How things were done
A textbook issued in 1937 but still in college use a decade later was entitled “Sources of English Constitutional History, AD 600 to the Present.” The earliest document dealt with the laws of Ethelbert of Kent, the Anglo-Saxon ruler who allowed Christianity in his kingdom. The final item is the abdication document of Edward VIII.
In between are documents of all sorts that have survived the stages of time. There is the complete original text of Magna Carta, but also some local court records that are centuries old but still sound very much like what you see on a police blotter today. Here is one instance from a judicial recording of 1266-67:
“It happened about bedtime on Sunday next before the feast of St. Bartholemew in his 50th year that Henry Colburn of Barford went out of his house to drink a tankard of beer and did not return that night. Early the next morning Agnes Colburn his mother looked for him and found the said Henry dead. And he was wounded in the body about the heart and in the belly with seven knife wounds, and in the head with four wounds apparently made with a pick-axe, and also in the throat and the chin and the head as far as the brain.
“The aforesaid Agnes at once raised the hue and cry, and pursuit was made. Inquest was held before Simon Read, the coroner and four people say that Gilbert son of Margaret killed said Henry as aforesaid. And they also say they have suspicion of Hugh Cointerel, Agnes Cointerel, Hugh son of the same Agnes and Alice Wrong, who have appeared in the court and are delivered to the sheriff to be put in jail.”
From a hearing in Northhamptonshire:
“The court made presentment that William Askil, John Parsons and Godfrey Green furtively carried off four geese from the vill of Horepoll.”
And from a session in Wilshire:
“Presentment was made that Robert son of Carter by night invaded the property of Peter Burgess and feloniously threw stones at his door. Therefore let the aforesaid Robert by committed to prison.
“Adam Moses gives half a container of wine to have an inquest as to whether Henry Ayulf imputed to him the crime of larceny and used vile and insulting words concerning him.”
There’s a touch of the familiar in legislative matters as well. From the records of the House of Commons in a Parliament in 1376:
“Thereupon a knight of the south country rose and went to the reading desk so that all might hear, and pounding on said desk began to speak in this fashion: You have heard the grievous matters before the parliament — how our lord the king has asked of the clergy and commons a tenth and a fifteenth and customs on wool and other merchandise for a year or two. And in my opinion it is much to grant, for the commons are so weakened and impoverished by the divers tallages and taxes which they have paid up to the present that they cannot stand such a charge or at this time pay it. Besides, all we have given to the war for a long time we have lost because it has been badly wasted and falsely expended.
“And so it would be well to consider how our lord the king can live and govern his kingdom and maintain the war from his own property, and not hold to ransom his liegemen of the land.”
The speaker went on to recount how he had heard that various people close to the king had taken money and property rightfully belonging to the kingdom and had converted it to wrong uses.
If this litany sounds familiar, it is because you could hear something very similar in Congress or the Legislature at a much more recent date.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.