English Coroner System Part 1: Origins
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History of the Medieval English Coroner System By Prof. Bernard Knight, CBE

Part 1: The Origins of the Office of Coroner

Richard the Lionheart on Crusade

The office of Coroner is a uniquely English institution, though perhaps 'Norman' might be more accurate in the sense in which we know it today. Scotland, of course, never had coroners. They remained independent of England for a long time and their system of law is more akin to that found on the Continent. Wales inherited the English Coroners after the Edwardian Conquest of 1282. Before this, the Welsh had their own system of law dating from about the 9th century. Ireland also acquired them, since Norman administration had been imposed there from 1170. In later times, England exported her Coroner system all over the World: to almost everywhere coloured red in the Victorian atlas. Where Coroners still survive, they indicate a legacy of British rule, whether it be Kenya, Hong Kong, Australia or parts of the United States.

The first mention of the Coroner is actually pre-Norman, probably dating from the reign of Alfred the Great: certainly sometime between AD 871 and 910. However, we have no records of that period and we do not know what the Coroners' functions were at that time. By drawing parallels with other Saxon law officers, like the Bailiffs and the Sergeants, it seems probable that they carried out at least some of the duties which the later Norman Coroners undertook. But the Coroner as we know him today dates from September 1194. For it was instigated almost eight hundred years ago, during the reign of Richard the Lionheart.

Though the events of King Richard's short reign were crucial in the genesis of the Coroner, the ground swell of resentment towards Royal officials, which led to their recreation, had been growing for more than twenty years. During the last decade of Henry II's reign, considerable discontent developed over the corruption and greed of the Sheriffs, who were the dominant law officers representing the Crown in each county. In 1170, after an 'Inquisition of the Realm', which was the medieval equivalent of a modern Royal Commission, all the Sheriffs were sacked and many of them heavily fined for malpractice. However, it became obvious that even this drastic action was nothing but a temporary check on their rapacity.

In the fifth year after ascending the throne, Richard Coeur de Lion was desperately short of money. Contrary to popular belief, he was one of the worst rulers that England ever saw. The stories of Robin Hood featuring "great, good King Richard" are far from the truth. Richard spent less than four months of his reign in England and never even bothered to learn English. He couldn't speak a word. He regarded England as a rather tiresome adjunct to his continental domains of Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine. Richard's only interest in these islands was as a source of money to help finance his obsession with warfare. Two years after becoming King, he set off from France on the Third Crusade with a huge army and support fleet purchased by the imposition of crushing taxes. These were supplemented by extortions and corrupt practices, including the sale of titles and Offices of State to individuals and the selling of charters to towns. He is reputed to have said that he would have sold London itself, if he could have found a rich enough buyer!

On the way back from the Crusade, at the end of 1192, Richard was shipwrecked in the Adriatic and he decided to make his way back overland to Normandy. He travelled disguised as a peasant, to avoid the attentions of Leopold of Austria and Henry of Germany, with whom he had quarrelled violently in the Holy Land. Unfortunately, spies discovered him and, when he was sitting in a tavern in the village of Eedberg (near Vienna), the Mayor of Vienna burst in and captured him. Richard was imprisoned in a castle some miles up the Danube, at the stronghold of the Kuenringers: the Robber Barons of the Wachau. This was at Durnstein, a dramatic fortress on a hill high above the village. One of the hotels there today is called the "Richard Lowenherz" and the other is the ''Sensor Blondel," which is also the name of one of the local wines. This latter name, of course, commemorates the well-known, and probably apocryphal, tale of Richard's troubadour, Blondel de Neale, who wandered about Europe singing Richard's favourite ballads outside every castle. He did this until he had a response from inside. The story tells how, by Richard singing the second verse, he was able to discover where his King was hidden. He would have had quite a job at Durnstein, as Richard was caged, not in the castle itself, but in a small chicken-coop-like cell amongst the boulders, a few hundred yards beyond.

The King was imprisoned for over a year in this castle, until his faithful minister, Hubert Walter, came to the Continent to arrange a ransom; and it is here that we begin to pick up the story of the English Coroner. The sum demanded for Richard was enormous: 150,000 marks, which today would represent several million pounds. Though it was never paid in full, the already drained resources of England were strained again to try to raise this money. In fact, it is from this very time that we can trace the first taxation on movable property in England, a precedent that has stayed with us for 800 years.

Richard returned to England in March 1194, but stayed only a few weeks before going back to his lands in France, never again to return. The kingdom was ruled in his absence by Hubert Walter, now elevated to Chief Justiciar and Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a sort of every-minister rolled into one. He ran the country totally. He was faced with a massive financial problem and amongst Hubert's many schemes to extort more money was the one which now concerns us - the revival of the office of Coroner. It is hard to assess how much this was an urgent administrative problem and a reform due to the Sheriffs' stranglehold on the peasantry, and how much was just sheer fiscal opportunism for the Royal purse; but maybe the Justiciar killed two birds with one stone.

When we look into the birth of the Coroner system, we have also to look at the Sheriff. The word "sheriff" is derived from "shire-reeve," the King's law officer responsible for each shire or county. Counties were sub-divided into "Hundreds", or "Cantrefs" in Wales in later days. These were administered by the Sergeants and Bailiffs, similar officers controlling the borough towns. The Sheriff sat on the top of this pile and had an evil reputation for extortion and embezzlement. This was usually at the King's expense, as the Sheriff was in a position to manipulate the legal system to his own advantage. Archbishop Walter was well aware of this and resolved to set up a new network of law officers who would be independent of the Sheriffs and who could act as a check upon their rapacity. More of the population's money would therefore filter through to King Richard's empty coffers instead of the Sheriffs' own pockets. Much of the present-day English legal structure was born in the last decade of the 12th century. For it was Hubert Walter who also established the Justices of the Peace, in 1195. Ironically, these men were to become the major reason for the decline of the Coroner in the later centuries.

Now the actual formation of the office of Coroner is based on an extremely skimpy base. The edict that formally established the Coroners was Article 20 of the "Articles of Eyre" in September 1194. The "General Eyre" was the periodic visitation of the King's itinerant Judges, who travelled slowly around the country dispensing what passed for justice in those days. It was the forerunner of the "Assizes", derived from the Norman-French for "sittings" which, in turn, of course, gave way to the present Crown Courts in more recent times. The Eyre of September 1194 was held in the County of Kent, and Article 20 baldly stated that:


And that is the only statutory basis for the Coroner. Each county had three Coroners and a poor man who had to walk behind their horses, carrying the "Coroners' Rolls" and pen and ink: a Medieval Coroner's Officer, you might call him; though even this minor office was abolished in later years to provide for another Coroner. Now the above words are the only official authority for the long-lived system and, looking at the remit of the new Coroners, they were ordered only to "keep the pleas of the Crown". This meant recording the pleas on parchments known as the "Coroners' Rolls," many of which survive today in the Public Record Office. "Keeping the pleas" was quite different to "holding the pleas" which meant actually trying the cases and passing sentence. This could only be done for lesser offences at the County Courts by the Sheriffs, otherwise the cases had to be committed to the next General Eyre when it trundled along in the fullness of time - which might be years ahead. In fact both Coroners and Sheriffs did, in the early years, hold pleas of the Crown, acting as Judges in an ultra vires fashion. Consequently, one of the demands of Magna Carta, some twenty years later, expressly forbade this practice. Chapter 24 of Magna Carta states: "No sheriff, constable, coroner or bailiff shall hold pleas of our Crown".

The keeping of the pleas of the Crown was the source of the title, the original Latin was "custos placitorum coronas" from which the word "coroner" is derived. He was referred to for hundreds of years as "the Crowner" - as in Shakespeare's Hamlet, where derisively it is said "But is this law? Ay, marry, is't crowner's quest law!"

As mentioned, the appointment of the Article of Eyre declared that three Coroners and one clerk should be appointed in every county. The clerk was soon dropped and a fourth Coroner appointed, or elected. In 1200, six years later, Royal Charters created additional Coroners in the Boroughs and, where a Lordship replaced the King as the local law-giver (like the Welsh marches), the "franchise" Coroner also appeared. Coroners originally had to be Knights and men of substance. This was in accord with Chancellor Walter's new philosophy: the participation of the middle-class Knights in the administration of the country. Their appointment depended on a certain property level and they had to possess an income of at least 20 a year, which was a large sum in those days. One was actually dismissed from office because he did not come up to this wealth threshold. Coroners were unpaid and it was a serious offence for any of them to receive a reward for their duties - which again was enforced on a number of occasions. Hubert Walter's had sound reasons for appointing only well-to-do gentlemen to the office. He wished to reduce any temptation for them to follow the Sheriffs' habit of embezzlement: the assumption being that they were in no need of further wealth - a bit optimistic perhaps, but that was the idea. As time went on, the qualification of a Knight vanished, though the Statutes of Edward I and Edward II required them "... to be knights or of the most meet and lawful men of the county". Their dishonesty and greed became more apparent, though they never acquired the same reputation for venality held by the Sheriffs. Coroners were elected to office but the voters were a select few: the Freemen of the county, meeting for the purpose in the County Court. In the boroughs, they were appointed by the Burgesses and in the franchise coronerships, naturally the Lord held them in his gift.

Part 2: The Medieval Coroner's Duties

Readers interested in the activities of the medieval coroner should check out Bernard Knight's 12th century Mystery Novels featuring Crowner John de Wolfe, the first coroner for the County of Devon.

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