The Reputation of Royal Judges Under the Angevin Kings

Ralph V. Turner

In twelfth and thirteenth-century England complaints that justice was being sold were common, culminating with King John's tacit admission in Magna Carta. Coupled with these complaints were charges of corruption against royal judges, or against royal aulici, curiales, or familiares, since until the middle of Richard I's reign no professional judiciary existed. Even in King John's time, familiares regis still served as judges. Yet a core of royal servants specializing in justice, “professionals” in a certain sense, had been created. Historians since Maitland have generally held a high opinion of these judges. According to Maitland, under Henry II and Richard I, “English law was administered by the ablest, the best educated men in the realm.…” F.M. Powicke wrote that the judiciary of Henry III was “probably the most stable and helpful, as it was the most intelligent, element in the State at this time.” How are we to reconcile historians' high opinion of the royal justices with their contemporaries' low opinion? Were the chroniclers simply drawing stock figures in their depictions of corrupt judges, or was their picture drawn from life?

Royal officials, including judges, proved popular targets for the pens of twelfth century moralists and satirists, some of whom wrote out of personal bitterness, having failed in the contest for royal patronage and high office.2 Capable of condemning curiales in classical Latin style was John of Salisbury. He knew many of Henry II's courtiers, and he came to despise them, especially those in clerical orders.

Ralph V. Turner, Professor of History at The Florida State University, has written The King and His Courts: The Role of King John and Henry III in the Administration of Justice (1968), and most recently articles in Speculum and the American Historical Review. He recently presented a paper on royal justices to the Fourth British Legal History Conference at Birmingham which relates to his work on a collective biographical study of 12th and 13th century royal justices.