By Mark Hagger, Bangor University

Writs have been defined in various ways in the past,1 although these generally agree that such documents comprised a command or mandate, or, more rarely, a notification or instruction. A writ can be addressed to a variety of persons: lords, officials, a court, or even to everyone. It is not the address that makes a writ, but its purpose. All writs, even when they look like notifications, require those who are addressed to take some action, or else to stop doing something. This is the essence of a writ. There are no surviving pre-Conquest writs, but there is some evidence that they did exist,2 and it seems very likely that Anglo-Norman writs derived from Anglo-Saxon precedents.

In addition to writs, there are ‘writ-charters’. That term had been coined by 1912 when W. H. Stevenson used it to describe an act of King William I for St Martin-le-Grand in London that he had examined in 1896.3 It was subsequently used, and defined, by H. W. C. Davis in the first volume of the Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum.4 His definition has recently been attacked by Professor Richard Sharpe, who provided a new one on the process.5 In Sharpe’s view, there are two elements that must be met for an act to be categorized as a writ-charter. First, it must be addressed to an assembly of some kind (if addressed to an individual it is almost certainly a writ). In England, this is almost always a shire court, or multiple shire courts.6 Second, a writ-charter must provide notification of a transfer of property or rights. This gives it the charter function reflected in the name.

Both types of writ need to be considered here, because both had a role to play in the transmission of law or the doing of justice.

After 1066, the Norman kings used writ-charters – although not exclusively – to transmit their legislation to the shires of England. Examples include William I’s legislation on the amendment of episcopal laws,7 Henry I’s coronation charter,8 his legislation of Christmas 1100 concerning the coinage,9 and his legislation of 1108 concerning the meetings of shire and hundred courts and the appropriate forum for pleas concerning ‘the partition or seizure of lands’.10 The contents of these documents would be read out to the suitors of the court, perhaps in Latin but certainly in the two vernacular languages of those addressed: French and English. Writ-charters might also notify the relevant local assembly of the results of lawsuits about property or rights, as in the following example from Normandy of 1108 × 18:

Henry king of the English to Richard, bishop of Bayeux, and all his barons and faithful men of the Hiémois, greeting. Know that I have granted to God and St Martin and the monks of Troarn henceforth in perpetuity the whole of Le Marais about which there was a plea in my court between the said monks and Robert of Ussy. For the said Robert recognised their right which he had unjustly claimed, and that claim to Le Marais which he had in it he quit claimed to God and St Martin before me. And I will and grant and firmly command that henceforth the abovesaid church shall hold in peace and honourably and quitly and perpetually the whole of that Le Marais from claim, Witnesses: Robert, count of Meulan, and Nigel of Aubigny. At Rouen.11

Finally, writ-charters were also one vehicle used to transmit privileges (which might be seen as grants of private law)12 to churches. The abbey of Bury St Edmunds, for example, received a succession of writ-charters from King Edward the Confessor, William I, William II and Henry I concerning the right to a mint, the liberty of the eight and a half hundreds, protection for the abbot and his rights, and the abbey’s exemption from scots and gelds.13 Richard Sharpe has recently argued that these writ-charters expired on the death of the beneficiary or of the king who granted them, and it may also have been the case that their use was curtailed by the deaths of those addressed by them. Further, the grants conveyed by most writ-charters were not expressly said to have been made in perpetuity (in perpetuum), and so were not permanent on that basis, too.14

Concern about writ-charters, and the lack of permanence of the grant contained within them, seems to have been felt more acutely in Normandy than in England, perhaps because writs were an innovation there. The great majority of Norman writ-charters were consequently drafted to include perpetuity wording, but it remained the case throughout Henry I’s and Stephen’s reigns that most English ones did not.15 Other changes that might have helped to increase the longevity of English writ-charters were made, however. The names of individual bishops and sheriffs, for example, were gradually omitted from the addresses of writ-charters, to be replaced by an impersonal reference to these offices. Thus, while for most of Henry’s reign writ-charters were addressed to, for example, ‘Robert, bishop of Lincoln, and Hugh of Buckland and all barons French and English of Buckinghamshire’,16 they came to be addressed simply to ‘the bishop of Salisbury and his sheriff and justiciars and all his barons and faithful men, French and English, of Berkshire’.17 Where a name for an office had not yet been coined, one was invented. The synonyms ‘justice’ (iusticia) and ‘justiciar’ (iusticiarius) may have been created for this reason, as it is clear that men had been acting in the capacity for decades before these terms were introduced. A stage in this process might be seen in one of William II’s acts for Durham, which is addressed to, among others, the king’s iustificatores.18 Thus the address now remained valid regardless of who actually filled the offices concerned. It may have been these same concerns that led to the increasing use and development of the general address, which was gaining ground on the shire address by the 1120s and had become a formalized, hierarchical list. Thus Henry I’s edict of 1135 for Normandy concerning homicides during the periods covered by the Truce of God was addressed generally,19 and so, too, were Stephen’s and Henry II’s coronation charters.20 By c.1170 the writ-charter had fallen out of use altogether, and had been completely replaced by the generally addressed charter that could be delivered to any assembly at any time, both present and future.

Writs, however, were a much longer-lived species of document, with some of the common-law writs developed under Henry II continuing in use until 1832. Writs were extremely versatile, and that made them central to the royal administration. It seems that by Henry I’s reign they had come to be routinely used in Normandy as well as in England. Indeed, such was their evident utility that the Anglo-Norman magnates were soon aping the royal administration by sending writs to their own officials and men. Writs issued by Count Stephen of Mortain, Count Amaury of Evreux, Robert of la Haye-du-Puits and others still survive, either in originals or in cartulary copies.21 The French Count Theobald of Blois, who was Henry I’s nephew, used a writ on at least one occasion,22 and the documents were also transported to southern Italy by Anglo-Norman churchmen seeking appointment there (such as Richard Palmer and Peter of Blois).23

Henry I’s writs provide our best evidence for the identities and functions of the men who staffed the royal administration, both at the centre and in the localities. As much royal business was concerned with the doing of justice, a large number of Henry’s writs also tell us something about that subject, with writs addressed to lords commanding them to do justice, or to return property to an individual, or to desist from causing injury to another. One related development in Henry I’s reign was the nisi feceris (‘unless you do it’) clause. This allowed automatic recourse to a procedure whereby the king’s justices or another named figure might intervene without further resort to the king, should his writ be ignored, thereby saving the beneficiary a potentially lengthy journey.24 Thus, when disputing his right to the wood of Northawe with the abbot of St Albans in 1159, Robert of Valognes took himself to the king in France and obtained a writ commanding that he should be put in possession of the land that his predecessors had held by hereditary right. The abbot declared that Robert’s father had held the wood only on a life interest, and so refused to give him possession of it, but Robert’s writ contained a nisi feceris clause commanding the earl of Leicester to act should Robert be unjustly deprived of his property. Robert thus presented his writ to the earl who immediately summoned the abbot to court, thereby saving him a second lengthy journey to importune the king in person.25

The heyday of the writ as a legal instrument began with Henry II, and continued past the end of the period covered by this project. The writ became so closely connected to royal control that during Henry’s reign it was a maxim that no one need answer in their lord’s court concerning their free tenement without a royal writ.26 As Michael Clanchy noted, Henry II in particular used writs in common form as the framework of his legal reforms, with documents mass produced from a handful of exemplars.27 These exemplars were copied into, and formed the structure of, the Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Realm of England, commonly known as ‘Glanvill’. Glanvill explains how each of the new possessory assizes and other actions was to be used, but the writs do that for themselves, too, and thus provided sheriffs with both instructions and procedure. The writ for novel dissesin (recent disinheritance), for example, was issued to those who had unjustly lost lands to another in the recent past. It read:

The king to the sheriff, greeting. N. has complained to me that R. unjustly and without a judgement disseised him of his free tenement in such-and-such a place since my last voyage to Normandy. Therefore I command you that if N. gives you security for prosecuting his claim, you are to see that the chattels which were taken from the tenement are restored to it, and that the tenement and the chattels remain in peace until the Sunday after Easter. And meanwhile you are to see that the tenement is viewed by twelve free and lawful men of the neighbourhood, and their names endorsed on this writ. And summon them by good summoners to be before me or my justices on the Sunday after Easter, ready to make the recognition. And summon R., or his bailiff if he himself cannot be found, on the security of gage and reliable sureties to be there then to hear the recognition. And have there the summoners, and this writ, and the names of the sureties. Witness, etc.28 

When the day for the hearing arrived, the writ, now with the names of the witnesses written on it, would be handed to the justices by the sheriff, and the plea would be heard and concluded. That the writ was handed over was evidence that it had been actioned, and the case heard, and it has also caused these documents to be described as ‘returnable writs’. The actions commenced by these writs were popular, and increased in number under Henry’s successors, particularly as a result of the creation of the writ of entry, which focused on a specific flaw in a tenant’s title.29 Nor were such writs and procedures confined to England alone. The Norman Très ancien coutumier contains descriptions of actions that could be commenced only by royal writ, and also includes models for the writs that were to be used to begin the actions that were equivalent to novel dissesin, mort d’ancestor (withholding an inheritance from an heir) and darrein presentment (the right to present to a church), among others. These reveal the same use of sureties and witnesses, and also that the writs in Normandy were returnable, like their English counterparts.30

Select bibliography

Primary sources

F. Harmer, Anglo-Saxon Writs (Manchester, 1952).

Coutumiers de Normandie: textes critiques, 1, ed. E.-J. Tardiff (Rouen, 1881).

Glanvill, The Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Realm of England Commonly called Glanvill, ed. and trans. G. D. G. Hall (2nd edn., Oxford, 1993).

Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum 1066–1154, 1: Regesta Willelmi Conquestoris et Willelmi Rufi 1066–1100, ed. H. W. C. Davis (Oxford, 1913); 2: Regesta Henrici Primi, 1100–1135, ed. C. Johnson and H. A. Cronne (Oxford, 1956); 3: Regesta Regis Stephani ac Mathildis Imperatricis ac Gaufridi et Henrici Ducum Normannorum 1135–1154, ed. H. A. Cronne and R. H. C. Davis (Oxford, 1968).

Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum, The Acta of William I (1066–1087), ed. D. Bates (Oxford, 1998).

Secondary sources

R. C. van Caenegem, Royal Writs in England from the Conquest to Glanville: Studies in the Early History of the Common Law (Selden Society, 77, 1959).

M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307 (2nd edn., Oxford, 1993).

M. Hagger, ‘The earliest Norman writs revisited’, Historical Research, 82 (2009), 181–205.

J. Hudson, The Formation of the English Common Law: Law and Society in England from the Conquest to Magna Carta (London, 1996).

R. Sharpe, ‘The use of writs in the eleventh century’, Anglo-Saxon England, 32 (2003), 247–91.

R. Sharpe, ‘Address and delivery in Anglo-Norman royal charters’, in Charters and Charter Scholarship in Britain and Ireland, ed. M. T. Flanagan and J. A. Green (Basingstoke, 2005), pp. 32–52.

Notes

  1. 1. ^ See, e.g., F. Harmer, Anglo-Saxon Writs (Manchester, 1952), p. 1 (although her definition concerned what will here be labelled ‘writ-charters’ rather than writs, due to the nature of the documents that she was working with); R. C. van Caenegem, Royal Writs in England from the Conquest to Glanville: Studies in the Early History of the Common Law (Selden Society, 77, 1959), pp. 108–10; M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307 (2nd edition, Oxford, 1993), p. 90; R. Sharpe, ‘The use of writs in the eleventh century’, Anglo-Saxon England, 32 (2003), 249. M. Hagger, ‘The earliest Norman writs revisited’, Historical Research, 82 (2009), 183–4. It is this last definition that is followed here.
  2. 2. ^ Harmer, Anglo-Saxon Writs, p. 14 and the discussion generally on pp. 10–19; Van Caenegem, Royal Writs, pp. 113–14; S 1454 (which refers to a lost act commanding the shire court of Berkshire to meet).
  3. 3. ^ W. H. Stevenson, ‘Yorkshire surveys and other eleventh-century documents in the York gospels’, English Historical Review, 27 (1912), 4; W. H. Stevenson, ‘An Old-English charter of William the Conqueror in favour of St. Martin’s-Le-Grand, London, AD 1068’, English Historical Review, 11 (1896), 731–4.

    4: Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum 1066–1154, 1: Regesta Willelmi Conquestoris et Willelmi Rufi 1066–1100, ed. H. W. C. Davis (Oxford, 1913), p. xxxv.

    5: Sharpe, ‘The use of writs’, pp. 249–54.

    6: Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum 1066–1154, 2: Regesta Henrici Primi, 1100–1135, ed. C. Johnson and H. A. Cronne (Oxford, 1956), no. 1578.

    7: Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum, The Acta of William I (1066–1087), ed. D. Bates (Oxford, 1998), no. 128.

    8: F. Liebermann, ‘The text of Henry I’s Coronation Charter’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, new ser., 8 (1894), 40–46, calendared at Regesta, 2, no. 488.

    9: A. J. Robertson, The Laws of the Kings of England from Edmund to Henry I (Cambridge, 1925), pp. 284–5 (with English translation), calendared at Regesta, 2, no. 501.

    10: W. Stubbs, Select Charters and other Illustrations of English Constitutional History, rev. H. W. C. Davis (9th edn., Oxford, 1913), pp. 121–2; D. C. Douglas and G. W. Greenaway, English Historical Documents, 2: 1042–1189 (London, 1953), p. 433 (no. 43), calendared at Regesta, 2, no. 892.

    11: C. H. Haskins, Norman Institutions (Cambridge, Mass., 1918), p. 90, calendared at Regesta, 2, no. 1200.

    12: M. Hagger, ‘Secular law and custom in ducal Normandy, c.1000–1144’, Speculum, 85 (2010), 833–4.

    13: Harmer, Anglo-Saxon Writs, nos. 8–12, 15, 18, 23–5; Regesta, ed. Bates, nos. 34–6, 38; Regesta, 1, pp. 130 (no. xlvi), 131 (nos. xlvii, xlviii), 134 (no. lxiii), 135 (no. lxiv), 138 (no. lxxviii), 140 (no. lxxxviii); D. C. Douglas, Feudal Documents from the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds (1932), pp. 63–5, 66, 68, calendared at Regesta, 2, nos. 656–8, 760, 861.

    14: Sharpe, ‘The use of writs’, pp. 284–7.

    15: Hagger, ‘The earliest Norman writs revisited’, pp. 195–6. Of Stephen’s writ-charters, only 54 of 276 (20%) had perpetuity wording.

    16: Historia Ecclesie Abbendonensis: the History of the Church of Abingdon, 2, ed. and trans. J. Hudson (Oxford, 2002), pp. 144–7, calendared at Regesta, 2, no. 676.

    17: Hudson, Historia Ecclesie Abbendonensis, pp. 230–3, calendared at Regesta, 2, no. 1477. The act dates from 1126 × 7. Most of the writ-charters issued by Stephen have this impersonal form of shire address.

    18: Regesta, 1, no. 389.

    19: Coutumiers de Normandie: textes critiques, 1, ed. E.-J. Tardif (Rouen, 1881), pp. 65–8 (ch. 71), calendared at Regesta, 2, no. 1908.

    20: Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum, 1066–1154, 3: Regesta Regis Stephani ac Mathildis Imperatricis ac Gaufridi et Henrici Ducum Normannorum 1135–1154, ed. H. A. Cronne and R. H. C. Davis (Oxford, 1968), no. 270; Stubbs, Select Charters, pp. 157–8; Douglas and Greenaway, English Historical Documents, p. 407 (no. 33).

    21: Caen, Archives Départementales du Calvados, 1 J 41 (cartulary of Saint-Etienne, Caen), fo. 23r (Count Stephen of Mortain); Caen, Archives Départementales du Calvados, H 7761 (original writ); AD Eure, G122 (cartulary of the canons of Evreux), p. 37 (no. 75) (Count Amaury of Montfort); Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 10087 (cartulary of Montebourg), p. 113 (no. 307) (Robert of la Haye-du-Puits).

    22: Cartulaire de Saint-Jean-en-Vallée de Chartres, ed. R. Merlet (Chartres, 1906), p. 31, no. 51.

    23: Rogerii II. Regis Diplomata Latina, ed. C. Brühl (Cologne and Vienna, 1987), no. 17; Guillelmi I. Regis Diplomata, ed. H. Enzensberger (Cologne, Weimar and Vienna, 1996), nos. 3, 26.

    24: See J. Boorman, ‘Nisi feceris under Henry II’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 24 (2002), 85–97.

    25: Thomas of Walsingham, Gesta abbatum monasterii sancti Albani, 1, ed. H. T. Riley (Rolls series, 28, London, 1867), pp. 159–66; English Lawsuits from William I to Richard I, 2: Henry II and Richard I, ed. and trans. R. C. van Caenegem (Selden Society, 107, London, 1991), pp. 354–8 (no. 396).

    26: J. Hudson, The Formation of the English Common Law: Law and Society in England from the Conquest to Magna Carta (London, 1996), p. 192.

    27: Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, p. 91.

    28: Glanvill, The Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Realm of England Commonly called Glanvill, ed. and trans. G. D. G. Hall (2nd edn., Oxford, 1993), pp. 167–9; Hudson, The Formation of the English Common Law, p. 194.

    29: Hudson, The Formation of the English Common Law, p. 136.

    30: Tardif, Coutumiers de Normandie, pp. 18–24 (chs. 17–25), 70 (ch. 73), 75–8 (ch. 77), 94–7 (chs. 85–9).