Ecclesiastical Law

Ecclesiastical Law in Europe

Definition of Ecclesiastical Commissioners

Established by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners Act, 1836, to administer Church property and revenue

Early History

The province of ecclesiastical law

The demarcation of the true province of ecclesiastical law was no easy task; it was not to be accomplished in England, in France, in Germany, without prolonged struggles. The Conqueror, when he ordained that “the episcopal laws” were not to be administered as of old in the hundred courts, left many questions open. During the first half of the twelfth century the claims of the church were growing, and the duty of asserting them passed into the hands of men who were not mere theologians but expert lawyers. Then, as all know, came the quarrel between Henry and Becket.

In the Constitutions of Clarendon the (English) king offered to the prelates a written treaty, a treaty which, so he said, embodied the “customs” of his ancestors, more especially of his grandfather. Becket, after some hesitation, rejected the constitutions. The dispute waxed hot; certain of the customs were condemned by the pope. The murder followed, and then Henry was compelled to renounce, though in carefully guarded terms, all his innovations.

But his own assertion all along had been that he was no innovator; and though the honours and dishonours of the famous contest may be divided, the king was left in possession of the greater part of the field of battle. At two points he had been beaten:—the clerk suspected of felony could not be sentenced by, though he might be accused before, a lay court; appeals to Rome could not be prohibited, though in practice the king could, when he chose, do much to impede them. Elsewhere Henry had maintained his ground, and from his time onwards the lay courts, rather than the spiritual, are the aggressors and the victors in almost every contest. About many particulars we shall have to speak in other parts of our work; here we may take a brief survey of the province, the large province, which the courts Christian retain as their own.

The church claims cognizance of a cause for one of two reasons:—either because the matter in dispute is of an ecclesiastical or spiritual kind, or because the persons concerned in it, or some of them, are specially subject to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

Matters of ecclesiastical economy

In the first place, she claims an exclusive cognizance of all affairs that can fairly be called matters of ecclesiastical economy, the whole law of ecclesiastical status, the ordination and degradation of clerks, the consecration of bishops, all purely spiritual functions such as the celebration of divine service, also the regulation of ecclesiastical corporations and the internal administration of their revenues. In this region the one limit set to her claims is the principle asserted by the state that the rights of the patrons (advocati) of churches are temporal rights, that the advowson (advocatio ecclesiae) is temporal property.

To start with, the majority of churches had been owned by the landowners who built them.57 The spiritual power had succeeded in enforcing the rule that the “institution” of the clerk lies with the bishop; the choice of the clerk still lay with the landowner. Henry II. maintained, Becket controverted, Alexander condemned this principle; but, despite papal condemnation, it seems to have been steadily upheld by the king’s court, which prohibited the courts Christian from interfering with the right of patronage; and very soon we may find two prelates in litigation about an advowson before the royal justices. In this instance the clergy seem to have given way somewhat easily; both parties were at one in treating the advowson as a profitable, vendible right. Henry’s victory at this point was of the utmost importance in after ages. It distinguishes England from other countries, and provides a base for anti-papal statutes.

As regards other matters falling under the present head there was little debate; but it behoves us to notice that our temporal lawyers were thus excluded from some fruitful fields of jurisprudence. The growth of our law of corporations is slow, because our courts have nothing to do with the internal affairs of convents and chapters—the only institutions, that is, which seem to require treatment as fictitious persons; and we might have come by a law of trusts sooner than we did, if the justices had been bound to deal with the administration of revenues given to prelates or convents as a provision for particular purposes, such as the relief of the[106] poor or the maintenance of fabrics.

Church property

The ecclesiastical tribunals would much like to claim the decision of all causes which in any way concern those lands that have been given to a church, at all events if given by way of “alms.” Henry himself was willing to make what may seem to us a large concession at this point. If both parties agreed that the land had been given in alms, litigation about it was to proceed in the ecclesiastical forum; if they did not agree, then the preliminary question, which would decide where the case should be tried, was to be settled by the verdict of a jury. Here he was successful and much more than successful. The courts of his successors insisted on their exclusive right to adjudge all questions relating to the possession or ownership of land, albeit given in alms; the spiritual judges could in this province do no more than excommunicate for sacrilege one who invaded soil that had been devoted to God in the strictest sense by being consecrated.

Ecclesiastical dues

The courts Christian claimed the exaction of spiritual dues, tithes, mortuaries, oblations, pensions. The justice of the claim was not contested, but it was limited by the rule that a question about the title to the advowson is for the lay court. From century to century there was a border warfare over tithes between the two sets of lawyers, and from time to time some curious compromises were framed.

Matrimonial causes

More important is it for us to notice that the church claims marriage, divorce, and consequently legitimacy, as themes of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. This claim was not disputed by Henry II. or his successors. However, the church in the twelfth century became definitely committed to the doctrine that children who were born out of wedlock are legitimated by the marriage of their parents.

As regards the inheritance of land, a matter which lay outside the spiritual sphere, the king’s courts would not accept this rule.66 The clergy endeavoured to persuade the lay power to bring its law into harmony with the law of the church, and then in the year 1236, as all know, the barons replied with one voice that they would not change the law of England.67 Thenceforward the king’s justices assumed the right to send to a jury the question whether a person was born before or after the marriage of his parents, and it might well fall out that a man legitimate enough to be ordained or (it may be) to succeed to the chattels of his father, would be a bastard incapable of inheriting land either from father or from mother. But except when this particular question about the retroactive force of marriage arose, it was for the ecclesiastical court to decide the question of legitimacy, and, if this arose incidentally in the course of a temporal suit, it was sent for trial to the bishop and concluded by his certificate.

Testamentary causes

Yet more important to us at the present day was another claim of the church, which has had the effect of splitting our English law of property into two halves. She claimed as her own the testament, that “last will” of a dead man which was intimately connected with his last confession. She claimed not merely to pronounce on the validity of wills, but also to interpret them, and also to regulate the doings of her creature the testamentary executor, whom she succeeded in placing alongside of the English heir. In the course of the thirteenth century the executor gradually becomes a prominent figure in the king’s courts; he there sues the testator’s debtors and is sued by his creditors; but the legatees who claim under the will must seek their remedies in the courts of the church. In this instance the common lawyers seem to have suffered the canonists to gradually enlarge a territory which was to be very valuable in the future.

As a general rule, land could not be given by testament, and our king’s court was concentrating its attention on land and crime. Meanwhile the church extends her boundaries,69 and at last succeeds[108] in compassing the whole law of succession to movables ab intestato. The process whereby this was accomplished is very obscure; we shall speak of it upon another occasion; but here we may say that a notion prevailed that intestacy, if it be not exactly a sin,70 is often God’s judgment on sin, for so closely is the last will connected with the last confession, that to die intestate is to die unconfessed. And so “the law of personal property” falls apart from “the law of real property” and we at this day are suffering the consequences.

Pledge of faith

With great difficulty were the courts Christian prevented from appropriating a vast region in the province of contract. They claimed to enforce—at the very least by spiritual censures—all promises made by oath, or by “pledge of faith.” The man who pledges his faith, pawns his Christianity, puts his hopes of salvation in the hand of another.72 Henry II. asserted his jurisdiction over such cases; Becket claimed at least a concurrent jurisdiction for the church. Henry was victorious. From his day onwards the royal court was always ready to prohibit ecclesiastical judges from entertaining a charge of breach of faith, unless indeed both parties to the contract were clerks, or unless the subject-matter of the promise was something that lay outside the jurisdiction of the temporal forum.

All the same, there can be no doubt that during the whole of the next century the courts Christian were busy with breaches of faith. Very often a contractor expressly placed himself under their power and renounced all right to a prohibition. Such a renunciation was not fully effectual, for the right to issue the prohibition was the right of the king, not of the contractor; still, as Bracton explains, a man commits an enormous sin by seeking a prohibition when he has promised not to seek one and may very properly be sent to prison.

In practice ecclesiastical judges were quite willing to run the risk of being prohibited; indeed the law of the church compelled them to take this hazard. A certain jurisdiction over marriage settlements of money or movable goods, the church had as part of its jurisdiction over marriage.

Correction of sinners

There remains the indefinitely wide claim to correct the sinner for his soul’s health, to set him some corporeal penance. The temporal courts put a limit to this claim by asserting that, if the sin be also an offence which they can punish, the spiritual judges are not to meddle with it. There are some few exceptions; the bodies of the clergy are doubly protected; you may be put to penance for laying violent hands upon a clerk besides being imprisoned for the breach of the peace and having to pay damages for the trespass.

But, even though this rule be maintained, much may be done for the correction of sinners. The whole province of sexual morality is annexed by the church; she punishes fornication, adultery, incest; and these offences are not punished by the king’s court, though the old local courts are still exacting legerwites and childwites, fines for fornication. So also the province of defamation is made over to the spiritual jurisdiction, for, though the local courts entertain actions for slander and libel, the king’s court, for some reason or another, has no punishment for the defamer, no relief for the defamed.

Usury is treated as a mere sin while the usurer is living; but if he dies in his sin, the king seizes his goods. Simony naturally belongs to the church courts; perjury, not always well distinguished from the breach of a promissory oath, would come before them upon many occasions, though with perjured jurors the royal court could deal. Of heresy we need as yet say nothing, for England had hardly been troubled by heretics. No doubt the church courts were quite prepared to deal with heresy should it raise its head, and had they called upon the state to burn or otherwise punish the heretic, it is not likely that they would have called in vain.

Jurisdiction over clerks

But the church had opened a second parallel. She claimed cognizance of all personal causes, criminal or civil, in which a clerk was the accused or the defendant. The story of “the benefit of clergy” we shall tell elsewhere. On the whole, save in one particular, the state had its way. The clerk accused of felony was to be tried in the ecclesiastical court and was to suffer no other punishment than that which the ecclesiastical court could inflict; it could inflict lifelong imprisonment.

But whatever may have been the case in the twelfth century, the clerk of the thirteenth can be tried and punished for all his minor offences as though he were a layman. Then again, in Bracton’s day the clerk has no privilege when he is defendant in a civil action, though in the past clerks have been allowed to sue each other for debts and the like in court Christian. It should be well understood that “the benefit of clergy” as allowed by English law was but a small part of that general immunity from lay justice which was claimed for the ordained by canonists in England as well as elsewhere.

Miserabiles personae

On the continent of Europe the church often claimed as her own the suits of the miserabiles personae, as they were called, of widows and orphans.82 Of any such claim we hear little or nothing in England, though some tradition of it may affect the later history of the Court of Chancery. In England it is the king who sets feudal rules aside in order that summary justice may be done to the widow.

Source: Sir Frederick Pollock, The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I (1895)

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