The Royal Borough of Milverton Court Leet
A Brief History
Whilst much of the history of the Court Leet in Milverton is lost in history it is thought that Court Leets were established in Saxon times. Each local man was recorded as a member of 10 men; each ten had a leader responsible for the conduct of the other nine. In turn ten groups formed a ‘Hundred’ and the leaders elected one of their numbers to be the ‘Hundredsman’. Tens and hundreds were responsible for catching and punishing thieves from amongst their number, and compensating victims. Thus the first form of community policing was born.
The system underwent a change with the coming of the Normans. The Court became a Manorial Court which dealt with petty offences and collected fines and taxes. The earliest record of the Milverton Court Leet was in 1276 during the reign of Edward 1.
The term Leet is noted in Domesday Book (in East Anglia) as a division of a Hundred which was self-governing. Court Leet judgements all those centuries ago are often responsible for the base content of what we call today 'The Local Bye-laws'
The Court Leet's duties were ' to enquire regularly and periodically into the proper condition of watercourses, roads, paths, and ditches; to guard against all manner of encroachments upon the public rights, whether by unlawful enclosure or otherwise; to preserve landmarks, to keep watch and ward in the town , and overlook the common lands, adjust the rights over them, and restraining in any case their excessive exercise, as in the pasturage of cattle; to guard against the adulteration of food, to inspect weights and measures, to look in general to the morals of the people, and to find a remedy for each social ill and inconvenience. To take cognisance of grosser crimes of assault, arson, burglary, larceny, manslaughter, murder, treason, and every felony at common law'
The Court Leet became known after 1600 as “The View of Frank Pledge' which had extra powers to that of the Court Baron. To be ‘frank’ means to be ‘free’. It was a Recording Court granted to a Hundred, Lordship, Manor, or Borough by the Kings Charter.
The role of the Courts Leet in England declined as other forms of civil administration evolved. Their legal criminal jurisdiction was finally abolished in 1977 by Act or Parliament but courts were permitted to 'sit and transact such busines as was customary for it'. This included 'taking of representations relating to matter of local concern'
The minute books of the Milverton Court Leet provide an insight into how its role altered during the nineteenth century as historic reponsibilities were stripped from it by the evolution of the police force, district and parish councils and the trading standards and taxation systems. It continued to deal with local issues of nuisance. Meetings became less regular during the 20th century until 1976 when the Milverton Court Leet was restored to maintain the ancient tradition, to swear allegiance to the Crown and to provide a forum for discussing and recording all matters of local concern. Meetings were to be held twice per year.
The Milverton Court Leet comprises 24 members of the Jury namely:
Port Reeve: Leader of the Jury, presides over the court in session
Bailiff: Responsible for summoning the court and be guardian of any monies
Ale Taster and Water Keeper
Free Suitors: Those members that have gone through office
Jurymen: Newly sworn in jury members or those yet to go through office
Membership is made up from residents who have lived in the hundred for 10 years or more. When a vacancy arises members submit a list of possible candidates for consideration, who in their view have contributed to the benefit of the hundred and the health and wellbeing of both community and village life. Candidates selected by the jury are invited to join..
A record of previous Port Reeves is on display in the Milverton Victoria Rooms.
What is an Ancient Hundred?
The Saxons divided the country they had occupied into convenient areas, the Shire and the Hundred, for administering justice and collecting taxes. The precise dates of the formation of these administrative areas are not known, but it was probably fairly soon after the occupation of the land. The Shire, still frequently today retaining its ancient boundaries, came under the control of the Shire-reeve or Sheriff, the most important legal officer in every county, who was responsible for the collection of taxes and the paying of the proceeds at the Exchequer, as well as, since the twelfth century, being in charge of prisons and the trial of prisoners. The boundaries of these areas were established long before written records were made, and natural features were used like the ridge of the Blackdown Hills in south-west Somerset, or a river like the Avon in the north of the county.
In the past the county has sometimes been called Somerset and sometimes Somersetshire. There have been many arguments about which is historically correct, but both forms can be traced at least as far back as Domesday. In 1889 the newly established County Council adopted the form 'County of Somerset', and this is the present usage. It has been suggested that the name Somerset originally meant 'the land of the summer pastures' and referred to the fine grazing lands of the marshy levels. Here, perhaps, it is best to consider Somerset as being the district which looked towards Somerton, its chief town, for government.
The division of the county into hundreds also took place in the early years of its foundation. The term 'hundred' is generally thought to have been derived from an area of 100 hides, the 'hide' being the amount of land which would support a peasant family, an extended group of several generations, including grandparents as well as married sons and their children. There is a wide variation in the estimated acreage of the hide, from 40 to 140 acres. Its name in the form of 'hide', 'hiwisc' or huish has survived in several Somerset place names. It is known as a “Leet” in East Anglia, a “Ward” in Cumberland, Durham and Northumberland and a “Wapentake” in the Counties of York. The Milverton Hundred is one of 40 historical Hundreds in the County of Somerset. It consisted of the ancient parishes of Ashbrittle, Bathealton, Kittisford, Langford Budville, Milverton, Runnington, Sampford Arundel, Stawley and Thorne St. Margaret, covering an area of 12,250 acres (4960 ha.)
The hundred provided a convenient unit for calling out the 'fyrd', the local defence force, as well as for the collection of taxes. Meetings of the hundred court, which was concerned with the maintenance of law in the area, were at first held in the open air at regular intervals of four weeks so that everyone would know about them and there would be no need to issue a summons to appear. The shire and the hundred courts dealt with serious crimes and also ensured that everyone was registered as a freeman or tenant of the lordship within which he lived. Within each hundred the maintenance of law and order was placed in the care of small groups known as 'tithings', possibly originally involving ten people, though the derivation is not certain. Frequently the hundred fell into private hands and its court was held with those of the landed estates which, with their lords and tenants, both free and servile, were known as manors. Each tithing was responsible for all that went on in its own small area. It reported or arrested any of its members who committed crimes. If the suspect ran away, the tithing had to raise the 'hue and cry' by shouting and blowing horns. Members of the tithing had to attend the lord of the manor's court to present the offenders and see that they were punished, or were themselves fined for failing to do so. Twice a year, representatives of each tithing attended the hundred court to give a report of the behaviour of their members, and to admit as new members all males who had reached the age of 12 years. The hundred and its courts gradually declined in importance as its jurisdiction came into the hands of lords of the manor and royal justice was extended through the assize courts.
In the twelfth century, King Henry II had introduced a new system of paid professional judges who travelled around the country to try serious cases in courts held in the most important towns of each county. This developed into regular sittings of assize courts, eventually held only in Taunton and Wells, and lasted until 1971, when a new crown court system was introduced. In the medieval period the Shire or County Court became established at llchester, where a county gaol was built, and it replaced Somerton as the county town. As the new courts of justice were developed, the powers of the old County Court declined.