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Law and Arms: The English Medieval Court of Chivalry

1 April 2013 - 1 September 2016

PI/s in Exeter: Professor Anthony Musson

Funding awarded: £ 178,371

Sponsor(s): Leverhulme Trust

Project webpage(s)

Law and Arms: The English Medieval Court of Chivalry

About the research

This interdisciplinary project is providing exceptional insights into medieval cultural values and language use. Using surviving documentary, visual and physical evidence, it evaluates the rationale and development of the Court of Chivalry, reconstructing the court’s activities and assessing its effectiveness and authority between c.1340-1500, the key period in the Court’s early history.

The Court of Chivalry (also known as the Court of the Constable and Marshal, or of the Lord High Constable) was responsible for matters of military organisation and discipline arising both at home and, uniquely for any English tribunal, overseas, including the spoils of war (such as ransoms) and the right to bear heraldic coats of arms. It heard an ever-widening range of pleas in the later 14th century, and from 1379 entertained appeals of treason. Statutes of 1384 and 1390 show the antagonism aroused by its success: its jurisdictional wings were clipped and provision was made for appeal to the King’s Council against its rulings. While its use of civil law procedures made it more effective this did cause controversy, resentment and suspicion within the world of common law.

The military nature of the cases and the high social status of some of the litigants bringing actions meant that the Court of Chivalry enjoyed a high political profile. Indeed, many cases are causes célèbres in their day and vividly demonstrate that the stakes were high, not only financially, but also in terms of reputation and socio-political standing. The lack of an accessible edition of the proceedings has, however, kept these interesting cases in relative obscurity. As part of the project, a scholarly edition which will bring them to a new audience is being prepared for publication by the Selden Society. It will provide both the original text (in Latin or Anglo-Norman French) and an English translation of the records.

The depositions in the cases brought to the Court record testimony from people of varying social and political status and are being analysed not only for their factual legal testimony, but also for what they reveal about the language and the shifting cultural values of the people involved. Many of the witnesses refer directly to physical evidence, such as heraldic devices, stained glass and funerary monuments which is still available to us, as well as to documentary proof. In examining the visual and physical evidence the researchers are moving outside the normal sphere of documentation inhabited by the legal historian to combine methodologies and techniques relevant to art history and an understanding of heraldry and material culture.

The revival of the Court of Chivalry’s jurisdiction in the twentieth century provides a modern context to its historical position, which is underpinned by the continued relevance of its role in making the modern law of arms, the regulation of which is overseen by the College of Arms.

The project lead is Professor Anthony Musson.

Image: Henry VI invests the earl of Shrewsbury as Constable of France (BL MS Royal 15 E VI fol. 405). Credit: British library

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Leverhulme Trust