English Common Law developed partly in response to the pioneering work of Ranulf Glanvill. As chief justiciar, Glanvill was the legal and financial minister of England under henry ii. He is commonly associated with the first important treatise on practice and procedure in the king's courts: Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus regni Angliae (Treatise on the laws and customs of the realm of England). Historians agree that Glanvill is probably not the author of the Tractatus, which first appeared circa 1188, but he is thought to have been instrumental in its creation. Early U.S. law owes much to English Law, which became greatly simplified and available to common people during Glanvill's tenure.
Glanvill was probably born at Stratford St. Andrew, near Saxmundham, Suffolk, England. Although few details are known about his life, it is recorded that he had bumpy political fortunes. He was sheriff of Yorkshire from 1163 to 1170, but lost his authority following an official inquiry into the corruption of sheriffs. He regained it by helping raise troops against Scottish invaders in 1173–74, and his reward from King Henry II was a series of increasingly important appointments: justice of the king's court, itinerant justice in the northern circuit, and ambassador to the court in Flanders. In 1180, Glanvill's ascent to power seemed complete when he became legal and financial minister, but a new king, Richard I, threw him in prison. He ransomed his way out, and then died of illness on a Crusade at Acre, in what is now Israel, in 1190.
For a few centuries before Glanvill became influential, English law was mired in Feudalism. Under this political and military system, justice was administered in crude forms: trial by combat, which operated under the assumption that God would favor the righteous party, and trial by ordeal, which, in one of its forms, posed the question of innocence as a test of whether a person's wounds could heal within three days. By the twelfth century, feudalistic law was dying. The local courts still adhered to its methods, but the king's courts offered a superior form of justice that was at once less bloody and less superstitious. This was a writ-based, or formulary, system. It allowed litigants to frame a complaint in terms of a particular action, which had its own writ and established modes of Pleading and trial. Although primitive by modern standards, the formulary system represented a considerable advance for its time. But such justice was chiefly available to great lords; commoners had to resort to the local courts.
As chief justiciar, Glanvill sought to extend the benefits of the king's courts to ordinary people. He accomplished this through a system of itinerant royal justices, and the results revolutionized English legal procedure. As the feudal forms fell into disuse, they were replaced with a dominant system of central courts that followed uniform procedure throughout the realm and made English law simpler and better.
"The legal constitution is based above all on equity; and justice, which is seldom arrived at by battle …, is more easily and quickly attained through its use."
The Tractatus played a crucial role in this improvement. In fourteen books, it covered each of the eighty distinct writs used in the king's courts. One important writ, for example, was the grand assize, a procedure for settling land disputes that replaced the feudal practice of battle with a form of jury system. The treatise offered this commentary on its value: "It takes account so effectively of both human life and civil condition that all men may preserve the rights which they have in any free tenement, while avoiding the doubtful outcome of battle. In this way, too, they may avoid the greatest of all punishments, unexpected and untimely death." As with other writs, the Tractatus painstakingly spelled out how the grand assize worked. Directed at practitioners of law, the Tractatus sought to encourage them to adopt these new "royal benefit[s] granted to the people by the goodness of the king."
The simplicity and clarity of the Tractatus helped lead England to a common law. Although records from the period associate Glanvill with the treatise, scholars believe he is unlikely to have written it. The real author may have been his nephew, Hubert Walter, who was the archbishop of Canterbury, or even a later justiciar, Geoffrey Fitzpeter. However, its authorship is of secondary importance to its effect. Besides encouraging the spread of unified procedure, it provided the foundation for later classics, in particular Henry de Bracton's thirteenth-century treatise on English law and custom, De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae.
Glanvill, Ranulf. 1996. Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus regni Angliae. English translation available at vi.uh.edu/pages/bob/elhone/glanvill.html (accessed on November 13, 2003).