Elizabethan: Littleton's Tenures and Tudor law

Have you ever wondered what sorts of books Tom and Co. in my Francis Bacon series have to study to learn the law? (“No!” you respond, with gratuitous vehemence.) Well, I do. I always what to know what my people are reading, both for work and for pleasure. My poor lads spend more time slogging through Littleton’s Tenures than they do solving crimes, you know.

Sir Thomas de Littleton

This is all straight from Wikipedia. Sir Thomas (c.1407 – 23 August 1481) was an English judge andsir-thomas-de-littleton legal writer. He was probably a member of the Inner Temple; at any rate, he performed his Reading there on the Statute of Westminster II (1285.) He rose through legal ranks, being appointed a judge of common pleas in 1466, smack in the middle of the brief reign of Edward IV. Troublous times!

He wrote his Treatise on Tenures (land ownership) after rising to the bench. Some say he dedicated the work to his son, but others point out that mon filz (my son) was a conventional way of addressing law students in that time. Ah, the loveliness of Law French!

English law, like the language in which it was conducted, grew out of an amalgam of Teutonic custom and Norman feudalism. Henry II caused the legal system to be organized in the twelfth century; from that time, legal records were kept. Important cases were reported in the year books. By Sir Thomas’s time, a substantial weight of legal material had accumulated. Since common law is based on past cases, or precedents, lawyers had to dig in to those centuries of accumulation in order to learn their jobs.

Here’s the first page of the Tenures. You can see from the chart that Sir Thomas was a man of Francis Bacon’s ilk. He was trying to organize legal concepts to make them easier to learn and apply. Tough job.


A digression about language

Because I’m a linguist and I find it irresistible, that’s why! I don’t want to learn Law French, but it fascinates me. I would toss bits of it into my books if I weren’t already getting pushback about vocabulary.

Here’s a comment about Law French from the Selden Society: “These Year Books come to us from the middle age, but are not written in Latin: they are written in French. Badish French is may be: ‘un français colonial, avarié, prononcé les dents serrées, avec une contorsion de gosier, à la mode, non de Paris, mais de Stratford-atte-Bowe.’ [my guess at a translation: ‘a colonial French, tainted, pronounced through closed teeth, with a contortion of the throat, in the fashion, not of Paris, but of Stratford-atte-Bowe.’]

Their lengthy introduction does include a long discussion of the grammar, such as it is, of Law French. I will read it when I get to the courtroom drama which may be the centerpiece of book 8. (Yes, I have a list that long.) 

A soupçon of Year Book

From the same volume produced by the Selden Society. The Society, in its own words, “was founded ‘to encourage the study and advance the knowledge of the history of the English law.'” If there were a chapter in Austin, I would join. Alas, there is none. 

The authors warn us, with characteristic Victorian sang froid, thus: “Our commendation of the Year Books will not really be qualified by the remark, perhaps needless, that reports must be read in considerable quantities if they are to be appreciated. They cannot be tasted in sips.” On the other hand, this stuff is not exactly light reading for your commute.

Here’s that taste, from page 1. You want to read this out loud, with your best mock-BBC accent.

“Placita de Termino S. Michaelis Anna Regni Regist Edwardi Filii Regis Edwardi Primo.

1. Maulay v. Driby.

Recordum de forma doni en le erverti ou la tenaunte alegga en abatement del fref un jugement qe se fist ou bref de dreit super excepcionem de nontenure. Forma donacionis en le reverti ou le tenaount dit q’il tynt les tenemenz ov un altre et pria eyde etc. [That’s the preamble.]

Petrus fillius Petri de Malo Lacu, Rogerus Kerdestone et Juliana de Gaunt per attornatum suum petunt versus Johannam que fuit uxor Roberti de Dribi terciam partem duarum parcium manerii de H. cum pertinenciis, exceptis x. mesaugiis, xv. toftis, vj. carucatis terre, xl. acris prati, c. acris pasture et xxv. libratis redditus, cum pertinenciis en eodem manerio, quam Gilbertus de Gaunt senior, pater predicted Juliane et avus predictorum Petri at Rogeri, cuius heredes ipsi sunt, dedit Gilberto de Gault iuniori et Lore uxori eius et heredibus de corporibus ipsorum Gilberti et Lore procreatis, et que post mortem ipsorum Gilberti et Lore ad prefatos Petrum, Rogerum et Julianum reverti debent per formam donacionis predicte, eo quod Gilbertus de Gaunt junior et Lora uxor eius etc. obierunt sine heredibus de corporibus suis etc.”

I can pick out a few words, which we still use in the same general sense. This is where we got them, boys and girls. ‘Tenure,’ ‘abatement,’ ‘judgement,’ ‘post mortem.’

Here’s the translation (Whew!):

[Preamble] “Land has been given to husband and wife in tail by the husband’s father. It was afterwards, during the wife’s life, recovered against the husband in a writ of right after a verdict given against him on a plea of non-tenure. Qu. whether, after the death of the husband and wife without issue, this recovery is a bar to a writ of formedon in the reverter* brought by the heir of the donor against the heirs of the recoverer.”

“Peter son of Peter de Maulay, Roger of Kerdeston and Juliana of Gaunt, by their attorney, demand against Joan, wife that was of Robert of Driby, the third part of two parts of the manor of H. with the appurtenances (except ten messuages, fifteen tofts, six carucates of land, forty acres of meadow, a hundred acres of pasture and twenty-five pounds’ worth of rent in the same manor), which (third part) Gilbert of Gaunt the elder, father of the said Juliana and grandfather of the said Peter and Roger, whose heirs they are, gave to Gilbert of Gaunt the younger and Lora his wife and the heirs of their bodies begotten, and which after the death of them, Gilbert and Lora, ought to revert to the said Peter, Roger and Juliana by the form of the said gift, for that Gilbert of Gaunt the younger and Lora his wife died without heirs of their bodies etc.”

No wonder so many of the Inns of Court gentlemen preferred to spend their time dancing and fencing!

*[If I had formedon in my reverter, I’d throw it out and get another one. Kaputnik.]


Year Books of Edward II. Vol. I, 1 & 2 Edward II. A.D. 1307-1309. Edited for the Selden Society by F.W. Maitland. London: Bernard Quaritch, 15 Piccadilly. 1903.

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