1888 talk to La Société Jersiaise on the Constitutions of King John

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Constitutions of King John


This article from the Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise is based on a lecture on the origin of Jurats by H Marett Godfray

  • Authenticity of the Constitutions of John Lackland
  • Judicial organisation in the islands before the loss of Normandy
  • The new organisation resulting from the Constitutions

Manuscript discovered

The lecture was followed by an interesting discussion which many members took part in. The speaker agreed to requests to submit his manuscript to the executive committee with the aim of printing it. However, he expressed the intention of first making a few alterations. After his death the manuscript was found intact among his papers, no time having been left to correct it. The executive committee decided to publish it and if the reader finds any errors he knows where to attribute them.

The judicial organisation in the Channel Islands is one which, amid all the developments and changes of modern legislation, has a stamp of uniqueness. The historians who have been occupied with the history of our institutions have all uncovered exceptional features, but the majority of them are bound to agree that we are in the presence of a very ancient system which was already functioning in the 13th century. One can almost believe that they attach only a mediocre importants to the developments which have been made to the organisation, in the legislative powers and competence of the Royal Court, even during the last three centuries.

It is incontestable, however, that in every respect, the tribunes, such as we were presented with by the Acts of the 16th century, are very different from those which we see functioning today; and one can be assured, with the aid of some documents which are accessible to all, that even in recent centuries, radical changes have been effected in the insular Courts. The fact is that very little attention has been paid to the origin of these tribunals. Very little was known of their history before Julien Havet wrote his remarkable study. It is difficult to explain this indifference; because one finds even with the limited study of of the subject that we are going to consider today, many things which have shone a bright light on the controversies of 30 years ago.

When I was required to prepare a study on the institution of Jurats I intended to examine not only their origin but also their development to the 16th century. I soon realised that I would have to restrict myself to more modest limits; and I believe now that, during the short period when I shall have your attention I cannot cover the first part of the work I intended. The development of the institution cannot be traced in a satisfactory fashion without a full recap of the documents relative to the 14th and 15th centuries.

Assize Rolls

There is notably a series of documents to which I hope the attention of the executive committee will be drawn. They are the Assize Rolls kept in the Public Record Office. Nobody who has not consulted them can have an idea of their exact value. They make a complete picture of social conditions in the islands in the middle ages; and in addition, the information which they give on all our institutions mark them as the most precious documents available to us. I also want to indicate another source of information of the greatest importance, just about all there is for the 15th century, but which is more difficult to consult. These are the contracts before 1500 which are dispersed here and there. It is a strong wish that everyone who has any in their possession would provide La Société either with the original or a copy, so that a collection as complete as possible can be put together. In waiting for these sources to become more accessible I will attempt to reply to the following question – what is the origin of the Jurats in our constitution and what were their first functions?

In casting an eye over the summary which is in the hands of each member one sees that the real departure point for my system is the document which goes by the name of the “Constitutions of John Lackland”. The attributes of the tribunal and the permanent jury created by this Act can be determined by examining the clause which refers to them. It is absolutely essential for my thesis that one accords these Constitutions the authority of an Act whose status is officially recognised. It is this which unfortunately numerous writers have refused to do. The authenticity of the Constitutions has been called into question on many occasions. Jean-Patriarche Ahier, de Havilland, de la Croix, Le Quesne and Tupper, and most recently our colleague MrKeene, have all raised questions which deny the existence of this supposed charter of King John. I am forced, by consequence, before examining the question in depth, to discuss the diverse criticisms and to attempt to show you that there is no reason to reject the Constitutions, but on the contrary on is obliged to admit their historic value.

Mr Godfray's notes

Summary of notes found in Mr Godfray’s papers after his death: "The Jurats with respect to the Constitutions of King John"

  • Keene – Channel Islands English History Review January 1887. Court of 12 magistrates. First troubled period under Conqueror and his sons. Accepts Mr Le Quesne’s view. John confirmed, but did not grant nor originate them.
  • De la Croix – Les Etats – Makes no distinction between the Articles in the Inquiry and those of Falle. Concludes against the existence of a charter, because 1, there is no original; 2, it was not registered. He cites the Guernsey contract of 1204
  • Tupper – History of Guernsey. Follows de Havilland. Says 1, at most confirmation of an earlier system; 2, not in form of a charter; 3, if court of four knights had officiated until John they would have been mentioned in Inquest of Henry III; 4, not likely that John would have granted a charter.
  • Le Quesne, p69 Letter ad jurandum malefactores See also appendix Note vi, pp 53. 1, System existed before reign of John: cites Letters referring to Henry II; 2, not probable that an indolent king would have done what John did; 3, Letters not enrolled; 4, In 1309 no reference made to the charter.
  • Havet pp 50-51. Distinction between the two Constitutions. Accept the declaration of the Constitutions of 1248.
  • Dupont –Histoire du Cotentin et de ses Iles Accept the Constitutions. Regard them as a simple recognition of immemorial customs.
  • De Havilland- 2nd Commissioners Report, 1848, pp 289 1, Constitution confirmed something of long standing. 2, Letters would have mentioned old state of things as to four knights.
  • Duncan – Only a declaratory statute of old law.


When I speak of the Constitutions, I don’t mean at all the 18 Articles to which this name have been given, and of which a copy is published in the appendix of Mr Falle’s history. It is certain that this collection is much later than John’s reign. It is only a compilation, we are told by the Lieut-Bailiff Le Geyt, made at the beginning of the 17th century by Thomas Ollivier, Minister of St Helier in this era. Very recently M Julien Havet identified a petition of the inhabitants to the Council in 1333 as the source from which Mr Ollivier drew his information.

This explains the striking resemblance between these supposed Constitutions and the declarations of the islanders to the Justices during the great proceedings into our customs at the beginning of the 14th century – a resemblance which no doubt gave birth to the specific objection that, in so far as during the course of all the debate in these proceedings not a word is spoken of the Constitutions, one can draw the conclusion that they never existed. The fact is that the document to which one can give the name Constitutions in no way resembles Ollivier’s compilation. It is written in eight paragraphs rather than 18, and two of these paragraphs only refer to the formation of a body of justice. It dates from 1248, that is to say 22 years after the death of John Lackland.

Here is the hist6ory. About 1247 the king ordered an inquiry into the customs of the inhabitants of Jersey and Guewrnsey and the services they owed to the Crown. The inquiry took place and on 11 September 1247 a part of the minutes was confirmed by sealed letters. But either because they forgot to examine the jurors on some important points, or because the informationh provided was incomplete, the Royal officers still believed that they would need to consider the question again.

On 11 September 1248 a new letter was addressed to the Warden, Drouet de Barentin, requiring him to reinstitute the inquiry, inasmuch as it was ‘minus sufficiens’ and he was charged at the same time with ensuring through the inquiry that which laws King John had established in the islands – quas et cuiusmodi leges dominus Johannes rex, pater noster, instituit in Insulis’. The records of this inquiry, written on a single piece of parchment, exist today in the Public Record Office, attached to the letter of 11 September 1248. They are divided into two parts. The first reproduces almost word for word the contents of the letter of 1247, adding several other articles.

Difficulties imagined

The second, entitled Constitutiones et provisiones constitutae per dominum Johannem Regem post quam Normannia alienatas fuit is what one calls the Constitutions. One can easily see that this second part was drawn up in response to the the orders given in the last paragraph of the letter of 11 September 1248. One could also believe that this heading, attached to the declaration, was sufficient to dispel all doubt about the existence of these “establishments” of John Lackland. Many wise commentators have however imagined difficulties. I intend to summarise them and try to dispel them.

It is said that the composition of the Constitutions does not resemble the formula of a royal letter. If a charter had been granted one should have found it registered somehow. On this last point, there is nothing surprising in not finding a registered charter. It must be remembered that a considerable number are missing from the rolls of the reign of King John: and when one remembers that the Grand Charter of England itself does not exist in any of the registers of the Chancellery, it is easy enough to admit that the enrolment of the Grand Charter of the Isles could also have disappeared.

And the composition of the Constitutions do not appear to me to require its rejection. I admit that we don’t have the text of the charter in its entirety; but we have provisions arranged in articles with the indication of the changes which had been made during the era which had passed fromthetime they were granted to the time of the inquiry. The charters of freedoms of the reign of John are almost all composed of short paragraphs in the form of those we examine today: and if one compares the Grand Charter, and above all the original articles conserved in the British Museum, with the Establishments of Rouen, one is obliged to admit that the Constitutions in the Inquiry of Henry III have every appearance of a charter the beginning and end of which have been removed.

In effect, this question of formula cannot be resolved except by means of a careful comparison with the parts the authenticity of which has never been contested. It is not because our document does not commence with the words Johannes Dei gratia, and does not end with a list of witnesses that it is necessary to reject it. It is also necessary to see whether it represents the provisions of a charter; and it is precisely this quality which, on my advice, one should recognise.

If then one admits – I think one is obliged to – that the text recorded in the inquiry of 1248 is undeniably of the right formula, one can proceed to examine the other objections. They are all of more or less the same nature. They suppose that there existed in the islands before the loss of Normandy a system identical to that which existed in the 14th century; that is to say that when the islands were linked to the Exchequer at Caen there already existed in the islands a judicial organisation absolutely different from other jurisdictions in Normandy, and demanding by its form an exceptional procedure, even in the most ordinary process of ownership of property. This is a theory which one cannot prove conclusively.

However, it has been accepted by our most authoritative writers (even by those who recognise the authenticity of the Constitutions) on the strength of documents, with one possible exception, which do not necessarily have the interpretation they have been given. Those are the documents which I am not going to examine. I believe that I can show you that they do not prove the existence in the islands of a system other than that in force in Normandy.

I take first the single document which seems to prove positively the existence of Jurats before the separation. It is a copy of an order made at Chief Pleas held in Guernsey in 1204 in the presence of Nicollas de Beauvoir, Bailiff, aandeight jurats. I don’t know if an old copy of this Act exists; but its wording, the circumstances in thich it was recorded and the contradictory lessons one discovers in the copies, appear to me to suffice, if not to reject it entirely, at least to refuse to give it a date as old as the beginning of the 13th century.

Here is the only document before the loss of Normandy which the opponents of the Constitutions have been able to invoke in their support.

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