How Did Alfred the Great Successors Contribute to the Development of the Legal System?

ABSTRACT:  Alfred the Great played a crucial role in shaping the legal landscape of the early medieval period in England.  Alfred established a restitutionary legal system, based on a verbatim copy of the Mosaic covenant from Exodus 20-23.  He and his heirs reigned for the better part of two centuries leading up to the Anglo defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  Here we examine his legal reforms, the principles underlying his approach, the institutions he put in place, and the enduring  legacy of his kingdom. 

Alfred the Great’s Restitutionary Legal System

To comprehend the legal contributions of Alfred the Great, we must grasp the historical context in which he operated. The late 9th century in England was marked by Viking invasions, social upheaval, and a fragmented legal system.  Alfred conquered and converted the Viking invader, Guthrum, and ruled jointly with him.  He made a concerted effort to stabilize the kingdom, build fortifications, and restore order.  The rise of Alfred the Great was the culmination of almost a millennium of Christian cultural and legal maturation. Tragically, it was cut short with the Norman invasion of 1066. 

Henry II’s Retributionary Legal System

Europe during the Medieval period was a culture governed by the joint rule of church and state.  Yet it  was an uneasy truce between the two that rested on the tension over which would appoint the bishops of the unified Kingdom of God.  This dictated who would collect the rents on church properties.   Charlemagne had been crowned by Pope Leo as he knelt at the altar on Christmas day of the year 800, This inaugurated the thousand-year rule of the Holy Roman Empire.  The Plantagenet reign of some 14 monarchs was launched about 300 years after Charlemagne’s fragile, but extensive kingdom. The Plantagenate dynasty spanned 331 years in England. The first in line was Henry II — The Father of the Common Law. His retributionary legal approach was cut from a different cloth than the restitutionary system of Alfred the Great.

I. Alfred’s Legal Reforms

A. Alfred the Great Legal Reforms

At the heart of Alfred’s legacy are the legal reforms he implemented. Recognizing the need for a comprehensive and just legal system, he undertook initiatives to codify laws, ensuring consistency and accessibility. Alfred’s legal reforms aimed at restitution over punitive measures. This aligned with his vision of a fair and equitable society based on the Mosaic Covenant of Exodus 20-23.

B. The Restitutionary Legal System Under Alfred the Great

Michael Treschow’s “The Prologue to Alfred’s Law Code: Instruction in the Spirit of Mercy” explains how Alfred’s legal code opened with a word-for-word transcription of Exodus 20-23, the Mosaic Covenant.  This was followed by Jesus’s warning in Matthew 5:17 that He did not come to abolish the law and the prophets. Rather He came to apply them with a spirit of mercy as in the first church counsel of Acts 15.

Treschow goes on to say, that “Christian nations may, for the sake of mercy, exact monetary compensation instead of corporal or capital punishment (El. 49.7–El. 49.8). This last section adds, however, that the synods recognized a limit to such mercy. They advocated that merciful allowance of compensation not be repeated in the case of a second crime.”  This conforms precisely with the monetary ransom illustrated in Exodus 21 and strict enforcement in the event of contumacy in Deuteronomy 17:9-12.

Thus, central to Alfred’s legal philosophy was the restitutionary principle. This differed greatly from the retribution-focused systems of the time following the Norman conquest. By contrast, Alfred emphasized the restoration of the victim and the community. Offenders had to pay back double those they harmed in the Biblical system rooted in fairness, reconciliation, and social cohesion (Exodus 22:1-4).

C. Legal Institutions under Alfred the Great

Alfred’s legal vision was not only conceptual but also institutional. He established and strengthened legal institutions to enforce and administer justice. These institutions were designed to be accessible to the common people. This ensured that justice was not a privilege of the elite, but a right for all citizens.  Judges who were lax in these matters were given the choice of resigning or undergoing extensive personal study under Alfred’s oversight. 

D. Legacy of Alfred the Great Legal Contributions

Alfred’s legal contributions left an indelible mark on the development of English law for almost 200 years. His restitutionary legal system set an example for future legal philosophies and institutions. The legacy of Alfred’s Biblical system did not die with him. It was perpetuated by his descendants.

Unfortunately, this legacy was cut short by the Battle of Hastings. However, In subsequent pages, we will explore how Alfred’s immediate successors navigated the challenges of their time. They built upon but, in some cases, deviated from the restitutionary legal system established by the great Anglo-Saxon king.

Alfred the Great’s reign came to an end with his death in 899. The torch of leadership passed to his successors for the next 167 years, marking a high plateau in the development of the English legal system.  Sadly their efforts ended abruptly, replaced by the retributionary principles that arrived with the Norman Conquest.

II. Alfred’s Successors and Legal Continuity

A. Alfred the Great Succesors and Legal Continuity

The immediate successors of Alfred faced the formidable task of upholding the legal legacy he left behind. King Edward the Elder, Alfred’s son, continued his father’s efforts. An example is Edward’s reaffirmation and extension of legal codes, such as the Laws of Edward and Guthrum, which demonstrated a commitment to maintaining legal continuity.  Guthrum was the Viking ruler that Alfred had defeated, then converted to Christ. He invited him to share the rule of Britain as fellow Christian sovereign north of the Dane Line.  The Dane line ran from Birmingham in north Wales diagonally down toward London.

B. Transitional Periods and Socio-Political Changes

The period following Alfred’s reign was marked by significant socio-political changes. For example, under the rule of Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred, England witnessed the consolidation of the kingdom and the establishment of a unified legal framework. The Coronation Charter of Æthelstan in 924 was the fruit of this transitional phase.

C. Contributions of Alfred the Great Successors to Legal Developments

While navigating transitional phases, Alfred’s successors made notable contributions to legal developments. King Edgar, for instance, introduced the Ordinance Concerning the Duties of a Reeve. This was a legal document outlining the responsibilities of local officials in accord with God’s law. Edgar’s contributions reflected efforts to adapt legal structures to changing needs of society.

D. Emerging Legal Challenges after Alfred the Great

The changing socio-political landscape brought forth new legal challenges. Æthelred the Unready faced challenges with legal fallout from further Viking invasions. The need for quick decisions and responses led to adaptations in legal procedures. This illustrated how emerging challenges influenced the evolution of legal practices without sacrificing the Biblical base.

E. Shift Towards Retributonary Principles

There was an abrupt shift towards retributionary principles during the Norman Conquest. The reign of Harold II, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, witnessed attempts to fortify England against external threats. This included legal measures to punish treason. Even Alfred had deviated from the Biblical norms in case of transgression against one’s Lord.  This illustrated the prevailing influence of the Medieval feudal system prior to 1066. 

III. Norman Influence on Legal Paradigms

A. Norman Conquest and Legal Philosophy

The Norman conquest unraveled the intricate web of restitutionary legal development from the times of Alfred.  Too many Christian commentators fail to recognize the dramatic shift away from Alfred’s Biblical model that came with the Norman conquest. They believe that Alfred’s strong biblical emphasis, carried over into the Post-Hastings era and all we have to do is get back to that era from which we have backslidden.

The result is widespread confusion about God’s legal expectations for a revived Christendom. It’s of vital importance that we understand that Alfred’s restitutionary legal system was completely wiped out and replaced by the Norman Retributionary legal system after the Battle of Hastings. The emphasis in the new system is on punishment for violating the “king’s peace.” Local, predictable justice is replaced by a coercive, centralized authority that is constantly evolving. Evidence based on at least two sworn witnesses is replaced by ordeal. That is miraculous survival of scalding water, fire, or duel to the death. If accused, you are guilty until proven innocent. Restitution for property crime is replaced by imprisonment, brutal maiming, or death. Biblically trained judges and clerics are replaced with trial by jury of often vindictive neighbors untrained in biblical law.

So reformation is not just a matter of restoring Biblical principles of restitution. An entire, entrenched, pagan, legal system needs to be recognized and replaced. It’s not just a matter of remodeling an old building. It’s a matter of razing the building to the ground and starting over from scratch.

B. The Medieval Militia in the Days of Alfred the Great

Around the year 1000 b. c. during the reign of King David, the Bible lays down Israel’s provision for a citizen militia. This came at the end of the Bronze Age, and somewhat after the invasion of the Canaanite Sea Peoples from the island of Crete,   In I Chronicles 27:1-15 David assigned 12 of his 30 “mighty men,” each to command an army of 24,000 volunteers to serve for one month of the year in defense of the nation.  In times of peace they no doubt functioned also as local police to enforce the Law of God.  Maintenance of a full-time army is an incredibly expensive proposition and was considered a standing threat to freedom. This, in fact, was a primary anti-Federalist objection to ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Later, during the period of the Roman Republic citizen soldiers from the farms served in this same fashion.  We have the famous story of General Cincinnatus who was called from his farm in 458 a. d. and given dictatorial powers to rescue a consular army.  He accomplished this in a single day and surrendered his dictatorial powers to return to his farm. 

 C. The Battle of Hastings Eradicates Alfred the Great

Even during the days of Charlemagne around 800  a. d. the army was requisitioned in this manner.  This, in spite of the fact that Charlemagne was almost constantly at war during his approximate 30-year reign.  Under the early feudal system the local Count would call upon a farm family to load a cart with weapons and provisions for one of their sons to transport to the scene of the battle. Often the cart would be returned empty except for the body of the son. This led to a variety of schemes for draft evasion.

Such was the case in the one-day battle of Hastings in 1066.  Wars had to be timed for the harvest season or troops might desert to help on the farm.  Under these hasty conditions, King Harold Godwin had accomplished a miraculous victory over King Harald Hardrada of Norway at the battle Stamford Bridge at East Riding of Yorkshire.  

Immediately after, on 25 September 1066 he rushed his weary army to Hastings and occupied the high ground to wait for the invading force assembled by William of Normandy.   They fought valiantly during the early part of the battle, but then when William’s soldiers feigned a retreat. The flank of the English army broke ranks contrary to orders and rushed after them.  This enabled the Normans to rally and divide the English forces for certain defeat.  Thus, in a single hour the fate of Western Civilization was determined for the next millennia. 

D. Loss of Alfred the Great’s Protection

The Norman Conquest of England marked an incisive turning point in the nation’s history, profoundly impacting its legal system.  In the aftermath of the Conquest, Norman rulers imposed a harsh tyranny on the English people in the form of Norman legal customs. These  dramatically altered legal thought, tradition, and the emergence of a new legal jurisprudence.

The Norman Conquest in 1066 brought about a seismic shift in England’s political and legal landscape. The Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1086, stands as a tangible example of the Norman influence. This comprehensive survey recorded landownership, providing a legal and economic snapshot that reflected the Normans’ intent to assert control and administer justice based on precise knowledge of the realm.  Thus, justice shifted from that defined by the Bible to that defined by a coercive centralized authority.

E. Alfred the Great vs. Father of the Common Law

At the core of the Norman influence was a distinct legal philosophy. The Charter of Liberties issued by Henry I in 1100 serves as an example. While it sought to address some grievances of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, it underscored the Norman kings’ view of justice as a royal prerogative. This legal document encapsulates the Norman rulers’ belief in the centrality of the crown in administering justice.  It contrasts sharply with the legal structure established by Moses at the advice of his father-in-law. Jethro advised Moses to set up a system of graded lower courts to handle most disputes locally and leave the more complex decisions to Moses.

As the Normans established their rule, there was a gradual assimilation of their legal standards into the existing legal framework. The consolidation of the feudal system is a concrete example. The feudal structure, with its hierarchical relationships and obligations, became more integral to the legal and social fabric of England.  This more structured, formal feudal system is known as the second phase of European feudalism. 

F. Legal Jurisprudence in the Wake of the Conquest

The clash of legal traditions between the Anglo-Saxon and Norman systems created tension. The Assize of Clarendon in 1166, implemented by Henry II, exemplifies this clash. It sought to codify legal procedures and reconcile Norman and Anglo-Saxon legal practices. There were some compromises and adaptations, but the legal code of Alfred the Great, with its exact copy of the Mosaic Covenant in the preamble, was gone. 

In its place was a new legal authority, a code, and a legal jurisprudence established in the wake of the Norman Conquest. The “Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus regni Angliae,” attributed to Ranulf de Glanvill and known more simply as Glanvill’s Code, provides insight into evolving legal thought in the 12th century. This treatise outlined legal practices under Henry II, reflecting the assimilation of Norman legal concepts into English jurisprudence.

IV. Henry II’s Common Law Code

A. Historical Context of Henry II’s Reign

The reign of Henry II marked a significant departure from the legal traditions established by Alfred the Great.  Here we explore the historical context of Henry II’s reign and the meticulous development and codification of the Common Law Code.  This includes the departure from restitutionary principles, the legal philosophies embedded in the code, and the immediate impact on the legal system.

Henry II ascended to the throne in 1154, inheriting a kingdom that was in disarray about a century after the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Constitutions of Clarendon in 1164 was Henry’s attempt to define the relationship between church and state. This attempt to bring the church under state control led to conflict with Thomas a Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

B. Development and Codification of the Common Law Code

One of the hallmark achievements of Henry II’s reign was the systematic development and codification of the Common Law Code. The Assize of Clarendon in 1164 stands out as a tangible example. This legal document sought to standardize legal procedures and create a more uniform system of justice.

Henry II was constantly in the saddle, riding a circuit to administer justice in his realm.  He was a more or less benevolent dictator, who sought the welfare of his people.  Eventually he appointed a relatively small cadre of judges to assist him in this task and help to formulate the Code.  This was the start of the Common law system of judicial precedent, not based explicitly on the bedrock of Biblical law.  For the most part, he relied on local German customs that had emerged from the counties and were Common to the citizenry. 

The other major academic contribution to the English Common law was the Justinian Code that had been recovered in a Bologna library in 1080.  This humanistic, natural law code was analyzed with great veneration in the Italian universities using newly recovered Aristotelian logic. 

C. Departure from Restitutionary Principles

As noted, Henry II’s legal reforms marked a departure from the restitutionary principles championed by Alfred the Great. The Assize of Northampton in 1176 illustrates this departure by introducing stricter penalties for theft, emphasizing punitive measures over restitution. This shift reflected Henry II’s emphasis on retribution as a central aspect of the justice system and a shift away from restitution to make the victim whole.

The Assize of Arms in 1181 is another example, in which Henry required an oath of each Englishman to provide specific military equipment. Negligance to do so, was subject to pecuniary penalty, but also bodily mutilation.

V. Retributionary Principles in Action

A. Execution of Retributionary Justice

The implementation of Henry II’s Common Law Code ushered in an era in which retribution was the central tenet of the English legal system.  It created a system untethered from the specifics of Biblical law that is both legalistic and litiguous. It plagues us to this very day. A multitude of legal codes have arisen over the period of a thousand years with a myriad of conflicting principles and procedures. This legal labyrinth stands in stark contrast to the one simple Bible law code that existed under Alfred the Great.

The execution of justice under retributionary principles saw a notable shift towards standardized punishments. We see this today in the fixation on length of jail terms, with little attention paid to restitution of the victim. In the 12th Century the focus was on ordeals. For instance, the Assize of Clarendon in 1166 introduced trial by ordeal for serious crimes.   This was an obvious departure from Biblical justice.  In cases where guilt was suspected, individuals underwent physically demanding tests, such as walking on hot iron or plunging their hands into boiling water. By contrast, the Biblical system of evidence under Alfred the Great required the testimony of at least two witnesses for conviction.

B.  Legal Cases Illustrating the Retributionary Approach

Biblical examples that are sometimes used to justify these ordeals require God to intervene in a miraculous way to demonstrate guilt rather than a miraculous deliverance from fire or water.  For example, in one case a suspect was required to swallow a harmless substance that would normally evince no reaction apart from God’s miraculous intervention. This is the precise opposite of the trial by fire or water, that Savonorola was forced to endure in 15th Century Florence. Related to this is trial by combat depicted in Ivanhoe’s 12th century England. Trial by combat was still alive and well in the 19th Century South and Western United States.

The case of The Charter of the Forest in 1217 stands out as an example of retribution.  Englishmen who killed one of the king’s deer could have two fingers of their bow hand cut off and could be blinded for a 2nd offense.  This law exemplifies the Crown’s willingness to employ arbitrarily harsh measures to punish wrongdoers, aligning with the retributionary ethos of the time.  Lex Talonis, in which the punishment fits the crime as defined by God has vanished from the legal scene.

C. Feedback from Society and Legal scholars

The shift towards retribution elicited varied feedback from society and legal scholars. Public floggings, such as those administered for theft or assault, became more prevalent. The harshness of these punishments led to public outcry and debates among legal scholars about the ethical implications of prioritizing punishment over restitution. The Bible does allow for a public “spanking,” but it is limited to no more than 40 lashes.  But the Bible was not consulted.

D. Comparative Analysis with Alfred the Great System

A comparative analysis between retributionary principles and Alfred’s restitutionary ideals reveals stark differences in legal philosophy. Alfred’s system focused on restoring the victim and community, while Henry II’s approach emphasized punitive measures.

The shift is evident in the treatment of thieves: under Alfred, they would have been required to compensate the victim, double according to Exodus 22:1-4. But, under Henry II, they faced corporal punishment and/or jail terms. Prior to Henry II there were few prisons in England, but Henry started building them in 1166. Prison terms are not mentioned as punishment in the Bible. They were first introduced to America by the Quakers in Pennsylvania.

This puts the lie to the claim of modern Christians that the Common Law is based on Biblical principles of justice.  Instead, violators are often said to “owe a debt to society” or you “must do your time,”  rather than compensation to their victim or to God.  By contrast, after David’s sin with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, David lamented, “against Thee, and Thee only have I sinned” (Psalm 52).

E. Evolution of Legal Culture

The practical application of retributionary principles contributed to a profound evolution in legal culture. Public spectacles, such as executions and floggings, became common. The spectacle of justice aimed to deter potential offenders, emphasizing the punitive nature of the legal system. This shift in legal culture laid the groundwork for a perception of justice that leaned heavily towards punishment and deterrence. 

This is not to deny an element of punishment in Biblical law, “that others might hear and fear.” However, it is tempered by an element of mercy and a monetary ransom alternative that is first mentioned in Exodus 21 as part of the Mosaic Covenant. In this case of unintentional manslaughter a monetary substitute may be paid instead of the death penalty if the victim is amenable. The ransom appears to apply to all of the Bible’s capital crimes (about 15), except premeditatied murder (Num. 35:31). In Old Testament days this ransom looked forward to the death of Messiah in the place of the convicted offender.

VI. Legal Jurisdiction Reconfigured

A. Regional Centralization of Power

As we have noted, the reconfiguration of legal jurisdiction under Henry II’s Common Law Code marked a significant transformation in the English legal landscape.  There were changes in legal authority and jurisdiction, administrative structures, regional variations, and legal centralization. 

Henry was but one of a handful of European kings who contributed to the secularization of Western law following the radical separation of church and state after the Papal Revolution of 1075.  Others included Roger II of Sicily, Phillip II of France, and Frederick II of Germany. 

The English Common Law Code introduced a reorganization of legal authority and jurisdiction, seeking to centralize power. The Assize of Clarendon played a pivotal role by establishing royal justices who traveled the country to hear cases. This centralized approach aimed to curb local biases and standardize legal proceedings.  This was the origin of the term “Common Law.”

Reorganizing of administrative structures was a key aspect of Henry II’s legal reforms. The Exchequer, responsible for financial matters, underwent changes to accommodate the legal reforms. The Pipe Roll of 1179, an accounting record, exemplifies the administrative adjustments made to support the Common Law Code.

B. Regional Variations in Legal Jurisdiction

Despite centralizing efforts, regional variations in legal jurisdiction persisted. The Assize of Northumberland in 1174 is an example, highlighting the challenges of applying centralized, uniform standards across diverse regions. The former conflicted with the biblical principle of the bottom-up legal system of Moses, as opposed to the top-down model inherent in the Divine Right of Kings of the Stuart Monarchs in 17th Century England.   

The evolving socio-political dynamics prompted adaptations in legal jurisdiction. The Forest Charter of 1217, issued during the reign of Henry III, was in part at least, a response to concerns about royal forest laws. It reflected some commitment to justice and a willingness to address grievances, in response to the harsh forest laws for killing the king’s deer.  James Stuart I was one king who abused the privilege, killing a deer every day, bathing his hands in it’s blood, and divining the entrails.

The centralization of legal authority prompted reflections on the balance between power and justice. The Dialogus de Scaccario, written by Richard FitzNeal, the Treasurer under Henry II, is a reflective treatise on the Exchequer’s role in legal and financial matters. This document provides a cost-benefit analysis on the challenges of legal centralization.  The cost of justice began to increase with centralization.

VII. Impact on Legal Institutions

1. Centralizing Legal Authority

The transition to retribution affected legal institutions, the evolving role of judges and juries, legal pluralism, and the ideological conflict between legal philosophies. The Assize of Clarendon established royal justices, thus centralizing legal authority. This influence transformed the judicial system. 

The king’s justices, representing the crown, became instrumental in dispensing retributionary justice throughout England. The jury system arose as part of the retributionary system under Common Law. Henry’s traveling judges would convene juries to determine guilt or innocence. Some people resisted because they felt vengeful neighbors would use the jury as a weapon of retaliation. Those who resisted jury trial were subject to torture.

2. No Juries Under Alfred the Great

The evolution of retributionary justice was accompanied by changes in the role of judges and juries. The Assize of Novel Disseisin in 1166 exemplifies this shift, granting judges the authority to decide cases based on sworn testimony.  Such an oath did in faact conform to the Biblical model. 

However, juries, composed of local residents, played a pivotal role in the determination of guilt or innocence.  The jury system was a departure from the Biblical model, which relies exclusively on Biblically trained and qualified judges and clerics to administer justice according to the law of God.

“It used to be the generally received opinion at one time that the founder of this institution was Alfred the Great; but this idea has been dispelled of recent years by an enlightened spirit of historical criticism which has been applied to the subject… With regard to trial by jury in civil cases, we cannot speak in such high commendation, for it has many and grave disadvantages which prove that it is wholly unsuitable for the settling of disputes in courts of law at the present day.”  (J.E.R. Stephens, The Growth of Trial by Jury in England, London, 1896)

VIII. Challenges Faced by Alfred’s Restitutionary Legacy

A. Alfred the Great Displaced by the Norman Conquest

The ascendancy of retributionary principles erased Alfred the Great’s restitutionary legacy. For example, the Ordinance Concerning the Duties of a Reeve under King Edgar had emphasized restitution for wrongdoing. However, after the Norman invasion, restitutionary ideals were replaced by retribution.

This conflict reflected the tension between biblical principles of restoration and the punitive nature of retribution (Exodus 22:1).  There is, of course a punitive and a preventative aspect to Bible justice, but the ransom principle of Exodus 21 prioritizes the principle of mercy to a penitent offender for capital cases.  However, quite often a Biblical penalty is accompanied by the admonition, “that others may see and fear.”

The medieval legal system after Hastings saw the coexistence of diverse legal traditions, resulting in legal pluralism. Some Christian commentators today view jurisdictional pluralism as a check on tyranny, but it directly contradicts the Biblical standard of God’s “one law” for both stranger and home-born. The Clarendon Constitutions of 1164 illustrate attempts to harmonize ecclesiastical and secular laws.  To an extent it echoed the biblical principle of seeking harmony and justice in governance (Proverbs 29:4). But multiple law codes and jurisdictions leads inevitably to confusion and inefficiency.

B. Multiple Legal Secular Legal Systems

Pluralism was the price to be paid for departing from the Bible’s “one law” code requirement.  At several points the Old Testament requires that “there shall be one law for both the stranger and the home-born” in Israel.”  Today, one thousand years after the fact, the West labors under the overwhelming burden of legalism and litigation introduced by Henry II. This has resulted from the multiplication of law codes following the Papal revolution.  Supposedly the “land of the free,” modern America has a higher rate of incarceration than any other nation.

C. Practical Application of Alfred the Great Legal Philosophies

The clash between restitutionary and retributionary philosophies in medieval England found practical expression in the application of these legal principles.   This had a significant impact on specific cases, individual rights, and the enduring legacy of these legal philosophies.

For example, the practical application of legal philosophies is vividly demonstrated in the Case of the Stolen Livestock in 1182. Under the retributionary principles of Henry II, the accused faced corporal punishment, emphasizing the punitive nature of justice. This is a stark departure from Alfred the Great’s restitutionary ideals, which would have required repayment of twice the value of the stolen livestock. 

D. Lex Talonis Under Alfred the Great

The Bible requires – “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” The alleged retributionary nature of justice in this case reflects a principle of proportionate punishment that dovetails with the demands of restitution (Exodus 21:24).

Changes in legal philosophy elicited varied responses from society. The Great Revolt of 1173–1174, a rebellion against Henry II’s rule by his own family, was in part fueled by dissatisfaction with retributionary justice. The societal unrest highlighted the profound impact of legal changes on public sentiment. It emphasized the longing for a legal system that resonated with the values of the Bible. 

E. Loss of Individual Rights

The shift towards retributionary principles had implications for individual rights. The Case of the Accused Serf in 1192 is emblematic. Under retributionary justice, the accused faced severe penalties, raising concerns about the protection of individual rights. This case exemplifies the delicate balance between swift justice and the rights of the accused.  When we depart from God’s specific penalties and procedures, justice becomes arbitrary. It is sometimes too lenient and other times too harsh, with individual rights left out to dry.

And so, the practical application of retributionary justice posed challenges to the fairness of legal proceedings. The Trial of the Peasants in 1186 demonstrates this, once again with the accused facing harsh punishments without adequate legal representation. The Bible requires at least two witnesses and a thorough inquiry.  We are admonished to  “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Pr. 31:8,9). This underscores the biblical call to defend the rights of the vulnerable.

F. Enduring Legacy of Legal Philosophies

The practical application of legal philosophies left an enduring legacy that shaped the trajectory of English law for generations.  Habits become traditions, traditions become customs, customs become laws in a matter of a few years to the point it is almost impossible to correct the ingrained cultural mores.  The Assize of Clarendon’s impact on legal procedures endured through centuries, influencing subsequent legal codes.

The enduring legacy reflects the historical significance of the clash between restitutionary and retributionary ideals.  It underscores the importance of constantly referring to the Biblical standard in every decision rendered or it will soon be dismissed as outdated and irrelevant, or forgotten.  “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.” (Eccl. 3:14).

G. Injustice of Retributionary Legal System

In the Case of the Stolen Livestock in 1182, the retributionary principles of Henry II were evident as the accused faced corporal punishment, abandoning the biblical principle of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24). This case starkly departed from Alfred the Great’s restitutionary ideals, illustrating the transformation in legal philosophy.

The Great Revolt of 1173–1174, a rebellion against Henry II’s rule, reflected dissatisfaction with retributionary justice and the resulting social instability. Proverbs 21:15 notes that “when justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.” Henry forgave his sons, but locked his wife, Eleanor, up for 16 years.

The Case of the Accused Serf in 1192 illustrated the need for individual rights under retributionary justice. Proverbs 24:23 emphasizes that “to show partiality in judging is not good,” highlighting the delicate balance between justice and the rights of the accused.

IX. Legal Philosohies in Conflict

A. Restitutionary vs. Retributionary

The clash between restitutionary and retributionary philosophies in medieval England not only reshaped legal institutions but also ushered in a legal system that is constantly evolving. This, of course, leads to legal uncertainty and stands in stark contrast to God’s unchanging legal system. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away” (Luke 21:33).

The clash of legal philosophies precipitated a shift in legal norms. The Charter of Liberties issued by Henry I in 1100 signals this shift, emphasizing royal prerogatives and setting the tone for evolving legal expectations.  Henry II took the Common Law baton from Henry I and ran with it. By the early 1700s, with no Biblical touchstone, the Common Law had eroded severely. It got to the point that over 200 rather ordinary crimes now carried the death penalty.  Pickpock was one example.  Juries were refusing to convict, thus destroying respect for the law and cultural stability.  This opened the door to other more radical “reforms,” such as the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham that is said to have impacted legal systems of five continents. 

Societal perceptions of justice underwent significant changes during this period. The Song of the Sturdy Rogue, a popular ballad from the 12th century, provided a narrative that reflected changing attitudes towards criminality. The Song seems to personify the legend of Robin Hood. This cultural shift in storytelling mirrored broader changes — and occassional resistance to — the innovations of Henry II.

B. Morality in the Legal System

It is impossible to miss the declining emphasis on morality within the legal system. The Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, addressed the moral aspects of justice. This theological work influenced legal thinking in an attempt to integrate moral principles into the legal framework.  But Thomas thinking had devolved into natural law substituting for the law of God as the standard of morality and law.  Aquinas sought to use natural law to prove or verify Biblical law. Thus, he elevated the authority of the proof and achieved the opposite of his desired effect. Three months before his death Aquinas repudiated his life work in the Summa Theologica, but it was too late.

The changes in legal philosophy necessitated adaptations in legal education. The publication of legal treatises, such as Bracton’s “De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae” in the 13th century, served as educational tools for legal practitioners. The availability of legal knowledge fostered a more informed legal community. 

C. Logic in the University System

Moreover the universities adopted the newly recovered Justinian Code as the standard of justice to the exclusion of Scripture.  Students were taught to analyze and glossate the raw legal data of the Roman law Code to crystalize and categorize the legal principles involved.  This in turn fed back into the evolving common law, now more than ever divorced from any biblical foundation.

Trends in education inevitably had an enduring Impact on popular understanding of justice.  The clash between legal philosophies in the universities left an indelible mark on the cultural understanding of justice. The Magna Carta in 1215, was primarily a secular political document, drawing its authority from the king’s indulgence, “Holy Church,” and “the law of the land,” with no reference to Bible law.  This set a substandard standard for the definition of justice in the ages to come.  It provided a benchmark for the unsatisfied yearning for justice and fair treatment. But, it left a legacy shaped by humanistic cultural perceptions with no solid legal foundation in Revelation.

We are exhorted in Isaiah 1:17 to “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”  Apart from a firm understanding of Biblical knowledge, justice inevitably erodes and tyranny slips in.  In fact the very definition of tyranny is rule apart from the perfect justice of the law of God. 

X. The Legacy of Legal Evolution

A. Legacy and Contemporary Relevance

As we conclude our exploration of Alfred the Great’s successors and their impact on the English legal system, it is clear that the legacy of medieval legal developments endures in contemporary legal institutions. The role of royal justices, established under Henry II’s Assize of Clarendon, has evolved into the modern judiciary. The presence of a class of legal professionals reflects the growing complexity of the law in the late Middle Ages. Complexity multiplied as the law became increasingly divorced from the Biblical foundation. 

Despite apparent legal advancements, challenges to justice persist in the present era. The complexities of cybercrimes, for instance, pose challenges to traditional legal frameworks. Adapting legal systems to address emerging challenges reflects the ongoing need for innovative solutions in the pursuit of justice and a return to the Biblical model.

B. Re-Emergence of Restitutionary Principles

Alfred the Great’s restitutionary ideals occasionally surface amidst the ruins of the common law legal system today.  Restorative justice programs, such as victim-offender mediation, echo Alfred’s emphasis on repairing harm rather than solely punishing offenders. This legacy showcases the enduring influence of restitutionary principles in spite of suppression. This offers hope for the future.

Contemporary legal systems grapple with the interplay of restitutionary and retributionary principles. Sentencing guidelines that consider both compensating victims and punishing offenders illustrate this dynamic. Striking a balance between restitution and retribution reflects the ongoing tension between these historical legal philosophies.

C. The Legacy of Alfred the Great

Contemporary discussions emphasize the potential for restoring Biblical ethics into the legal system. The concept of ethical lawyering, rooted in principles of integrity and moral responsibility, reflects a growing awareness of the need for ethical considerations in legal practice. This evolving paradigm aligns with biblical principles of righteousness and moral conduct. Charles Colson, a high government official who was converted to Christ in prison after conviction in the Watergate scandel, tells this story. Following release he traveled the country presenting the restitutonary system to joint sessions of the state legislatures. After one presentation an intrigued legislator asked him, “where did you ever come up with this unique approach?” She was flabbergasted at his response: “The Bible Ma’am.”

In this exploration of the legacy and contemporary relevance of restitution, we have witnessed the enduring impact of historical legal developments on our failure to achieve justice today. We have much to learn from the example of Alfred the Great, our best historical example of a ruler who governed by the law of Moses.

Our only hope is a back to the days of Alfred. There are a number of Bible law commentaries available to guide us in the way. A good starting point is “The Handbook of Biblical Law for Rulers of Church and State” in right hand column of this page.


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