Home > History > The oldest law – the Statute of Marlborough, 1267

The oldest law – the Statute of Marlborough, 1267


The oldest piece of legislation still in force in the UK is the English Statute of Marlborough, passed in 1267 – not Magna Carta; more on that later.

It is observable that the Statute of Marlborough is only two years after de Montfort’s Parliament was disbanded.  One of the problems was that during the recent disorders within the Kingdom of England through the struggle between the King and the barons, some lords and landowners deliberately attacked the land of their neighbours, particularly if they were of the opposing political group.  The law sought to redress this by making such actions accountable to the courts.  Here is the law.

First, the flowerly preamble:

“PROVISIONS made at Marlborough in the Presence of our Lord King Henry, and Richard King of the Romans, and the Lord Edward eldest Son of the said King Henry, and the Lord Ottobon, at that Time Legate in England .In the Year of Grace, One thousand two hundred sixty–seven, the two–and–fiftieth Year of the Reign of King Henry, Son of King John, in the Utas of Saint Martin, the said King our Lord providing for the better Estate of his Realm of England, and for the more speedy Ministration of Justice, as belongeth to the Office of a King, the more discreet Men of the Realm being called together, as well of the higher as of the lower Estate: It was Provided, agreed, and ordained, that whereas the Realm of England of late had been disquieted with manifold Troubles and Dissensions; for Reformation whereof Statutes and Laws be right necessary, whereby the Peace and Tranquillity of the People must be observed; wherein the King, intending to devise convenient Remedy, hath made these Acts, Ordinances, and Statutes underwritten, which he willeth to be observed for ever firmly and inviolably of all his Subjects, as well high as low.”

..and here we find the actual law.  It requires that farmers and landowners may not deliberately neglect to upkeep the facilities on their land to the detriment of tenants and workers.  It also requires that attempts to secure recompense for damages may only be legally obtained through the courts:

“Also Fermors, during their Terms, shall not make Waste, Sale, nor Exile of House, Woods, Men, nor of any Thing belonging to the Tenements that they have to ferm, without special Licence had by Writing of Covenant, making mention that they may do it; which thing if they do, and thereof be convict, they shall yield full Damage, and shall be punished by Amerciament grievously.”

‘Tenement’ refers to land held, rather than owned.  1267 being at the height of the feudal era, the land would be held by a noble on behalf of the king, or on behalf of another noble.

‘Amerciament’ is an arbitrary punishment to be determined by the authorities.

In response to a comment: from what research I have quickly done, the licence would essentially be a common law written agreement between the two parties in a procedure called a covenant-at-law.  The agreement was enforceable to the next generation of landlords and tenants until both agreed to alter it.  In case of breaches local courts would administer justice.

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Categories: History
  1. Psi
    June 5, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    So who did they have to apply for the licence from? The King himself? Was it that no licences would in fact ever be given, or was there a bureacracy to administer them?

    • June 5, 2010 at 9:57 pm

      Psi – I have attempted to answer your question in the post 🙂

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