Southampton is fortunate in that it still holds in its Records Office many of the original Early Medieval "Council Minutes" and Record Books and Papers showing dealings and doings within the town and port.
Many of them are very detailed, particularly the Account and Port Books, but you need to be able to understand Latin or Old Norman French, the latter being the only accepted written lay language of England at that time, to be able to read them. Fortunately, many have been published as pamphlets and booklets. One series of books held by the Record Office concerns the Court Leet, starting from the 16th Century up to the present day with just a few gaps in between.
The Court Leet originated in England in the Court Baron, a Court authorised by the King and presided over by the Baron or landowner. It mainly dealt with matters relating to the duties and services owed by the peasants or villeins (not Freemen) to the Lord of the Manor or Baron. The Court Baron's records, for example, would have details of how many day's service to the Baron each villein/serf owed, and how and when it was paid. It also would have dealt with personal actions within the Manor- one person against another - up to a claim amount of 40 shillings. (£2). Freeholders were not usually subject to its jurisdiction, but were liable under Common Law in other Manorial Courts. (See below)
The Court Leet or " The View of Frank Pledge" to give it the proper name (See below) had extra powers to that of the Court Baron. It was a Recording Court granted to a Hundred, Lordship, Manor, or Borough by the Kings Charter. The term Leet is noted in Domesday Book (in East Anglia) as a division of a Hundred which was self-governing. Southampton had been a Borough since Saxon times, although its first known self government Charter was granted c.1199. Other Records show, however, that it had been self governing and separate from any other place long before that. Court Leet judgements all those centuries ago are often responsible for the base content of what we call today "The Local Bye-laws"
The Court Leet's duties were " to enquire regularly and periodically into the proper condition of watercourses, roads, paths, and ditches; to guard against all manner of encroachments upon the public rights, whether by unlawful enclosure or otherwise; to preserve landmarks, to keep watch and ward in the town , and overlook the common lands, adjust the rights over them, and restraining in any case their excessive exercise, as in the pasturage of cattle; to guard against the adulteration of food, to inspect weights and measures, to look in general to the morals of the people, and to find a remedy for each social ill and inconvenience. To take cognisance of grosser crimes of assault, arson, burglary, larceny, manslaughter, murder, treason, and every felony at common law"
Any citizen, or the Jury itself, could indict another by a presentment to the Leet jury, and action would be taken accordingly, usually a fine. The Leet Jury in the main was made up of Burgesses and other Freemen.
Freemen of the town were also enrolled at the Court Leet on Law Day. No person, you see, not born and bred in the town, and on reaching adulthood, who was not proposed and accepted by the Burgesses could legally carry on his or her trade without special permission; strangers had to be outside the town walls by nightfall; everyone had to be indoors ditto except with special dispensation or for watch duty; a strict laid down dress code was adhered to quite rigidly throughout England (eg only certain colours and fabrics were allowed to be worn by certain classes of people and woe betide the lower class woman who dared to wear a white hat instead of a cap); and householders and tenants had to keep their boundaries, businesses,
rubbish pits; and so on to an acceptable standard.
To understand where the Court Leet fitted into the Norman legal and local government system, and how Southampton's differed from other Courts Leet, you need to look at how England was divided up for Government and Law and Order prior to the arrival of the Invaders from across the Channel. Also, how it developed afterward. Southampton's Court Leet differed mainly from others in that its jurisdiction was an urban, not rural, area, with obvious problems of boundary protection, of many people living comparatively closely together, and of import/export trading arguments and grievances.
It must also be remembered that in Norman times there were no actual written laws, except those emanating directly from the King and from the Church of Rome. Unlike, say in America, England's present day Statute and Civil laws which are passed by Acts of Parliament, are separate and different from the age old, but equally enforceable, pre-Norman Common Laws. Enforceable, that is, if custom and practice over a long period can be proved. Medieval, Tudor and Stuart National Taxation and Crown laws were passed down from the King hierarchically to his Nobles and eventually ended up on the doorstep of the poor peasant, and often the only recourse the peasant had, if any, was to put his grievance to a Freeman to take up on his behalf. Church laws and taxes were something else again.
Common law is the law of Custom and Practice of the King's Courts. Ie, those Courts authorised by Charter or Letters Patent in the Shires, Hundreds, Boroughs etc. by the Crown. Southampton had such a Charter issued in 1256 and so within its confines and privileges, the town's Burgesses, within the liberties (jurisdiction of boundaries) were able to set their own local laws and levels of taxation and Port duty. They were also able to directly petition the King via an MP to protect the import/export trade from neighbouring competitors like Lymington. Obviously, the Guild Merchant rulers of the Town had to pay a corporate tax to the King (from the Fee Farm) and were responsible for the upkeep of the Port, the Walls and Defences, and the general well being of the town and trade, so they set the rate accordingly - a bit like modern Council Tax. But there was no real National the-same-everywhere Law, or Criminal Law of the Land as there is today.
The common court of Southampton was a civil Court of Pleas. It was held every Tuesday to hear cases of personal pleas put before it, and once every two weeks would also hear pleas regarding land and tenements. Other medieval courts included the County Court for Southampton, (Charter 1447); the Quarter Session Court (Charter 1461); the Court of Orphans; (Charter Charles l); Court of Admiralty (Charter 1445)and the Pie Powder Court (Charter 1461).
Within Civil law, what is known as precedent law, which started to be accepted in English Courts during the late 15th Century, gradually superseded local custom laws, and by the 19th Century, Case-made precedent Law predominated. Today, Common Law custom and practise is, where it is sensible to do so, often updated and included into Statute Law, the most obvious example in modern times being the Acts of Parliament laws of separation governing the rights of Common Law husbands and wives.
The Norman Hundreds of England were divisions of the English Anglo Saxon Shires (scirs) and in general the Hundred or Moot Court dealt with higher level cases of criminal behaviour, of taxation, and of private pleas than did the Leet, Manorial, or Baron Courts.
The Hundreds corresponded to the wapentake divisions of the Danish held areas of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Rutland . The Ridings were three large divisions of the Danish held area. In Lincolnshire there were also divisions called Ridings, but this later changed names to Lathes or Rapes.
Further south, in Kent there were five Lathes, and Sussex had six Rapes, each Lathe or Rape having subordinate Hundreds. The Kentish Lathes still exist and the division for Petty Session Courts are still based on them. In the Domesday Book the word 'rape' is used for a district under military jurisdiction. In Northumberland,
Westmoreland, Durham and Cumberland, the equivalent unit to a Hundred was a Ward. Hampshire obviously belonged in the Saxon 'scir' group and became a County, as did Southampton and the other Counties in the late Medieval period.
The Shires and Counties consisted of Hundreds and the English Hundred consisted of 100 hides. The actual acreage of the Hundred would depend on the fertility of each of its hides, and the geographical size of each Hundred within the Shire was determined by this.
A Hide in feudal times was considered to be the amount of land that was sufficient to be enough to support a family. This was about 60 acres if the land was fertile, or as much as 120 acres if it was not. The fertility of a hide of land was used in estimating how much tax was due to be paid, the word 'hide' being derived from the original method of paying taxes in animal hides.
The origins of the "View of Frank Pledge", as the Leet Court became known after 1600, are really quite simple once you know what the expression means! To be 'frank' means to be 'free'. The original purpose of the Court was that the freemen of a small area put themselves in groups and would meet at regular intervals - in this case, once a year. The leader of each group responsible for the serfs in his area would give a Pledge to the others for the good and lawful behaviour of his group. The meeting was also used to roll call all those who should be present, boys of the town from the age of 12, girls and women not at all, and old men after 60 were relieved of their responsibility. This roll call -
i.e. those present - was the View.
Bibliography of Published Sources;
The Story of Southampton's Court Leet by S C Thompson
Southampton Ciry Charters by Edwin Welch
A History of Southampton by Rev J Sylvester Davies
Picture of Southampton or Strangers Handbook by Philip Brannon
Collected Essays on Southampton ed. JB Morgan and Philip Peberdy
Brewers Dictionare of Phrase and Fable
History of England by George Macaulay Trevelyan
SOUTHAMPTON PIE POWDER