The Discourse of Law and Justice in Medieval Europe
24th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday, March 27, 2004
Tudor Reformation Discourse and Anglo-Saxon Law
Kathryn L. Mapstone, Assumption College

The pro-reform arguments of the early years of the English Reformation were as often as not questions of law, of legal authority, and who had what right to dispense justice. Christopher St. German’s work, A treatise concerning the division between the spirituality and temporalite, is a prime example of the attack on the power of the religious courts and their claim to superiority over Common Law. Parliament’s first and most powerful weapon against the Church was the Ordinance and Statute of Praemunire from the reign of Edward III. In fact, most modern discussions of the legal changes wrought by the Henrician Reformation center on the use and expansion of this legal principle. But there was another, less well know but equally powerful, center of reformation discourse that focused on the King as the sole arbiter of law and justice to all Englishmen, lay and ecclesial. This discourse looked beyond the high Middle Ages to the Anglo-Saxon period to define the ideal legal relationship of king to church and people.

By 1528, Bishop Edward Fox has joined the grand effort of Henry VIII to search the libraries and archives of England and Rome for any information that would aid the king’s attempt to separate from Catherine of Aragon. This work would ultimately lend support to the English case for separation from Rome. In his work, The true dyfferens between ye regall power and the ecclesiasticall power, Fox turned to the law codes of Anglo-Saxon kings Edgar and Æthelred and the Anglo-Scandanavian king, Cnut. He described in some detail the exact authority that these Anglo-Saxon kings held over the people and the church, down to the specific laws within the specific royal codes. He, and other authors who also sought a legal justification for this reform of the church, found in the legal history of Anglo-Saxon England the site of true justice and royal power that had been usurped by the Church.

The importance of these works was that, in the midst of Reformation discourse, and one hundred years before the oft-described idea of the Norman Yoke, the reformers had found the font of true law and justice in the law codes of the Anglo-Saxons.

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