Its time to get our hands dirty and look at an actual 12th century land dispute. This is the story (helpfully recorded by Warren) of the dispute between St Martins Abbey at Battle (the gate house still remains, above) and the de Balliol family, over land at Barnholme in Sussex.
The story starts
Our tale begins with the purchase by the Abbey of three ‘virgates’ of land from Withelard do Balliol in the closing years of Henry I’s reign. The transaction, along with a gift of some adjoining land, was approved by Withelard, his lord the Count of Eu and indeed Henry I himself.
During the next few years the monk’s work improved the land greatly. As a result the Lord of the manor of Barnholme began to regret the transaction and start asking for the property to be returned. When the monks refused (as any monastry would) the Lord of the manor took back the land anyway and mortgaged it to a moneylender in Hastings.
The litigation begins
The Abbey was never going to take this lying down. The Abbot duly started litigation for the recovery of the land, but before they could really get going Henry I died abroad.
Although they had some success with King Stephen, who agreed with them, he was a weak King and his justice was little regarded – everyone just held on to what they had at the time.
Hope comes with King Henry
However come Henry II the monks decided that now was the time to push for it, especially as the Abbot, Abbot Waltar, was the brother of the Justiciar, Richard de Lucy. He got them a hearing at the royal court and King Henry sent a writ to the overlord, the Count of Eu, telling him to do right by the Abbey.
By this time the lord of the manor was Gilbert de Balliol. He kept putting up excuses and continually failed to answer, despite being summonsed many times by the count, the Sherriff, and the Abbot and his men.
A lot of back and forth
Despite the Abbey being in the right, it seemed impossible to bring the case to a satisfactory conclusion. After numerous applications, the case was eventually transferred to the Kings court. However the problem was, that the King was never there. He was constantly back and forth across the channel.
It wasn’t until the King came to stay for a while at Clarendon that the case could be heard.
King Henry hears the case
Finally the case came before the King and he was able to get the parties before him. The Abbot explained the situation and produced his paperwork.
Gilbert de Balliol then raised objections and challenged the paperwork on the basis that it did not have any seals attached to it. This got him nowhere though, Richard de Lucy pointing out that it had not been the custom then, for all knights to have their own seal.
However the King had noticed that one of the charters had his own grandfather, Henry I’s, seal on it.
By the eyes of God, (he said) if you can prove this charter false you will make me a rich man in England. If the monks by a charter and confirmation such as this would lay claim to this very palace of Clarendon, which I delight in above other, I would be obliged to give it up to them entirely
This heartend the monks no end, and being asked if they had any further evidence they said “no” they would just rely on the charter. Gilbert de Balloil had nothing to say to this, so royal judgment was given for the Abbey.
Enforcing the order
Leaving nothing to chance, Henry sent writs to the four knights, who at that time jointly held the sherrifdom of Sussex, ordering them to see to it that the land was restored to the Abbey
The land itself being first ascertained, and its bounds walked by twelve loyal men of those parts who knew its boundaries, and who should speak the truth about it upon oath
So the monks got back their land, and presumably used it and worked it, until some 300 years later, another Henry came along to take it away from them permanently. But Abbot Waltar was long dead by then.
Warren comments that this case just shows how hard it was to get justice in the face of a defendant determined to delay, prevaricate and avoid court appearances as much as possible. A weaker plaintiff without the resources and personal connections of the Abbey, would have given up in despair long before.
No doubt many did.