Researching the British Isles before Great Britain: A Matter of Jurisdiction

Genealogists take jurisdiction for granted.  Even I do on occasion.  And when I do, I don’t solve anything.

Today is 25 March, when everything started over for the year–the Equinox past, the winter dying out.  On the edge of Spring, with all of its new life.  In spite of anything we can do or the early Britons could do–Spring arrived at the same time each year.

And, most of the time, record series began on 25 March with a new page.

This is the new page for 2014–you will want to begin at the beginning and continue through each session or episode.  This is an advanced subject matter for this new year.

And I am about as excited as I can be to share this learning experience with you!

Local Jurisdictions in the British Isles
There was no one jurisdiction responsible for the functions of local government.  Governance was divided among a variety of overlapping authorities, public and private.  British local jurisdictions were territorial and often grew like topsy.

Jurisdictions overlapped.  Modern jurisdictions are based on population size, services needed, and the amount of territory one group of officials can effectively administer.  At lease in theory.  British local jurisdictions came from Royal charter and commission for a fee, from local custom and common law usage, from Parliamentary statute.  And they became entangled in each others growth and decline.

When the king needed revenue or power, he created a jurisdiction and sold it for money or granted it to the most powerful noblemen for political and military support.  Enterprising men sought jurisdiction from the king to increase their own revenues and power. For jurisdiction usually included courts with the right to grant freedom or imprisonment, and jurisdiction was tied, often directly, to the right to own landed property.

Thus jurisdiction became a carefully guarded commodity and men who owned it were reluctant to surrender their rights.  They regarded jurisdiction as property to be sold when they had no further use for it or bequeathed to their heirs when they died.

Local independence was so strong that the idea of central control, with lines of authority and distinct areas of responsibility, did not emerge as a need until the creation of local government boards in 1871.  And these jurisdictional overlaps were allowed to fade away or were not finally abolished until the government restructures of 1974-75.

Overlapping jurisdictions often ensured that some records do survive.  This is a real genealogy research benefit—what records one jurisdiction lacks may be found duplicated in the records of another.

Property holdings were scattered.  Jurisdiction was tied to land.  People  lived according to the wish of the lord who owned the land, held the court, and levied the taxes.  The King in turn, controlled the local lords by scattering their lands through several counties, thus restricting the lord’s ability to consolidate his power in any one area.  The lord could own a manor in Yorkshire, a town in Berkshire, and a parish in Gloucester—both his land and his power were scattered.  And frequently so were his records.

Jurisdictional duties overlapped.  The men who made the laws, were the men who enforced and administered them.  For example, the Lord Lieutenant, a nobleman, was the leading county official.  He was a member of the House of Lords and usually a Privy Councilor to the King.  He recommended for appointment the sheriff, the coroner, the justices of the peace—most of them related to him by blood or by marriage.

The justices of the peace sat in the local courts to administer local laws and in the House of Commons where they drafted them.  The House of Lords and the House of Commons had strong relationship ties—members were brothers, uncles/nephews, fathers/sons.

This system of vested interest worked remarkably well.  It guaranteed the rights and liberties of both individual citizens and their local units of government.  It stressed the duties of citizens and provided practical opportunities for them to rule.  They were legally fined and punished for neglect of official duties.  And when family members were living on the left side of the law, they protected each other from results of full enforcement.

In the early 1830’s, a swollen population and new industrial interests demanded something else.  Parliament and Church began sweeping reforms in the local system.  They did not, however, abolish the old jurisdictions still functioning.  They merely created ad hoc bodies to supply their needs.  And British jurisdictions continued to grow like topsy–self-appointed common councils were replaced by  elected government boards and commissions, and made responsible for their effectiveness.  Even so, it took many more years to abolish many jurisdictions which the British Isles had long outgrown.

Stay tuned for a whole series of blog posts on Jurisdiction in pre-1600 Britain!

Your favorite British genealogist, Arlene Eakle

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