Forget Magna Carta: discover the oldest English law codes

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As politician after politician has been quick to seize on over the last year to advance various legal or judicial policies, 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. Recently, however, a set of even older and more interesting law codes have been made available to the public after the University of Manchester digitised and published them online. The Textus Roffensis, two separate early Twelfth Century manuscripts contained within a single book, includes the earliest record of written English in existence: the law-codes of King Æthelbert of Kent, which date back to the early 600s.

Æthelbert’s laws, written in a very early form of Old English, deal with compensation for wrongdoing, with the size of the recompense dependent upon the social status of the victim. If a freeman stole from the king, for example, he would be expected to pay nine-fold compensation. Another fascinating inclusion is the earliest copy of the Coronation Charter of King Henry I, written in 1100, which includes, amongst various decrees, a pardon of all murders committed before that time and a ban on the right to mint money. The wording of this Charter heavily influenced the Magna Carta and, through it, the American Declaration of Independence.

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Seeing the vellum pages of the manuscript is a genuine privilege. Aside from the beauty of the scribe’s handwriting, which appears in many different colours of ink, there are some incredible ornamentations. The most striking of these is a letter ‘R’ at the beginning of the word ‘Regnante’, formed out of a saint and a green and vermilion winged dragon. It opens the cartulary of Rochester Priory on page 245 of the manuscript, and may have been an attempt to distinguish Rochester, where the manuscript was compiled and is currently held, as a distinct and learned community. The vivid colour and fine detail are perfectly visible and one can zoom in by up to 200 per cent without losing quality; a testament to the value of digitised medieval manuscripts.

Flicking through the pages, you can see clear signs of water damage where the book was dropped in either the Thames or the Medway in the early Sixteenth century. One gets a real sense of the journey through time this book has endured, carrying with it generation after generation of English laws, the more recent ones building upon the older. The British Library has described it as “Britain’s hidden treasure” and it is accessible to anyone at a single click. You should take this first opportunity to catch a unique glimpse into the earliest record of English legal history.

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