Year Books are included where appropriate. The search facility is particularly good. This resource is mainly in English, though the original records themselves are in ‘Law French’ – a version of Norman French. A working knowledge of modern French and recourse to J.H. Baker, A Manual of Law French (1979) usually suffices for their translation.

Bracton’s Note Book (thirteenth century cases) is available in HeinOnline’s Legal Classics Library:

The English Reports, the great collection of ‘nominate’ law reports covering cases from medieval times to the Victorian period, are available via Westlaw and as part of the Library’s subscription to HeinOnline: Note that some of the earlier English Reports are, in fact, in Law French, with occasional formulaic Latin.

An important resource for criminal law is the Old Bailey Project, with many reports of criminal trials from the seventeenth to the early-twentieth century:

Miscellaneous records from a variety of courts (especially London’s local courts) are available in British History Online.

Twentieth century cases are found in the normal series of law reports, many of which can be found online.

Records of church court cases are being put up in (in progress)

3. Treatises
Bracton can be found at (Harvard University Library).

Many other treatises, including Blackstone’s Analysis and Commentaries, and Coke’s Institutes are included in HeinOnline’s Legal Classics Library: Note that the versions of ‘classics’ on HeinOnline are not necessarily either the earliest or the latest version, nor, in the case of works originally not in English, are they necessarily the best translation available.

Also extremely useful, with thousands of scans of out-of-copyright books, including treatises and some reports are:,
Early English Books Online
Project Gutenberg

4. Journalism

Newspapers, pamphlets, periodicals can be good sources – lively and opinionated, if not always reliable. These are published online in various ‘packages’ to which university and some civic libraries will subscribe. I have found the collection 19th Century British Periodicals, to which my library subscribes – particularly helpful for teaching purposes, particularly for pictures and satirical accounts from periodicals like Punch, Funny Folks and Judy, the Conservative Comic.

5. Art

Law and especially crime has inspired many works of art. A collection like ArtStor can be useful to locate relevant material.
6. Biography
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is available, and fully searchable, online: This gives reliable biographies of many law-makers and lawyers as well as some notorious criminals and victims of crime.

7. Bibliography
The BREPOLIS Bbliography of British and Irish History is a good place to start for all British and Irish historical monographs and articles: Also at this address are specialised medieval international bibliographies.

8. Journals
The major legal history journals, Journal of Legal History and Law and History Review are available online.

Relevant articles also appear in ‘straight’ history journals (many available online), though these are overwhelmingly about the history of criminal law rather than other aspects of legal history.

9. Miscellaneous
The Internet Text Archive is worth a look if you are after older (printed) public records, local records or chronicles:

Free online transcriptions and documents relating to many areas of history can be found at:

British history primary sources can be found at:

Bracton’s Sister: what’s that all about then?

Welcome to Bracton’s Sister, my Legal History site.  Why Bracton’s Sister? Well, it’s a nod to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own with its notion of Shakespeare’s sister. As with literature, law was, until the twentieth century, an exclusively male profession, and we might wonder about the thoughts of Judith Bracton on the developing common law of the thirteenth century. Unlike her brother Henry, she did not have the chance of becoming a judge and reputed author/editor of an important legal treatise.  One day, her works may be discovered. Until then, there is Bracton’s Sister.

What’s it for? The idea is that it will:

1. give some details of my current research projects;

2. note interesting new work from others which has impressed me;

3. bring a bit of legal history into more lives than could be reached by seminar and conference presentations and academic journal papers.

Legal historians don’t tend to get out much, which is a pity, because our subject is fascinating and packed with human interest, as well as the intricacies of writs and deeds. Sometimes, there’s even some humour. So the site will allow me to publicise the interest of the subject (without actually having to go out and talk to real people). Ideal.  And Judith Bracton agrees.