We last looked at the courts system at the start of Henry’s reign when they were in a right muddle. Henry changed all that, not by closing courts down, but by setting up his own systems to run alongside them, until eventually they fell into disuse.
The General Eyres
The first of these was the development of the General Eyres (from the old French word erre, journey). These were regular countrywide visitations from royal judges with special powers and duties.
It started in about 1166 when Henry appointed Geoffrey de Mandeville and Sir Richard de Lucy to tour the whole country.
In 1176 six circuits were organised (excluding Chester and Durham which were exempt) for itinerant justices to tour – they later became known as the Justices in Eyre. The Eyre became the most important form of local justice up to the time of Edward III.
Here is a description from Baker.:
Every so often a ‘general eyre’ would visit a county bringing the Kings government with it. Large throngs of people attended, to account for themselves or to seek justice: special regulations were required to control the rates of board and lodging during the crowded sessions; the writs were read and the Justices’ authority publicly proclaimed, local officials delivered up their insignia of office as if to the King in person, and the Justice started into their long agenda (the ‘chapters of the eyre’), investigating crimes and unexplained deaths, misconduct and negligence by officials, irregularities and shortcomings of all kinds, the feudal and fiscal rights of the crown, and private disputes.
The general eyres were not merely law courts, they were a way of supervising local government through itinerant central government. They begat fear and awe in the whole population.
The central court at Westminster
As well as the general eyre and the court which always followed the King, from the late twelfth century a central court developed in London, sitting at Westminster Hall and known as ‘the Bench’.
This is where the Justices in Eyre would come back to, and it was somewhere litigants could always come, at a price, if they could not wait for the general eyre or the King was unavailable.
There also started to develop a body of professional Judges who would keep records and discuss matters of law amongst themselves. In fact it was the start of the development of the common law.
Note: links to original source material for general eyres (mostly post 1194) can be found via this page in the National Archive.