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Friday, 1st Feb 2019
The forgotten county
By Tim Porter
Stones in his pockets
Wednesday 24th April 2019
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In the interests of keeping local residents and visitors healthy at this year’s Stow Cotswold Festival we were grateful that the Alcester Court Leet attended the event to test the quality of local ales, pies, bread and leather.
As we do not have an active Court Leet in Stow, the Stow & District Civic Society sponsored the Alcester group who agreed to do a re-enactment of the process for us, aided by of our Lord of the Manor represented by Ben Eddols, the Town Mayor.
During medieval times in England the Lord of the Manor exercised or claimed certain jurisdictional rights over his tenants and bondsmen concerning the administration of his manor and exercised those rights through his Court Baron. However, this court had no power to deal with criminal acts.
Criminal jurisdiction could, however, be granted to a trusted lord by the Crown by means of an additional franchise to give him the prerogative rights he owed feudally to the king. The most important of these was the "view of frankpledge", by which tenants were held responsible for the actions of others within a grouping of ten households. In the later Middle Ages, the lord, when exercising these powers, gained the name of Leet which was a jurisdiction of a part of a county, hence the franchise became known as the Court Leet.
The Court Leet was a court of record, and its duty was not only to view the pledges, which were the freemen's oaths of peacekeeping and good practice in trade, but also to try by jury, and punish, all crimes committed within the jurisdiction. The most serious crimes were committed to the King's Justices.
It also developed as a means of proactively ensuring that standards in such matters as sales of food and drink, and agriculture, were adhered to. The Alcester Court Leet charter contains the following wording:
‘To enquire regularly and periodically into the proper condition of watercourses, roads, paths, and ditches; to guard against all manner of encroachments upon the public rights, whether by unlawful enclosure or otherwise; to preserve landmarks, to keep watch and ward in the town, and overlook the common lands, adjust the rights over them, and restraining in any case their excessive exercise, as in the pasturage of cattle; to guard against the adulteration of food, to inspect weights and measures, to look in general to the morals of the people, and to find a remedy for each social ill and inconvenience. To take cognisance of grosser crimes of assault, arson, burglary, larceny, manslaughter, murder, treason, and every felony at common law.’
Court Leet judgements, all those centuries ago, are often responsible for the base content of what we call today “The Local Bye-laws”.