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Legal History of England

English law has evolved over time into what is now known as English common law. Numerous events have shaped English law. Further, English law has served as a model for the legal systems of many nations, and has had a huge impact on the laws of international commerce. The following examines English law through the ages.


Anglo-Saxon law governed England prior to the conquest of England by William of Normandy. It was one of the earlier bodies of written law, deriving many principles from Germanic customs in North-west Europe. Many of these customs were in part derived from interaction with the Roman Empire, as well as Roman law. Most of these dealt with trade.

The Middle Ages

Following the conquest of England by William of Normandy, England became a Catholic nation. Legal reforms defined the King as defender of the Church, and eventually came to define the notion of the state. New laws also defined the role of the Church, and its attitudes toward non-Catholic beliefs and practices. Clergy held great sway in the design and enforcement of the legal system. 

17th Century

By the 17th century the reformation had taken hold in Europe, and the Church of England took the position in politics that the Catholic Church had held. This made its mark in several ways legally, as clerical power began to fade the power of the monarch was made more absolute. This culminated in the regicide of King Charles I, and a brief Commonwealth. As the 17th century came to close England was more secular, and officially a constitutional monarchy with limited powers for the King.

18th Century

In the 18th century the specifics of the English legal system began to take shape. The state began to take a role in the prosecution of criminals, which previously was usually done by the victim. Graduated penalties for crimes replaced the previous catch all of execution. At the same time superstition held great sway as well. Witchcraft was a crime, and one often punished with death. The Church still held sway within the legal system as clergy could have crimes transferred to Church courts where non-clergy likely faced death. 

19th Century

In the 1800s English law was extensively reformed and made uniform. Contradictory laws that had arisen from regional traditions began to be made consistent. County courts, and public prosecution made enforcement of the law equally more uniform. Privileges for clergy began to be phased out as well. By the end of this period the treatment of women under the law began to become closer to that of men as well.

20th Century

While the slave trade had been abolished in the 19th century, it did not change the status of existing slaves. Legal changes in 20th Century England dealt extensively with equal treatment under the law. Many nations already using a system modeled after English common law made similar reforms. Late in the 20th century laws regarding the role of England within the European Union began to appear.

("Legal information found on this page does not constitute legal advice.")

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