1. The Four Knights’ System and the Evidence for it in the Fine Rolls

In the fine of the month for March Julie Kanter, drawing on the patent rolls and the fine rolls, presents entirely new information about the 'Four Knights' commissions to hear petty assizes in the years between 1218 and 1232. Julie is reading for an MA in Medieval History at King's College London.

⁋1As is well known, chapter 18 of Magna Carta 1215 calls for the hearing of three of the petty assizes, those of novel disseisin, mort d’ancestor and darrein presentment at sessions held in each county four times per year. These assizes were to be heard by two judges sent by the king, or, if he was abroad, his chief justiciar, who were to sit with four local knights chosen by the county court. 1 What was being demanded here was the visitation of judges with a far more limited and specific remit than that enjoyed by the general eyre judges for all pleas who would have heard the petty assizes as part of their commission to hear all outstanding civil and crown pleas. The new judges were thus to hear petty assizes without burdening the counties with the financial exactions associated with crown pleas. In addition, they were to itinerate far more frequently than the justices of the general eyre, who seem on average to have visited counties before 1215 only once every four years. 2 Even if before 1215 there were sometimes more targeted commissions to judges to hear just assizes and indictments, 3 the increase in visitations envisaged in 1215 was explosive. It was not, however, to be fulfilled. At the end of the civil war the impracticality of such a demand seems to have been accepted by both the rebel and royal factions. When Magna Carta was reissued by the minority government of Henry III in 1217, the visitations were reduced to just one a year. Additionally, Magna Carta 1217 also reduced the number of assizes which were to be heard in the counties. Assizes of darrein presentment were henceforth always to be heard only at the bench at Westminster, although, oddly enough, as we shall see, this stipulation did not stop commissions to hear darrein presentment in the counties from being issued. There was a further change in respect of the knights sitting with the judges. The call for four of them to be elected in the county court was abandoned and instead the judges were simply to hear the assizes ‘with knights of the counties’. 4

⁋2The clause on the assizes, as reshaped in 1217, appeared again in the definitive 1225 version of Magna Carta. In practice, however, there is no evidence that after 1217 the government ever sent justices of assize annually into the counties. The general eyre itself came to average a visitation once every eight years. 5 Yet this desire for greater ease of access to the petty assizes was not to be entirely disappointed. The commissioning of four knights to hear locally one particular assize – novel disseisin, mort d’ancestor or indeed darrein presentment – can be seen as some sort of fulfilment. Enrolled on the dorse of the patent roll of the second regnal year of Henry III (and dated 15 February 1218) is the first commission for four knights. It was to Ralph de Hulton, Ralph Archerius, William de Tikenbret and Roger son of Robert, who were to hear an assize of novel disseisin in Cornwall. 6 Between the time of that first commission in 1218 and 27 October 1232 there are some 620 commissions for the Four Knights’ System enrolled on the dorse of the patent rolls. 7 Of these 620, there are 418 commissions to hear an assize of novel disseisin, seventy to hear an assize of darrein presentment, sixty-nine to hear an unspecified assize involving land and sixty-three to hear an assize of mort d’ancestor. The breakdown of the number of commissions per assize type, per year for the whole of England is as follows:

  • Novel Disseisin: 1218: 2; 1219: 0; 1220: 10; 1221: 11; 1222: 5; 1223: 37; 1224: 13; 1225: 11; 1226: 7; 1227: 30; 1228: 43; 1229: 130 1230: 26 1231: 40 1232: 44.
  • Mort d’ancestor: 1218: 0; 1219: 0; 1220: 2; 1221: 2; 1222: 0; 1223: 6; 1224: 7; 1225: 7; 1226: 2; 1227: 3; 1228: 8; 1229: 17; 1230: 5; 1231: 3; 1232: 0.
  • Darrein Presentment: 1218: 0; 1219: 0; 1220: 1; 1221: 0; 1222: 2; 1223: 3; 1224: 1; 1225: 1; 1226: 11; 1227: 14; 1228: 12; 1229: 11; 1230: 4; 1231: 1; 1232: 7.
  • Unspecified: 1218: 0; 1219: 0; 1220: 0; 1221: 0; 1222: 1; 1223: 7; 1224: 0; 1225: 3; 1226: 4; 1227: 5; 1228: 16; 1229: 16; 1230: 4; 1231: 5; 1232: 6.

⁋3In terms of locality, there are enrolments of commissions for assizes to be heard in 39 counties as follows: Yorkshire (66), Lincolnshire (64), Norfolk (50), Suffolk (41), Devon (27), Somerset (26), Wiltshire (25), Oxfordshire (23), Northamptonshire (22), Nottinghamshire (21), Warwickshire (20), Dorset (17), Essex (15), Gloucestershire (13), Surrey (13), Bedfordshire (12), Kent (12), Staffordshire (12), Herefordshire (11), Sussex (11), Buckinghamshire (10), Cornwall (10), Hertfordshire (10), Lancashire (10), Leicestershire (10), Cambridgeshire (9), Cumberland (9), Derbyshire (9), Worcestershire (8), Huntingdonshire (6), Northumberland (6), Shropshire (5), Southampton (4), Westmorland (3), Berkshire (2), Bristol (2), Middlesex (2), Hampshire (1), Rutland (1). Additionally there is one commission concerning a piece of land that is located partially in Norfolk and partially in Suffolk. 8

The Petty Assizes each year
The Petty Assizes each year

⁋4Although though there is no definitive answer as to how and why this system came into use, some suggestions can be made. As there is no evidence that there was ever any formal announcement of the Four Knights’ System, it may be reasonable to speculate that those who purchased the first commissions had travelled to the court with the intention of obtaining an ordinary writ for their assizes to be heard by the general eyre. 9 It may very well be that they were simply given the option of obtaining this more specific commission instead, presumably with the suggestion that this would bring a speedier resolution to their case than if they were required to wait for the general eyre or for the occasional visitations of judges commissioned to hear all petty assizes (as happened in 1225). 10 If so, one may assume that as time went on an awareness of the availability this type of commission spread by word of mouth through the counties.

⁋5While the evidence for the Four Knights’ System is mainly to be found enrolled in the patent rolls, ancillary information can also be found within the fine rolls. In recompense for a swifter legal service, a higher price had to be paid. While a writ returnable to the eyre probably cost only 6d., a Four Knights’ System Commission seems to have cost quite a good deal more. What evidence there is for the cost of obtaining such commissions is found in the fine rolls. The figures in the fine rolls for offers to purchase Four Knights’ System commissions range from 20s. up to ten marks. However, the amount of data in the fine rolls is limited. While there are 620 commissions enrolled in the patent rolls between 1218 and 1232, there are only thirty-nine fines recording offers of money for a Four Knights’ System commission to hear a petty assize. 11 Moreover, of these thirty-nine, four of the offers do not correspond to any discernible commission in the patent rolls. 12 This leaves just thirty-five offers corresponding to commissions, a mere sixteen percent of the total commissions. With regards to the four fines that do not have corresponding commissions enrolled there is nothing within the fine roll entries to explain why there is no corresponding commission. Thus the fines are not cancelled, as sometimes happened, with the marginal note ‘because he did not have that for which he offered’. It will be interesting to see whether these fines have any corresponding entry on the pipe rolls.

⁋6One explanation for the dearth of fines for the Four Knights’ System commissions in the fine rolls may be hazarded, namely that the vast majority of people obtaining commissions paid for them cash down either into the wardrobe or the chancery. In that case the fines would not need to go on to the fine rolls because the exchequer had no money to collect. (The system was that copies of the fine rolls - the originalia rolls - were sent to the exchequer so that it knew what money to collect.) Perhaps those purchasing the commissions just found it simpler to pay at the point of purchase. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, these Four Knights’ commissions were only offered to those who could pay for them cash down, although some people, if they were particularly well favoured, may have had the fee waived. Of course, if this is true it does beg the question of why there are any fines relating to the commissions for Four Knights’ in the fine rolls at all. Who would be allowed the option of obtaining one of these special commissions without paying for it in cash at the time the commission was enrolled? Perhaps the sixteen percent who make offers in the fine rolls were sufficiently in favour not to have to pay cash down, but insufficiently favoured to have the fine waived altogether. The whole question might repay further research.

⁋7In conclusion printed below is one example of a fine in the fine rolls and the corresponding commission in the patent rolls. They are from 1223. It is worth noting that the days for these two entries happen to match exactly, 20 August 1223, although not all of the entries in the patent rolls that have a corresponding entry in the fine rolls match up so exactly. However, they do tend to be with in a couple of days of each other (if the fine roll entry has a date—not all of them do). In this case the leading judge is not a knight but the prior of Bodmin, and sometimes these commissions were headed by senior figures including justices from the central courts, thus replicating the kind of arrangement envisaged in Magna Carta. 13 One wonders how the judges were chosen and whether here there was any connection between the prior and the plaintiff, the clerk, Adam of Bodmin. This case is unusual in specifically involving an assize which had been arraigned before the justices in eyre, which presumably means that the case was to be heard by them when they next came to Cornwall. Since that did not happen till 1233, one can understand why Adam preferred to go down this other route which ensured the assize was heard within a month of purchasing the commission. 14 The relationship between the commissions and the incidence of the eyre would repay further investigation.

⁋8While the fine rolls offer another way of examining the entire Four Knights’ System, they also raise some disturbingly hard to answer questions with regards to just how that system operated on a day-to-day and year-by-year basis. This is particularly true in terms of the precise nature of the monetary arrangement of the system. But these questions and problems with regard to the Four Knights’ System should be taken not as an excuse to ignore them, but as a call to further in-depth research.

1.1. C 60/18 Fine Roll 7 Henry III (28 October 1222–27 October 1223), membrane 3

1.1.1. 245

⁋1 Cornwall. Andrew of Bodmin, clerk, gives the king 40s. for having justices to take an assize of novel disseisin between him and John son of Ranulf, concerning a tenement in Bodmin, as is more fully contained on the dorse of the patent roll of the seventh year. Order to the sheriff of Cornwall to take etc. Witness H[ubert de Burgh] etc. 20 Aug. Guildford.

1.1.2. PR, 1216–25, p. 408.

⁋1 Cornwall. The Prior of Bodmin, Herbert de Pinu, Robert fitz William and Henry fitz William are assigned as justices to take an assize of novel disseisin at Bodmin in the octaves of the Nativity of the Blessed Mary, which Andrew of Bodmin, clerk, has arraigned before the justices itinerant against John fitz Ranulf concerning a tenement in Bodmin. Witness H [de Burgh] at Guildford on the twentieth day of August. And order to the sheriff of Cornwall to cause the assize to come before them on the aforesaid day and place. 15


J.C. Holt, Magna Carta, 2nd edn., (Cambridge, 1992), appendix 6 (pp. 441–473), at p. 457. For the significance of the clause see also, D.A. Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066–1284 (London, 2004), pp. 241, 290–91. Back to context...
D. M. Stenton, ‘King John and the Courts of Justice’, English Justice Between the Norman Conquest and the Great Charter 1066–1215, (Philadelphia, 1964), pp. 88–115 at p. 90. Back to context...
See Crown Pleas of the Wiltshire Eyre, 1249, ed. C.A.F. Meekings (Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, Records Branch, xvi, 1961), p. 4. Back to context...
Magna Carta, 1217, cap.13 in English Historical Documents 1189–1327, ed. H. Rothwell (London, 1974), p.334. Back to context...
P.A. Brand, The Origins of the English Legal Profession (Oxford, 1992), p. 20. For the general eyre, see D. Crook, Records of the General Eyre (Public Record Office Handbook, London, 1982). Back to context...
PR 1216–25 (HMSO, 1901), p. 173. The fullest study of the Four Knights’ System is found in A. Musson, ‘Reappraisal of the ‘Four Knights’ System’, English Government in the Thirteenth Century, ed. A. Jobson (London, 2004), pp. 97–111. Back to context...
The figures which follow have all been compiled from the dorses of the printed patent rolls: PR 1216–25 and PR 1225–32. Back to context...
PR 1216–25, p. 487. Back to context...
For obtaing writs, see A.H. Hershey, ‘Justice and bureaucracy: the English royal writ and ‘1258’’, English Historical Review, cxiii (1998), pp. 829–51. Back to context...
RLC., ii, pp. 76–77. The judges were also to deliver gaols. Back to context...
CFR 1221–22, no. 17; CFR 1222–23, nos. 36, 184, 196, 223, 235, 236, 239, 245, 312; CFR 1223–24, nos. 150, 213, 259, 294; CFR 1224–25, nos. 15, 227, 239, 240, 266, 325; CFR 1226–27, nos. 51, 228, 264, 275, 281, 298, 392, 396; CFR 1227–28, nos. 27, 38, 44, 67; CFR 1228–29, nos. 128, 300, 433; CFR 1229–30, nos. 417, 418, 420; CFR 1230–31, no. 1. Back to context...
CFR 1223–24, no. 150; CFR 1226–27, no. 228; CFR 1229–30, no. 300; CFR 1230–31, no. 1. Back to context...
For the prior acting on another commission of this type see CRR, xi, nos. 1459, 2044. Back to context...
Crook, Records of the General Eyre, pp. 86–87. This absence of the eyre in Cornwall (those planned for 1218 and 1221 were not held) may explain why the first Four Knights’ commission in 1218 is for Cornwall. Back to context...
[Cornubia. Prior de Bomine, Herebertus de Pinu, Robertus filius Willelmi, et Henricus filius Willelmi, assignati sunt justiciarii ad assisam nove dissaisine capiendam apud Bomine in octabis Nativitatis Beate Marie, quam Andreas de Bomine, clericus, aramiavit coram justiciariis itinerantibus versus Johannem filium Ranulfi de tenemento in Bomine. Teste H. etc. apud Guldeford, xx die Augusti. Et mandatum est vicecomiti Cornubie quod predictis die et loco assisam illam coram eis venire faciat.] Back to context...