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At the head of the system of courts was the king’s court, curia regis, founded atWestminster by William I (r. 1066-87). Originally an advisory body of the barons, itdeveloped legislative and judicial functions. From the former emerged Parliament;from the latter, the royal court system.As the power of the king gradually increased, the great barons played a lesser rolein the curia regis. The king relied instead on a smaller, more specialized set of advisors within the curia. With the help of these advisors the monarchs, especiallyHenry II (r. 1154-89), sought to curb the power of the great barons by replacinglocal private law with a common law for the entire country, namely, the king’s law.In extending royal justice the curia regis was aided by the continued existence fromAnglo-Saxon times of the shire, or county, courts. Beginning in the 12
century,these local communal courts were visited at roughly 7-year intervals by royal judges sent from Westminster on a set route or eyre (from the Old French eire, acircuit). Royal justice was made available to a vast new segment of the population,and at these hearings, as well as at the court sessions in Westminster, began thecourt decisions, or precedents, that form the basis of common law.
One of the tools of royal justice was the Jury, which could only be summoned byroyal authority. In 1166, Henry issued the Assize of Clarendon, initiating aprocedure by which jurors were commanded to appear before a royal judge andrelate any knowledge they had of crimes or criminals in a given area. This sort of presentment jury became widespread thereafter. Later Henry instituted aprocedure called the grand assize to determine which of two or more claimants hadthe better right to a piece of land. Four knights elected twelve jurors who wereacquainted with the facts of the case and who, after visiting the site, informed thecourt which claimant had the better right. Such procedures proved popular as analternative to judicial combat, or ordeal by battle, which was then used in the feudalcourts.
The royal court exerted its authority by issuing Writs, or written orders in the king’sname, requiring some action to be taken by a defendant or by a local court. Anearly treatise on law compiled by Ranulf de Glanvill (d. 1190), the chief justice of the later years of Henry’s reign, gives “the writ for making the first summons.” Later this was called the writ Praecipe (command), from the first word of the Latinformula.The king to the sheriff, greeting. Command N. to render to R., justly and withoutdelay, one hide of land in such-and-such a vill, which the said R. complains that theaforesaid N. is withholding from him. If he does not do so, summon him by goodsummoners to be before me or my justices on the day after the octave of Easter, to