1309 Assize outlaws confiscation of property of absent alleged debtors

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In the 13th and early 14th century is was common practice in Jersey for anyone to be able to claim to be owed money by someone absent from the island (perhaps visiting family in Normandy where they had previously owned property) and, with the support of supposed witnesses to that debt, to receive judgment. If the debt was not settled within 40 days the defendent in the action, although still absent, could be ordered to forfeit all his property to the plaintiff.

King's Justices

The King's Justices who visited Jersey to conduct the 1309 Assize, John de Fresingfeld and William Russell, had clearly been alerted to this practice, which they described as ‘a very bad custom entirely without the knowledge of the lord the King’. They challenged anyone who supported it to appear before them, but nobody had the courage to do so and it was ordered that the practice be abandoned. It is not recorded, however,, whether those who had suffered such judgments had their property returned.

The full account of this part of the Assize proceedings is given below in a 1903 translation from the original Latin.

Having heard the plaints of divers persons grievously complaining etc, the justices here considered that quite recently there has been introduced in this island a very bad custom entirely without the knowledge of the lord the King, to wit, that when any plaintiff is able to prove in a plea of debt before the Bailiff and the Jurats of the King against any islander here by the oath of witnesses any debt to be owing to him by him of whom he complains, although absent, and that payment or satisfaction was not made to the party claiming within 40 days etc immediately on the petition of the said plaintiff the Bailiff and the Jurats of the lord the King delivered to the plaintiff the lands and tenements of the debtor to be held in fee and perpetual inheritance, the assent of such debtor not being asked nor his presence waited for, appraisement nevertheless being made of the value of those tenements by the oath of the neighbours, no regard being had as to whether the debtor had consented or not. And the justices hereupon in open court questioned the whole commonalty on Monday in the Morrow of St Margaret the Virgin. And the wiser part of the commonalty disavowed such custom alleging that it was falsely and wrongly introduced both within 20 years and against the law and custom of the islands, certain people however on the other hand objecting thereto. And so the justices made public proclamation that all and singular who wish to maintain that custom or to use it shall come before the said justices on Monday next following to propound their reasons: at which day the whole commonalty unanimously disavowed it, and by their consent is is altogether condemned and adjudged as null.
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