Wednesday, November 09, 2005

How the Irish Tried to Buy Law from Edward I

(and not William the Bastard)

Months ago, I found this story in The Making of Europe; Conquest, Colonisation and Cultural Change 950 - 1350 by Robert Bartlett, a book I found in my local library. I made a mental note of it, in case privatised justice systems ever became a hot topic of debate in the blogosphere. But time passes and libertarianism, and the various absurd proposals that it sometimes produces fell off the agenda and I was left with a really great topic for a post and no excuse to publish it. Sod that. I'm going to tell the story anyway.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the story, it's probably worth looking at how the rule of law was disseminated during the Middle Ages. Basically it worked like this. A young nobleman would borrow enough money from some Jew (who was probably prohibited by law from making a living any other way) to equip himself with armour, sword and a warhorse. Then he would "take the cross" and set out for the Holy Land, looking to win honour, renown, land and loot, perhaps slaughtering a few Jews (to whom he wasn't indebted) and other sundry infidels along the way to practice his swing. When he got to the Holy Land, and got into his first proper battle, the Saracens would shoot his destrier out from under him, well before he had a chance to get in on the pillaging, leaving him up to his ears in debt.

On his return home, our nobleman would be faced with the problem of discharging his debt. One solution, first employed en masse in England in 1290 - also under Edward I as it happens - was to kill the Jew creditor and burn down his house along with all record of the debt. Another was to sell something of value - other than land - to get some ready money. Such as a charter of law, which could be bestowed on a city, town or individual within your fief.

After their subjugation by the English in 1170, the Irish found themselves subject to English rule but not English law. The Irish weren't above English law; they were beneath it. The situation is described in the Remonstrance of 1317 or 1318, a long whiny letter the Irish princes sent to the Pope to explain why they had sided with Robert the Bruce and his rellies against Edward II. Among their complaints was that while an Englishman could sue any Irishman, only Irish prelates were able to sue back and that the law allowed the English to kill the Irish with impunity. Well, more or less: although no criminal penalty applied to killing an Irishman, his lord was entitled to sue the killer for compensation. The going rate of compensation for a dead Irishman eventually settled at 70 shillings. That doesn't sound like a lot, until you consider that it was enough to buy 140 pounds of iron - almost enough to kit out 3 men at arms, once the armourers have finished with it. So killing someone else's Irish was actually a rather expensive proposition.

The situation was obviously unsatisfactory from an Irish point of view; by the fourteenth century even the English (or perhaps we should say some of them) had come to share their view. As Bartlett notes (p 219):

Attempts were also made to extend English Law to the Irish. The initiative sometimes came from the Irish themselves who sought to negotiate the purchase of English rights, either individually or collectively, as in the late 1270s [1277-80], when 'all the Irish' offered the king 10,000 marks 'in order to have the common law which the English have and use in Ireland and to be treated as such Englishmen are treated. Nothing came of these general attempts to enfranchise the Irish ... Until Tudor times Irishmen could only enjoy the rights and protections of English law by individual grant.

Isn't history wonderful? It seems there's no political proposal so daft that it hasn't been tried and found wanting somewhere or other in times past.