Henry de Bracton

With legal treatises in short supply during the middle of the twelfth century, Henry de Bracton (c. 1210-1268), stepped forward to bring order to English jurisprudence. He is said to have authored De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae (The Statute and Common Law of England).

Little is known of the early life of Henry of Bratton (Henricus de Brattona or Bractona). His exact birth date is unknown but it is believed that he was born during King John's reign, ca. 1210, in England. His death in 1268, just prior to the end of the reign of Henry III, put his lifetime during a period of enormous importance including events such as the granting of the Magna Carta and the death of Simon of Montfort, Earl of Leicester at the battle of Evesham.

He is believed to have been born in Devon where two parishes exist with the name of "Bratton," Bratton-Clovelly and Bratton-Fleming. Most authorities put his birthplace as Bratton-Clovelly, establishing the correct form of his name as Bratton, not Bracton (by which he was commonly known). He is said to have attended the University of Oxford as a youth where he received a doctor's degree in civil and cannon law.


Bracton was made an itinerant judge in 1245 and from 1247 to 1250 he was an English judge of the Coram Rege ("Before the Monarch"). This later became known as the King's (or Queen's) Bench. He held this position again from 1253 to 1257. From the beginning of his judgeship in 1245 until 1267 he served as a justice in Eyre, his native Devon or other neighboring counties or held court before King Henry III. Although he continued his work on various benches, he never held placito de banco (a place on the bench) i.e., he was never permanently seated on the Bench at Westminster.

While never holding permanent position, records show that Bracton received favors from the monarch, yet he maintained an unbiased position in the courts, gaining respect and trust from both king and barons alike. He retired in 1257 but continued to serve on judicial commissions. In 1265 he became chief justiciar of England under King Henry III.


On the Laws and Customs of England

Bracton is credited with producing a long treatise on English jurisprudence, De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae, "On the Laws and Customs of England." Written in Latin, it is considered one of the oldest systematic dissertations on English common law. He expanded the common law and attempted to make sense of English law in terms of ius commune, that is, using principles derived from both civil and canon law. The substance of the piece was drawn from English law courts, while its form was from Roman law.

De legibus was an immediate success and became the forerunner to numerous other legal dissertations. The treatise was frequently used by the likes of Sir Edward Coke when preparing legal arguments against the monarchy during the civil war. It is often referred to as the most important work on English law prior to that of Sir William Blackstone in the eighteenth century. The piece was never thoroughly completed and there is doubt about Bracton's part in writing it. Some authorities believe others authored the work during the 1220s and 1230s although Bracton was the last owner of the original manuscript and he most likely made later additions.


Later Findings

The work, however, maintained its high position as the reference work of English Law for centuries. The first printed edition of De legibus appeared in a 1569 folio and was reprinted in quarto in 1640. Sir Travers Twiss issued a six-volume translation of the entire work from 1878 to 1883. A manuscript collection called the Notebook, of approximately 2,000 English law cases, evidently written by Bracton, was discovered in 1884. It was edited and published in 1887 by British legal scholar Frederic Maitland.

Later Life and Death

Like many jurists of his time, Bracton was also a ecclesiastic. In 1263 he was made archdeacon of Barnstable. That same year he left Barnstable to become chancellor of Exeter Cathedral. He remained at Exeter until his death in 1268. Bracton was buried before an altar in Exeter cathedral at which he had founded a perpetual endowment for his soul.



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