Bracton, Henry de

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Bracton, Henry de

Henry de Bracton was a medieval jurist and priest whose masterful treatise on Common Law and procedure provided a framework for the early English legal system.

Bracton's famous De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae (On the laws and customs of England) was a systematic explanation of English Law for judges and practitioners during the reign of King Henry III. De legibus and another of Bracton's works, Note-Book, helped shape the system of case law and pleadings that began during the monarchy of King henry ii. Although reliance on Bracton's works declined as English statutory law grew, historians consider De legibus the high point of medieval legal scholarship.

Bracton's exact date of birth early in the thirteenth century is unknown. His family, whose name sometimes appears as Bratton or Bretton, owned land near Devon, England. Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the brother of King Henry III, and William de Raleigh, a prominent common-law judge, were important benefactors who helped advance Bracton's legal career.

By 1240 Bracton had the job of civil servant, a relatively lucrative position during the Middle Ages. In 1245 he was appointed to the judiciary. In 1247 he became a member of the King's Bench, where he served for ten years. After 1257 he held several assignments, including that of chancellor of Exeter Cathedral. During the Middle Ages it was not unusual for a priest to serve also as a judge.

De legibus first appeared after Bracton's death in 1268. Although the original manuscript is lost, approximately three hundred reedited and hand copied manuscripts circulated during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Intended as a guide to English law and procedure, De legibus combines aspects of Roman and Canon Law. Bracton was influenced by the Institutes of Justinian I and by medieval textbooks of Axo, Tancred, and Raymond of Penafort. His treatise includes a section of basic principles and a section of writs and commentary. It emphasizes the development and application of case law as written by judges grappling with medieval legal questions.

Bracton's Note-Book is a compendium of two thousand judicial opinions. Some historians believe that other medieval jurists contributed to the work, which was discovered in 1884. Note-Book was edited by frederic w. maitland and published in 1887.